Ruins in western Kenya magnify national divide

As one drives through the roads of western Kenya, the extent of death and destruction that took place early this year becomes painfully obvious. Its even more painful for those who knew this part of the country just 6 months ago.

Map of Kenya showing the western parts of the country affected by political and ethnic violence in 2008. This was after disputed elections in December 2007.

Flourishing towns now lie in waste. Restaurants that catered to thousands of highway travelers were flattened by rowdy mobs of youths. Petrol stations were blown up. Only blackened shells remind you of where homes, churches and schools once stood. On some parts of the main highways, the roads were not spared either as there still exists evidence of vandalism. Telephone and electricity poles had been uprooted for use as road barriers. The rusting, metal husks of burnt vehicles stand as monuments of shame along the potholed highways.

There used to be thousands of hawkers lining the roads all the way from Nakuru and into Eldoret and Kericho. Today, they are nowhere to be seen. Not only did they flee the area but the fresh, farm produce they sold was also destroyed in the violence. Rustlers looted the cows that produced the milk they were hawking. Total Junction, at the point where the highway to Kericho branches off the Nakuru – Eldoret highway has ceased to exist as a commercial centre. There are many smaller trading centres with similar scenarios.

The town of Eldoret, which witnessed the worst of the clashes, seems to be getting back on its feet. By mid January 2008, more than a quarter of Eldoret’s population had fled due to the ethnic and political violence ravaging the town and its countryside. Many of the refugees from Eldoret have started going back to their former homes though there is fear of fresh attacks. The refugees don’t necessarily fear being attacked today: they are more concerned about the next general elections five years from now.

The highways themselves are not safe anymore. Until December 2007, you could drive to Kisumu, Eldoret and Uganda at any time of day or night. That is no longer the case. Buses resumed operations after the giant coalition was formed but rowdy youths can mount roadblocks at any time to extort money from travellers. At night, highway bandits have attacked buses and robbed passengers of money, clothes and mobile phones. Police escort is needed for some routes but even the presence of police does not deter criminals. A few weeks ago, bandits on the Eldoret – Nakuru highway hijacked an Akamba bus from Malaba that had two armed police inside. The gangsters executed the police, drove the bus into the bushes and robbed passengers.

“Development in Kisumu city has been taken back 20 years,” said Mr Shakeel Shabbir, Member of Parliament for Kisumu East in a KTN interview in January. Mr Shakeel was the Mayor of Kisumu several years ago. It was during his time as Mayor that the town of Kisumu was declared as a city in December 2001. Under his mayorship, Kisumu’s roads were rehabilitated and the Council revitalized. Kisumu won an award as the cleanest town in Kenya.

Today, Kisumu’s well tarmacked roads meander past rows of burnt houses and shattered shops. Garbage lies uncollected in the streets. Industries were looted, farms burnt and immigrant workers from other ethnic groups were evicted, their property torched by rampaging mobs. Hotels and restaurants catering to travelers were razed down, apparently after politicians said they were hideouts for Ugandan soldiers and Kenyan police. Cybercafes are no more as most were owned and operated by migrant ethnic groups. Neighborhood shops and hair dressing salons were not spared either.

A unique characteristic of Kisumu town is that all the big businesses in the town centre are owned by the Hindu Asian community. The banks, supermarkets, manufacturing industries, transport firms, travel agencies, import-export firms, stationery shops, computer shops and even sugar mills. Historical records indicate that in 1960, the Asian population of Kisumu was higher than the African population. In other words, Kisumu cannot exist without the Asians. This community was greatly affected by the post elections chaos. Everything was looted, nothing was spared. Even homes were looted and stripped of toilet bowls, light switches and door knobs.

Well, perhaps not everything was looted. The Nakumatt chain of supermarkets was spared the brunt of the chaos. The retail chain has branches within the town at Mega Plaza and along the highway to Kericho at Mega City. As it turns out, both Mega Plaza and Mega City are owned by the same Asian businessman. Did he strike a deal with the politicians? Who knows?

Public transport within Kisumu and to neighboring towns is very expensive after fleets of vehicles belonging to migrant communities left with their eviction. A journey that would have cost Shs150 (US$2.4) last year now costs Shs300 ($4.8). Even with rising oil prices, the increase would not normally have been that big. As a result, people in the rural areas have to walk long distances.

The business sector in Kisumu knows that there is going to be trouble. Insurance companies just won’t provide cover to property in the town for fear of losses in future violence. Those that are willing to provide insurance have hiked premiums to unaffordable levels. The result is that the price of goods and services in Kisumu is far higher compared to prices elsewhere. At the same time, it is now very difficult to attract skilled workers from other parts of Kenya to settle in Kisumu. The reputation of the town will take years to restore.

The countryside in Western Kenya continues to suffer the effects of the post elections political and ethnic clashes. There is hardly any fuel in the countryside as fuel stations were looted. Where fuel is available, it comes at an inflated price. The shops operated by immigrant communities lie in ruins and supplies have to be obtained from the big towns of Eldoret, Kakamega and Kisumu. There are shortages of fertilizers and seeds because dealerships were razed down.

The western part of Kenya is known as the bread basket of the country, accounting for a significant chunk of Kenya’s food production. This year, there are credible fears that agricultural production will plummet. Farms lie idle for lack of seed and fertilizers. Tractors lack fuel to plough the fields. Migrant communities that owned farms in the area are too afraid to come back. In some cases, farms owned by the evicted migrants have been subdivided by local people. Cows, goats and chicken were slaughtered for meat.

The government last week launched Operation Rudi Nyumbani (Operation Go Home) to force internal refugees back to their farms. Victims of ethnic clashes camping in schools, stadiums and police stations were hounded into military trucks and dumped on their farms. No shelter, no food, nothing was provided. Some have been attacked by their former neighbors who are already ploughing the property. A Member of Parliament representing a local community blamed for the clashes says that his people will harvest whatever the returning settlers plant.

Supporters of the ODM say they were fighting because of unequal wealth distribution between them and the migrant communities, mostly from the Kikuyu ethnic group. The situation on the ground is such that there is little economic activity taking place in ODM strongholds of the Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza provinces. Without economic activity, there will be no jobs. There will be no trade. Without free movement of people and goods,  you cannot build a modern economy. Without peace, nobody will have the confidence to do business in that part of the country.

Thus, the ODM, through its supporters, may unwittingly be promoting the very economic inequalities it was fighting against. For as the domains of the ODM lie in ruins, the Kikuyu around Mt Kenya and Nairobi continue with their businesses. Their businesses are prospering, their transport networks getting more efficient. Some of the buses that used to operate in the Rift Valley are now ferrying tourists between Nairobi and the coastal cities of Mombasa and Malindi.

The divisions fostered by post elections violence will take a long time to heal. In the meantime, Kenya is a fractured state. There exists two countries in one: The Western part, and the Eastern part. One is in ruins, the other is prospering. From this point, the future for Kenya can only be described as hazy at best.

5 Responses

  1. […] Ruins in western Kenya magnify national divide […]

  2. can always smell ATHERE slanted views from a mile away. No mention of 3 weeks of siege and burning and looting by Mungiki in Central and Agikuyu Diaspora.



    ICT companies move into Western Kenya market
    Written by Okuttah Mark and Maureen Ongwae

    Entry of telecom companies will reduce internet costsMay 27, 2008: A number of telecom companies are expanding into Western Kenya in a bid to capture a market dominated by Telkom Kenya.

    Africa Online, UUNET and Kenya Data Network are rolling into Kisumu and Eldoret with plans of entering Kitale soon.

    Kenneth Kareithi of UUNET yesterday said the company plans to expand using a strategy based on pricing and product differentiation.

    Stiff competition

    However, he said competition will remain stiff for new entrants after the ongoing restructuring in Telkom Kenya.

    Last week, UUNET launched a Sh5 million communication programme in Kisumu called Tranzeao – Beyond Broadband WiMAX network.

    The product, which is unique to the region, will make Internet services such as e-mail, voice, data, international calls and videos available to small businesses and home users at a cheaper rate.

    The network enables customers to install the Internet on their own, depending on distance from the satellite. Launching the product, Joseph Mwaura of UUNET said new subscribers will get the product at half the price of another one launched in Mombasa and Nairobi.

    “The new product will be sold to new subscribers at $300 compared to Redline WiMax which is sold at $600. This way we will attract the smaller business people and even individuals,” he said. Currently, users are relying on either VSAT or the Microwave system as a link to the Internet.

    On its part, Kenya Data Network is fighting it out with Telkom Kenya on the fibre optic cable that links the western part of the country to neighbouring Uganda. The company is also rolling out a cable around Kisumu town.

    Also in the game is Africa Online which will be expanding its wireless Internet product InfiNET to Kisumu and Eldoret in the next three months.

    According to Ken Munyi of Africa Online, InfiNET which offers high speed Internet connectivity was launched three years ago but is only available to users in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru.

    Boosting usage

    Mr Munyi said that the company is also working on a number of strategies that would boost Internet usage in the country such as having a flexible pricing model.

    He said Africa Online has already come up with a model that enables users to pay with use rather than monthly. “From customer feedback, we realized that some of our clients were not comfortable with the monthly charges …” he said.

    According to Mr Munyi, InfiNET is ideal for consumers on the move. Currently the company has 3,000 clients subscribers.

    Data from the International Telecommunication Union ITU shows that only three per cent of the Kenyan population has access to the Internet.

  4. The reason why IDPs dont want to go back to central is because thats not their home. Their homes are in Western Kenya and the Rift Valley. In any case, none of these IDPs killed or stole from anyone in order to live in those places. Some bought the land, some were part of land buying companies in the 1960s while others leased from local people. They simply have no attachment to Central Province, which by the way, has its own population pressure problems.

    The Nairobi Chronicle is glad that investors are beginning to see potential in Western Kenya. The article, “Ruins in Western Kenya magnify national divide” was meant to make people realize the extent of losses in that part of the country. Apparently, its a story thats getting forgotten in the wrangles over coalition politics.

  5. You know the divide in Kenya is far from east and west,it is a divide between the haves and have nots.
    The Mungiki are a product of this unfair dynamic.Have your say but remember even in Nairobi corruption has risen 300% and in the central parts of Kenya an unhealthy operation by the police is killing and jailing thousands of freedom seekers.
    If you have 40000 acres and a billion shillings it is very easy to control the government.That is the problem!Thieves with fat pockets and past crimes.

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