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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Kenya: Political Violence Kenya: Political Violence
Date distributed (ymd): 020611
Document reposted by Africa Action

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

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Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+


This posting contains a press releases and excerpts from the executive summary of a new report from Human Rights Watch on political violence in Kenya. The full report, Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence, and Human Rights in Kenya, as well as other material from Human Rights Watch on Kenya, is available online at

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Human Rights Watch
Press Release, May 31, 2002

Kenya: Political Killers Admit to Official Backing Weapons Flow Risks Renewed Violence

(New York, May 31, 2002) Speaking for the first time, perpetrators of armed attacks in the run-up to the last general election in Kenya have said that they were backed by ruling party officials, Human Rights Watch revealed in a report released today.

The 119-page report, entitled Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence, and Human Rights in Kenya, documents the dangerous nexus between arms availability and ethnic attacks in Kenya. The report highlights politically instigated armed violence on Kenya's coast during the last general election cycle, in 1997. It calls for decisive action to prevent any such violence as Kenya prepares for general elections later this year.

"The spread of small arms and the manipulation of ethnic tensions are an explosive mix," said Lisa Misol, researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Kenya must stop weapons from getting into the hands of people who would use them to disrupt the vote."

For years Kenya has been a conduit for arms shipments destined to nearby areas of violent conflict. More recently the flood of weapons has spilled back into Kenya itself, making the resort to violence more likely-and more deadly.

Since the end of one-party rule in Kenya, election years have been routinely characterized by political violence. Politicians who have been implicated in past incidents of political violence have not been held to account.

Human Rights Watch describes in detail the armed political violence in Kenya's Coast Province in mid-1997 and the role of ruling-party officials in stoking the violence. A quasi-military force of well-organized and well-armed attackers carried out brutal attacks on civilians from other ethnic groups in areas around Mombasa, Coast Province.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, several individuals involved in the attacks acknowledged their direct participation in the violence and described how it was organized. Their first-hand accounts and other evidence indicate that local ruling party politicians-with support from some national politicians-were instrumental in organizing, supporting, and sustaining the violence in order to displace ethnic communities viewed as likely opposition voters in general elections that were held at the end of 1997. More than a hundred people were killed and some 100,000 people were displaced, bringing to 400,000 the number displaced as a result of political violence since 1992.

A government commission of inquiry was appointed in 1998 to look into ethnic violence in Kenya since 1991. After months of hearing testimony, the commission submitted a report to President Daniel arap Moi in August 1999, but the government has refused to make it public.

"Kenya and the international community must act, and act soon, to curb the spread of these weapons and bring to justice the people who orchestrate violence for political gain," said Misol.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Kenya to take action to prevent politically motivated ethnic violence and end impunity for past incidents of violence; ensure accountability of local security structures; and strengthen legal controls, particularly those related to the manufacture, possession, and transfer of firearms and ammunition.


[Excerpts only: For full text of the executive summary, and the report, see: ]

Viewed in contrast to many of its neighbors, Kenya is often seen as a bastion of stability. The country has several strengths that mitigate against the outbreak of mass violence, but it also exhibits many of the factors that have been markers of civil strife elsewhere in Africa: strong ethnic divisions, polarized political issues, political manipulation, rampant violence, socio-economic disparities and a lack of economic opportunity, and endemic corruption. When combined with the increased availability of firearms, this dangerous mix becomes all the more volatile. ...

Small Arms Proliferation in Kenya

Small arms proliferation across the globe leads to the more rapid spread of violence and magnifies the devastating effects of violence, contributing significantly in areas of armed conflict to human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. ... In Kenya and other countries not at war, the ready availability of these weapons undermines security (including with relation to crime), erodes prospects for development, contributes to social disintegration, and makes the resort to violence more likely-and more deadly.

Kenya is vulnerable to weapons trafficking because of its geographic location in a conflict-ridden region. The weapons circulating in Kenya originate from places as far away as China and the United States, but most of them passed through war zones in neighboring countries before making their way to Kenya's illegal gun markets. ...

For the time being, guns in Kenya are circulating on a small scale when compared to its war-torn neighbors. They are smuggled into the country a few at a time in a steady flow and sold by traders in secret markets, with some larger-scale illegal arms trafficking also reportedly taking place. The impact of even relatively modest quantities of such weapons, however, is already being felt.

The increasing availability of weapons in Kenya has helped fuel rising insecurity and, in some areas, the growing militarization of society. Much media attention has focused on the prevalent use of sophisticated weapons in urban crime, particularly in Nairobi. Often, refugees living in Kenya are scapegoated as the source of these weapons. The proliferation of small arms is most serious along Kenya's northern and western borders, where pastoralist communities have ready access to AK-47s and other automatic rifles obtained from neighboring countries. The introduction and spread of such sophisticated weapons among these communities has intensified conflict and blurred the line between long-standing ethnic competition-traditionally manifested in cattle theft or rustling-and political violence. Guns are now widely used to carry out acts of banditry and cattle rustling in Kenya, and have been responsible for growing numbers of human casualties, including during armed confrontations that pit ethnic groups against each other. This grave insecurity, as rightly noted by a Kenyan civic leader, derives both from "the influx of small arms" and "careless utterances and incitement" by politicians.

Equally disturbing is Kenya's ruling party's use of violence to retain political power since the government was forced to concede to a multiparty system in 1992. It has been estimated that in the past decade at least some 2,000 people have been killed and 400,000 have been displaced in politically motivated violence directed at ethnic groups perceived to support the opposition. High-ranking ruling party officials have been directly implicated in instigating past episodes of violence, and the government has not taken adequate steps to punish the perpetrators. Whereas in the large-scale violence in the early 1990s attackers relied overwhelmingly on traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, attacks in more recent incidents in 1997 and 1998 were carried out with the aid of firearms. Attackers armed with guns enabled others-armed with clubs, machetes, and other crude weapons-to kill, maim, burn, and loot with impunity. ...

Violence for Political Ends: The Coast

This report examines in detail the outbreak of political violence on the Kenyan coast in mid-1997 as a case study of both the orchestration of violence as a political tool and the devastating impact of small arms on human rights. At that time, the country was gearing up for elections and calls for constitutional reform were increasing, putting the ruling party on the defensive. Against this political backdrop, well-organized and well-armed irregular paramilitary forces-known as "raiders"-carried out a series of brash and deadly attacks on non-indigenous residents around Mombasa, Coast Province.

Although the events chronicled in this case study took place several years ago, Human Rights Watch believes that the information is still important, both to document the role of ruling party officials in the violence and to expose the manner in which it was organized, particularly as Kenyans prepare to go to the polls again in general elections that must by law be held in 2002.

The Coast raiders targeted members of ethnic communities that had voted disproportionately against the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in the 1992 election, causing KANU to lose two of four parliamentary seats in one district that year. As a result of the 1997 attacks these likely opposition voters were forced to flee their homes and, in spite of an unexpected backlash against the government over police abuses, KANU won three of the parliamentary seats in elections later that year, with a fourth seat (the one in the area where the violence was sparked) being won by a KANU ally registered under a new party. In a neighboring district that was also at the center of the violence, KANU won all three parliamentary seats, as it had in 1992. President Daniel arap Moi, who needed to win at least 25 percent of the presidential vote in Coast Province to ensure his reelection, carried the province easily, and his vote tally rose considerably in violence-affected areas that previously had been opposition strongholds.

The perpetrators of the Coast attacks were largely disgruntled local young men whose hostility toward non-indigenous residents of the region led them to support a divisive ethnic agenda that also served the ruling party's political aspirations. Many strongly felt that long-term migrants from other parts of Kenya, as well as other ethnic minority communities settled there, were to blame for the poor conditions faced by their indigenous ethnic group, the Digo. They were motivated by anger over the economic marginalization of the local population, which contrasted sharply with the wealth generated by the area's tourism economy. Their goal was to drive away members of the ethnic groups originating from inland Kenya-the "up-country" population-in order to gain access to jobs, land, and educational opportunities. They used brutal tactics to terrorize their targets for weeks on end.

In a meeting of these interests, a number of local-level KANU politicians and supporters mobilized marginalized Digo youth to take up arms against opposition supporters for political ends. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, several members of the Digo raider force described how the assaults were organized with help from local figures who were politically active with the ruling party. For example, a number of local KANU politicians and supporters were instrumental in recruiting young men to join the raiders. A politically connected spiritual leader used a local cultural practice, oathing, to bind the raiders to secrecy (while promising to make them immune to bullets). He also helped dictate the raiders' targets and strategy. Most of the raiders' commanders had prior military experience, and raiders said some of the rank-and-file members also had previously served in the Kenyan armed services and a few were active-duty servicemen. In addition, the raiders benefited from the participation of a mysterious group of highly trained and well-armed fighters whom they described as soldiers and, in part because they apparently did not speak Swahili, believed were foreigners. ...

The evidence strongly suggests that higher-level government officials and politicians, acting behind the scenes, also contributed to the organization of the raider force and supported the operations of the raiders once the violence was unleashed. Raiders described several visitors to their training camps, whom they were told were KANU members of parliament (MPs) and key party activists. ... According to their testimonies, the raiders benefited from both direct and indirect support from the politicians, the latter often supplied via their spiritual leader. In light of the sustained support they received from ruling party politicians, some of the raiders interpreted calls to halt the violence as a sign that it had gone on too long and had become a liability, not as an indicator that the politicians objected to their actions.

Looking back on the events that occurred in 1997, those raiders who decided to speak to Human Rights Watch did so because they felt betrayed and manipulated by the ruling party officials who used and then discarded them. ... the raiders we interviewed maintain that top Coast Province political leaders orchestrated the events from behind the scenes on behalf of the government of President Moi. ...

Despite numerous advance warnings, the government took no action to stop the raiders at an early stage. Once the raids had begun, government security forces did not mount serious security operations and instead took a number of steps that undermined the effective pursuit of the raiders. In addition, they denied effective protection to the victims of the targeted raids and were responsible for a number ofserious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and torture, in a crackdown directed in part against opposition party activists whom they accused of being raiders. ... In the end, despite hundreds of arrests and a long government inquiry, no one has been brought to justice for organizing the attacks. ...

A Time of Transition

With the next national election anticipated for late 2002, the new political landscape in Kenya is one of transition and uncertainty. President Moi, whom the constitution bars from running again, has indicated that he will step down. He arranged to merge KANU with another party and recruited politicians from ethnic groups allied to the opposition, thereby bolstering prospects for his party's electoral success. Moi himself was elected chair of the merged party, a position from which he was anticipated to exercise considerable power. At this writing there was much speculation about whom Moi may intend to be his successor as president, as well as jockeying for position among the contenders for power, but it remained unclear who would emerge as the ruling party's presidential candidate. The opposition had not unified behind a single presidential candidate. In February 2002 five opposition parties announced they would coordinate electoral efforts and, if elected, would share power.

In early 2002, the country also remained focused on the constitutional reform debate. One of the central reform issues under consideration was the devolution of state power. A number of proposals, including a draft put forward by the ruling party in 2001, envision a federalist system. In this context, the term "majimbo" (literally meaning "federalism") again gained currency in the national political debate. The proposals put forward were vague and left the modalities undefined, but politicians who promoted their proposals as pro-majimbo were generally careful to state that they did not wish to promote an ethnically exclusive form of federalism, as had been advanced during previous election campaigns and had served as the rallying-cry for past incidents of politically motivated ethnic violence. Nevertheless, some Kenyans, mindful of past violence carried out in the name of majimbo, remained wary.

Events in 2001 and early 2002 showed that violence continued to mar Kenyan politics. For example, parliamentary by-elections in early 2001 were associated with serious violence. Violence against opposition activists continued, with police cracking down on government critics in numerous incidents, and pro-KANU youth gangs attacking political opposition rallies. Sporadic violence between members of ethnic groups seen to be allied to the ruling party and those perceived to support the opposition continued in the run-up to the 2002 election. Inter-ethnic fightingin late 2001 in the interior of Coast Province, as well as episodes of such violence in Nairobi in late 2001 and early 2002, claimed dozens of lives. Many observers considered that politicians were to blame for inflaming existing tensions. ...

The government has recognized some of the grave dangers small arms proliferation poses for the country and is working with regional partners to stem the tide of weapons with a focus on information-sharing, enhanced border controls, and harmonization of legislation. It also has sought international assistance to curb weapons flows. Its efforts are welcome, but its approach and implementation leave much to be desired. As with other security issues, it has cracked down on select targets only. It rightly has recognized the role of external actors, especially arms exporters in Europe and Asia who flood the region with weapons, as well as armed groups in neighboring countries who supply recycled weapons to Kenya. But it has been loath to examine its own practices, including its role as a transit point for regional weapons flows. Instead, it has scapegoated refugee populations for illegal weapons flows within the country, often associating all refugees indiscriminately with the actions of armed and criminal elements. International donors, concerned with the potential for terrorist attacks in the wake of the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and, more recently, attacks in the United States in 2001, have not questioned this approach. Most dangerously, the international community to date has disregarded the potentially explosive link between weapons availability and domestic political violence. ...

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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