Vote M for Murder

In Kenya, politics is simply the continuation of war, by other means.


MATHARE SETTLEMENTS, NAIROBI — On Monday, March 4, Kenya will elect a new president, its first in a decade. The last time it held a presidential election, five years ago, the country tore itself apart with an atavistic ferocity that still shocks and embarrasses people here. When discussing the episode with outsiders, Kenyans, normally unafraid to meet a gaze, will look off to the side. "Other countries in Africa act like that," one hears a lot. "Not us." They don’t try to deflect blame (no one mentions the CIA), but they do disagree about the causes of the violence. Tribalism is a given. Landlordism, too, some insist. Or corruption. Or inequality, alcoholism, and idleness (the local euphemism for unemployment, which has hovered stubbornly near 40 percent for years; nearly half the country lives at or below the poverty line).

Whatever their convictions on that score, and regardless of which candidate they supported last time around — President Mwai Kibaki, who won a second term (at least officially) and will step down this year, or the challenger Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is running again– one point Kenyans agree on is this: in those two hideous months between election day, on Dec. 27, 2007, and the signing of a peace accord between Kibaki and Odinga on Feb. 28, 2008, their government failed them on every level.

Police executed civilians; courts were ignored; the incumbent almost certainly cheated and so, probably, did his principled opposition. As Odinga and Kibaki stood by in their Nairobi mansions, refusing to instruct their murderous loyalists to stand down, poor looters went from store to store chanting: "Let’s go shopping! Let’s go shopping!" In many places, the only instrument of authority in force was the panga, the machete-like blade that one usually sees in the hands of street vendors skinning stalks of sugar cane, but which adapts quickly to the severing of limbs. Over 1,000 people died and a half-million were left homeless. But the numbers don’t capture the horror. As local ward bosses and radio D.J.’s urged their followers to attack rival tribe-members, shouting "kuondoa madoadoa" ("remove the stains"), men were dragged from buses and forcibly circumcised. Women were gang-raped and burned alive in homes and churches. In the countryside, mobs took to each other with bows and arrows.

As embarrassing to many Kenyans, though not surprising, is that in the half-decade since almost no one has been held to account. Of the 219 officials, politicians, police, businessmen, and others recommended by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights for prosecution, only a handful have even been investigated. The Kenyan legislature couldn’t agree to set up a tribunal, so the International Criminal Court had to. It’s trying four people. That Kibaki and Odinga aren’t among them is, many feel, just another example of impunity at the highest levels. And if violence flares up again this year — and it will, on some scale — impunity will bear the gravest blame.

"I’m scared to even think about it," said Willy Mutunga, the chief justice of Kenya’s Supreme Court, when I asked what will happen if Kenyan’s political class, increasingly indistinguishable from its scofflaw class, acts like it did five years ago. "We won’t have a nation to speak of. This election has to be free and fair, and nonviolent. If we see a repetition of what happened last time, this country will be taken over by warlords and drug-dealers."

"The whole country became like here, like Mathare," was the way a friend described it to me a few weeks ago, as Kenya nervously moved towards the election. He would know: he lives in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s biggest informal settlements — or, as it’s more commonly known, a slum — and a place run in large part by warlords and drug-dealers. Mathare is home to about 150,000 people, most of whom inhabit shanties made from eucalyptus branches and metal sheeting, or mud and wood slats. They live without plumbing or regular power, to say nothing of medical care or adequate schools, and in constant fear of crime, though crime is so constant in Mathare as to barely require the name. When it’s redressed at all, it’s redressed by criminals. Mathare is divided roughly into halves, one dominated by the Kikuyu ethnic group, Kenya’s largest, and a politically powerful Kikuyu gang network known as the Mungiki; the other by the Luo, and the Mungiki’s Luo-dominated rival gangs. As my friend and I walked through Mathare, I saw the desperation and fury in his neighbors’ eyes, the fetid open-air butcheries, and smelled the urine-soaked clothing of drunks, paralyzed by chang’aa, a lethal local moonshine, as they lay face down in the dirt, and it was only too obvious what he meant. "Basic," he said. "Things got very basic during the last election."

If Kenya became like Mathare, then Mathare became hell itself. The stories are almost too much to bear. I met a group of residents who lived through the worst of it. As we sat in a dirt lot, a woman named Pauline described what happened to her on New Year’s Eve, 2007. The election had taken place four days before, but for three days no result was announced. Then, on Dec. 30, amid rumors of vote-rigging, the government hastily declared Kibaki the victor. Odinga cried fraud, and said he had won. A mob of Kikuyu men (Kibaki’s ethnic group) began storming through Hurum Kona, the Mathare enclave where Pauline and her family live, demanding that Luos leave. Pauline, like Odinga, is Luo. "They came into our home and pushed us out," she said. "They said ‘We don’t want to see any Luos around here.’"

Her husband was not at home, so she ran with her three children to a nearby police station, where people were taking refuge. The next day, the police went to her home, where they found her’s husband’s remains. "His arms and legs were chopped off and they’d gutted him," Pauline said, looking directly at me, her face still. "They’d gouged out his eyes with pangas." Pauline and her children lived in a tent at the police station for close to a year after that.

Another woman, Esther, had a mirror-image account. When Kibaki’s win was announced, she and her son went outside to celebrate with their neighbors in Gitathuru, a majority-Kikuyu stretch in Mathare. Her son had worked for the campaign of a local man running for parliament on Kibaki’s ticket. That night, a gang of Luos came into Gitathuru. They’d cut eye-slits into plastic sacks and put them over their heads so they couldn’t be identified. They held sticks and spears fashioned from the homes they’d dismantled in their rampage. They demanded to see her son. When he appeared, they began beating him. He told her to run. Her son later died from his injuries. Esther couldn’t return to her home for months, and when she did she found squatters in it.

You would think 2007 would have spoiled these people on Kenyan politics. Amazingly, it hasn’t. Almost everyone I spoke with in Mathare who suffered through the last election is looking forward to voting in this one. They believe their candidates will change their lives and the life of the country. "Because he loves peace, and he hates tribalism," answered one woman when I asked why she planned to vote for Odinga, who this time around is running against Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy prime minister (and a Kikuyu). Esther, who will vote for Kenyatta, said almost exactly the same thing of him. Only one man I spoke with, whose house was burned down after the election, expressed skepticism. He’ll vote, he said, but it won’t make a difference who’s in office. He uttered a saying in his native Luo tongue: "Throw water on dry crap, and it starts smelling again."

* * *

With the election less than a week away, a lot of water is being thrown on a lot of dry crap. It’s estimated that by March 4, Odinga and Kenyatta will have spent at least $100 million each on their campaigns, including $110,000 per day on helicopters, in which the candidates traverse the country, going from rally to rally. Before making speeches, they hand out cash to voters by the handful. Kenya has no campaign finance restrictions, or at least none that are enforced — the candidates can and do take money from whoever is willing to give it, here and abroad — and the lucre trickles down to every county and ward.

Like the rest of Nairobi’s slums (where roughly two million people, or half the city’s population, live) Mathare is lousy with vote-buying. Impromptu gatherings for candidates are held, it seems, by the hour, where the unemployed line up to collect handouts. Every free surface is papered, every roadway shadowed by campaign posters, banners, and placards with presumptuous slogans. From her perch on a giant billboard on Juja Road, which borders Mathare, the Pentecostal preacher Margaret Wanjiru, running for Nairobi senator, assures onlookers: "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice." (When Wanjiru ran for parliament here five years ago — after a life of witchcraft, and before she was born again, as she tearfully reminded crowds — a man claiming to be the father of her child emerged; she suggested to her followers that they kill him.) On Mau Mau Road, an unpaved thoroughfare that cuts through Mathare, a billboard advertising a trio of beaming aspirants from The National Alliance, Kenyatta’s party, proclaims "…it is decided!" as though there were no need to bother to vote. And perhaps there isn’t. Two of the candidates on the billboard, Ferdinand Waititu, who is running for Nairobi governor, and Mike Sonko, running for senator against Wanjiru, have been brought up on criminal charges. (The third is a self-styled anti-corruption crusader).

The best campaign art belongs to Sonko. A former street kid, he’s wildly popular in areas like Mathare, where he typifies up-from-the-bottom success. He’s mastered late-period African-American populist aesthetics. A calendar I have hanging in the living room shows Sonko reading to children while wearing a matching green New York Yankees cap and t-shirt, shades, and gold necklaces. Also pictured on the calendar are stacks of cash and a white stretch Hummer. "The Darling of the Youth," it reads. His poster for Nairobi’s upscale neighborhoods shows a more professional Sonko, in white and black pinstripe suit and sequined trilby hat, next to the phrase "Man of the People." And for poorer areas he has a poster series that shows him in an array of day-glow suits with matching knock-off Ray-Ban Wayfarers, the American flag reflected in the lenses. In 2011, the Kenyan security minister identified Sonko (real name: Gideon Mbuvi) as one of the country’s biggest drug-traffickers, the same year the Obama administration froze the assets of Harun "Boss" Mwau, who is likely to win a Senate seat next week in Makueni, in eastern Kenya, after determining that he is one of the biggest drug-traffickers in Africa. Running for the National Assembly in Nairobi, meanwhile, is Kamlesh Pattni, repeatedly tried and jailed for defrauding Kenya of hundreds of millions of dollars (in his defense, he claims to have done so with the help of the government), before becoming a televangelist. Then, of course, there is Uhuru Kenyatta, who is indicted by the ICC. Not that these allegations bother their fans. There are Kenyans voting for Kenyatta precisely because of the indictment. And when Sonko, whom Kenyatta deploys at rallies like an American presidential candidate would a rock star, was detained by police last year, hundreds of supporters gathered to demand his release. They chanted "Sonko ni mwizi wetu!" ("Sonko is our thief!"). He is leading Wanjiru by double digits in polls.

"We’re seeing a criminalization of our political class that is unprecedented," said John Githongo, who was hired by President Kibaki at the beginning of his administration to root out government corruption. Githongo was forced from the job when he exposed widespread fraud among Kibaki’s ministers. "Kenya has the most tough, corrupt, venal, deadly elite [on] this side of Africa." 

Less moneyed candidates run for office, too, but they rarely seem to win. Last week, I went to meet one of them, Mwai Joel Kariuki, who’s vying to represent the Mabatini ward in Mathare. The United States and Europe have been working to help Kenyans head off violence in this election. USAID alone has put $30 million into efforts, including a program targeting Nairobi’s settlements. But you’d never guess it in Mabatini, where, before I arrived, a gang went on a stabbing rampage, then blocked the doors of a clutch of shanties and torched them. Three people died. Unsurprisingly, no one had been caught. But some residents I spoke with suspected it was, like another recent spate of arsons and stabbings, meant as a warning against voting — perhaps specifically a warning not to vote for Kariuki. Or to vote for him. As usual, theories differed.

"In this ward, we have buried more than a hundred youths who have been shot, who have been burned by the mobs. All manner of crimes. It is a culture of crime," said Kariuki. "Because this village has no leaders. Even after all these tragedies, nobody came out to speak for the people."

Kariuki, a tall, skinny, boyish 30-year-old, grew up in Mabitini, in the back of his aunt’s shop, before she sent him away to school to keep him out of trouble. He returned 11 years ago to take it over, alive with the hope that the newly elected president, Kibaki, would improve his prospects. But things have only grown worse since then, Kariuki told me, as we sat on overturned boxes on the shop floor. A paltry array of spice packets, razor blades, balloons, single cigarettes, and candies sat on the shelves. As we talked, he handed items to customers through chicken-wire, without looking at them. He knows everyone in Mabatini so well that he can tell what someone will want by the sound of his voice. "Me being an offspring of this village, I know the troubles of this village. Nobody knows the troubles of this village better than me," he said. "The fact is that the people with power don’t want people to eliminate the crimes. Because the fact is that the perpetrators, some of their parents are tycoons. Drug barons."

A delegate to Kenya’s National Youth Council, Kariuki has tried to start projects to help employ local kids, "but with no backup from the parents or the community at large." He took me to see some of them, leading me through a winding path of stone passageways where women washed clothes, and infants, in the brackish gray water that flowed down from an exposed pipe in the hillside. (Mathare is built into a depression in the earth left over by a rock quarry.) There was a chicken coop he’d made from an old shelving unit, a pig sty at the foot of a stories-high pile of garbage, and, his proudest achievement, a public toilet, where people can go to the bathroom and bathe in the same tiny one-drain water closet. "This is my brainchild," Kariuki said, inviting me into it.

As we walked around, most people we passed greeted him enthusiastically. Many also asked him, and then me, for money. "They all want something right now. Not in the future, right now. If you don’t give them something, they’re heartbroken."

In 2010, Kenya passed a new constitution that devolves power down to the county level. Late last year, Kariuki decided to run for the newly created position of county representative for Mabatini. He began rallying support among local allies. His wife took over running the shop so that he could recruit a team and campaign. He sank his life savings — about $2,000 — into registration fees and posters. He handed me one. It shows him in a white dress shirt and baggy gray suit coat, a sober expression on his face. A banner he hung on Mau Mau Road promised "Another Better Mabatini Is Possible." He wanted to avoid the preening of the Sonko types. The flashy criminals and political bosses who recruit kids in Mabatini don’t much like him, he said, but normal workaday people do. "I am respected and hated in equal dimensions."

In addition to plying voters with cash, Kenyan candidates often practice a kind of private-welfare bribery ahead of elections, giving local businesspeople loans that never have to be repaid, buying refrigerators for widows, dropping off cartons of food in plazas. Kariuki didn’t have the money to do this, but he figured he was popular enough in Mabatini, including among its success stories, that perhaps he didn’t have to. One of his biggest backers was the owner of what used to be Mabatini’s main tavern, the Wahagio Beach Club, so-called because it overlooks the Mathare River, a barely moving stream made up as much of raw sewage and refuse as water, which separates the slum into its Kikuyu and Luo-controlled halves. In December, someone burned down the Wahagio Beach Club, making sure the owner was inside when they did.

* * *

In January, Kariuki ran for the party nomination with The National Alliance, and at first faced no real competition. But then a man named John Njenga entered the race. I’d seen Njenga’s posters around Mathare. They show him in a trucker hat and a garish designer dress shirt, with an unwieldy Swahili slogan that translates as "We need a good leader, not just a leader." Njenga, who comes from the Sonko school of politicking, has his hands in a number of local businesses, most prominently, and lucratively, the Caribbean chang’aa brewery, which sits down the hill from Kariuki’s shop, on the riverbank. A corn-based moonshine that sometimes contains industrial chemicals, chang’aa is the scourge of the Nairobi slums, a cheap and debilitating toxin that slowly kills its addicts. It also "is the backbone of Mathare’s economy," Kariuki pointed out. The Caribbean brewery also may be the biggest employer in the slum, providing jobs to everyone from brewers and truckers to wood-choppers, molasses-makers, and welders. The metal sheeting on many of the shanties in Mathare comes from old chang’aa storage drums. According to Kariuki and others I’ve spoken to, Njenga is one of the biggest producers of chang’aa in Nairobi.

In fact, Njenga himself admitted as much when I met him. We didn’t meet in Mathare, where he doesn’t seem to spend much time, but at the Serena, Nairobi’s poshest hotel. It was his suggestion. He arrived in the trucker hat he’s wearing in his poster, a frilly dress shirt, distressed denim, a huge gold-and-silver necklace, and a big wristwatch with a white leather band. In tow was his campaign manager. When I asked Njenga what he did for living, he at first told me owned a store. When I asked if he also owned the Caribbean, he didn’t skip a beat. "Oh, yes," he said, with a chuckle. "That one is our cash cow." The manager chimed in, proudly, "He’s the biggest chang’aa producer in Nairobi."

I asked Njenga why he decided to run against Kariuki. "There is more peoples that cannot find the job. They don’t have the knowledge," he said. "When I’m going there, I can see the children that aren’t going to school. They are sick. They don’t have clothes. That is why I declared."

Njenga beat Kariuki easily in The National Alliance nomination race in January, though he didn’t campaign much. I asked Njenga how he won so convincingly. By spending about two million Kenyan shillings, or $23,000, ahead of the balloting, he said. "If you want to get the people, first, before the campaigning starts, you should help them. There is person who don’t have foods, you give him. There is person who don’t have money for paying the school fees, you give them. Hospital bill you pay for them. Such kind of thing. If a person has died, you go and distribute something at the funeral. I have a car. I give them my car, or my minibus. So when the campaign starts, everybody they will know you’re a leader and you can help them." His manager chimed in: "Kenyan voters expect to be paid."

Njenga did more than that, it appears. An independent election observer told me that, on the day of voting, Njenga’s agents paid people to vote for him multiple times. They also engaged in blatant ballot-stuffing and employed armed thugs to intimidate voters. (This is fairly standard practice during balloting in the slums, according to other candidates I spoke with.) Police who appeared to be acting on Njenga’s orders closed the polling station early, the observer said, preventing other people from casting votes. An election monitor hired by Kariuki told me that Njenga attempted to pay him to leave Kariuki’s employ and work for Njenga. "I told him I’m not for money, I’m for good leaderships," he said. When the monitor went to report what was happening to Kariuki, the police threatened his life, he said, and forced him to sign the final vote tally at gunpoint.

According to both Kariuki and Njenga, Njenga had the support of The National Alliance officials. Kariuki claims Njenga paid them off to help secure the nomination. According to other candidates, this too is standard practice. A man running for office in Kibera told me the parties "consistently, repeatedly bastardize" voting laws passed after the 2007-2008 episode. (When I questioned The National Alliance officials, they claimed to be unfamiliar with the details of Njenga’s race.) Kariuki wrote a letter of complaint to the party, but no one responded. Njenga admitted to me that he pays people to vote for him, but denied that he paid thugs or the police or party officials to help him win. In fact, he said, it is Kariuki who works with criminals and was responsible for the problems at the polling station. "He’s the leader of the young criminals in Mabatini," Njenga told me. This wasn’t entirely unsubstantiated. According to some Mathare residents I spoke with, Kariuki does have ties to the Mungiki. It’s widely believed that to win office in the Kikuyu half of Mathare, candidates must. Kariuki denies any connection.

* * *

For all its problems, the Kenyan electoral system does have one remarkably equitable feature: Because there are so many registered parties, if a candidate fails to win a nomination with one, he can always jump to another. So Kariuki has left The National Alliance and is now running for the county representative with the Saba Saba-Asili party. He’s printed new posters — he’s smiling in these — and come up with a new slogan: "The Hope of Mabatini." When I saw him last, he was making the rounds on Mau Mau Road, shaking hands and giving hugs. He stopped to speak with a group of young men who’d hung their own banner outside a shop. It wasn’t a political advertisement, but instead simply read: "Mathare for Peace." They were asking passersby to sign it. "I saw a lot of killings," during the last election, one of the men told me. "I want change."

When I asked him what he plans to do if he wins the general election this Monday, Njegna said he would open a new hospital and build a new school in Mabatini. I pointed out that cutting down on the amount of chang’aa he sells might address some of the residents’ health problems. "Chang’aa is not the issue," he said, eyeing me sternly. "The issue is idleness. If you have education, if you have a job, you don’t go to chang’aa." When I asked what he would do about violence and crime, he said "I’ll use money to try to teach people about violence. We don’t need the violence." He’ll also get the police to lock up Kariuki, he added. When I pointed out that this could be troublesome, given how popular Kariuki is, Njenga said flatly, "I’m more popular. The people, they know I’m the Mike Sonko of Mathare."

James Verini is a writer in New York and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.