World

After Kenya's violence abates, victims wait for justice

John Oloo, a 44-year-old mechanic, lost his son to Kenya's post-election violence when the 20-year-old was gunned down by a police officer outside their home in December.
John Oloo, a 44-year-old mechanic, lost his son to Kenya's post-election violence when the 20-year-old was gunned down by a police officer outside their home in December. Shashank Bengali / MCT

NAIROBI, Kenya — There are still bullet holes in John Oloo's fifth-floor balcony. Blood still stains the concrete where police gunned down his 20-year-old son last December, on the night that Kenya erupted into violence following a disputed election.

Oloo, a mechanic with big, calloused hands, hoped that after Kenya's political rivals formed a coalition government three months ago, the cop who fired without warning at his son from the street below would be identified and face justice — or at least be made to apologize. But despite reports of hundreds of such police killings, only one police officer has been arrested, and there have been no apologies.

More than 1,000 people died in two months of post-election madness that shattered Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's most stable countries. The violence has subsided, but activists and many Kenyans complain that the new government is showing little willingness to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Under an internationally backed political settlement, President Mwai Kibaki, who many observers believe stole the December election, formed a huge coalition cabinet that already appears to be buckling under its own weight.

The election runner-up, Raila Odinga, whose supporters were blamed for some of the worst post-election attacks, was appointed prime minister in the new government. He has called for the hundreds of prisoners being held in connection with post-election attacks to be granted amnesty and released, a position that's been scorned by Kibaki allies and human rights groups.

Kibaki, meanwhile, is already said to be mulling which of his allies will succeed him when his term expires in 2012.

So much for the coalition.

"The problem is with the leadership," said Paul Ndungu, a prominent lawyer who has investigated government corruption. "One side is talking of succession, the other of blanket amnesty. They are clearly sending a message down to the people on the ground...that they are not interested in solving the real problems."

Those problems are manifold.

The election crisis grew out of decades of resentment of Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, who hold a disproportionate share of the country's land, wealth and political power. When Kibaki claimed victory despite widespread reports of electoral fraud, opposition supporters targeted Kikuyus in attacks that some analysts say were orchestrated by members of Odinga's own party, a charge that party leaders have denied.

Human rights groups charge that Kenyan police responded with excessive force. A sampling of post-mortem examinations by the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, a Kenyan non-governmental group, found that nearly half the victims died of gunshot wounds — usually indicating a police killing.

On Dec. 30, as Kibaki was sworn in for a second term, angry mobs of opposition supporters filled the streets of Huruma, an ethnically mixed Nairobi slum where Oloo, the mechanic, lives with his family. His eldest son, Lawrence Odhiambo, has just finished an early supper of porridge and walked onto the balcony of their tenement to see heavily armed riot police brandishing weapons to beat back the mob, Oloo said.

Shots rang out, and when Oloo ran to the balcony he saw his son lying in a heap, a bullet in his forehead. His death so traumatized his mother that Oloo said he took down every picture of the boy that hung in their tiny home.

Like most Kenyans, Oloo has little faith in the country's courts, where justice is slow and uncertain. He has no money to hire a lawyer, and even if he filed a case he doubts that any witnesses would dare testify against the state.

"I'm 40 years old. Justice can drag another 40 years," Oloo said. "I don't think anyone at the top can listen to me. So I don't think we will get justice on this."

Human rights groups point out that no top police official has acknowledged wrongdoing by the force. All the major law enforcement officials, from Justice Minister Martha Karua on down, have retained their jobs in the new government.

At the height of the violence, a Kenyan television network aired video of a police officer in the western town of Kisumu shooting a protestor, then kicking his lifeless body. That officer was charged with crimes, but no other cop has been arrested.

"It entrenches a culture of impunity," said Dan Juma, deputy executive director of the independent Kenya Human Rights Commission. "It says that you can preside over these kind of atrocities and remain in power."

Kenyan lawmakers have proposed establishing a national truth and reconciliation commission to investigate decades of human rights violations and land disputes. But critics say the proposal has major shortcomings: it gives government officials oversight of its budget, offers too many provisions for amnesty and establishes only a two-year window to review more than 40 years of alleged crimes.

"As currently drafted, the commission has serious flaws that must be urgently addressed by parliament, especially its amnesty provisions," Georgette Gagnon, Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week.

  Comments