Exclusive Photos: Kenya on the Brink

An exclusive photo gallery and essay traces the post-election violence in Kenya
Online Only: Visit Arno Kopecky’s Walrus blog, Notes from Nairobi.NAIROBI, KENYA—As an exercise in traffic decongestion, Kenya’s fraudulent Christmas election was a huge success: The streets of downtown Nairobi have never been so clear. By any other measure it can only be seen, in the words of Red Cross secretary general Abbas Gullet, as a national disaster.

Within a week of the poll, more than 400 people have officially been bludgeoned, hacked, or burned to death — the real number is certainly many times higher, and as of this writing continues to rise. Throughout the country, police stations and churchyards have become desperate refugee camps populated by people whose neighbours would now like to kill them. The Red Cross is unable to bring food or water to these refugees, estimated by Mr. Gullet to number more than a million, because Kenya’s highway system has been shut down by vigilantes manning armed road blocks. What began as a spontaneous eruption of political fury in response to a clumsily rigged election has degenerated into a national looting spree.

How did it come to this? Most Kenyans are asking themselves the same question. Until just before New Year’s Eve, Kenya’s peaceful reputation stood in uplifting contrast to neighbours like Somalia and Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda. The 2002 election was an orderly event that swept away decades of one-party rule, leading to five years of press freedom, free primary education, and many more right-minded developments. The Electoral Commission of Kenya, hired to oversee the 2007 poll, was headed by a man held in universal esteem, the wry-witted Samuel Kivuitu. Thousands of domestic and international observers were invited to make sure nobody cheated.

Regardless, many people did. What began as an orderly election day was followed by a suspiciously long counting period. All across the country, electoral officers mysteriously turned their cell phones off and disappeared with the official counts. Some waited two days to resurface with up to 20,000 more votes for the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, than EU observers had recorded in their presence.

As results trickled in, opposition leader Raila Odinga watched his lead over Kibaki dwindle from over a million to half a million, then three hundred thousand, then forty thousand votes. As both sides called on each other to accept defeat, the slums housing half Nairobi’s population began preparing for war. Youths armed themselves with machetes, sticks, pipes and arrows; rumours flew by SMS, radio, television and word of mouth. Time accelerated and confusion gripped the country, but one thing grew increasingly, uncomfortably clear: someone was manipulating the results.

As one newswoman put it, “in the old days, at least these things happened behind closed doors. This time they did it right out in front of everyone, then asked us not to notice. It’s an insult to our intelligence.”

Late on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 30, three days after Kenyans cast their ballots, Samuel Kivuitu announced that Mwai Kibaki had won the election by slightly more than 200,000 votes. Half an hour later, he was being sworn in to office before a preassembled crowd of dignitaries. By the time the ceremony was over, the Ministry of Information had issued a ban on live broadcasts to all television and radio stations, cutting off Raila Odinga’s televised press conference in mid-sentence

The slums had already begun to burn.

* * *




In a rare display of punctuality, voting began and finished on times at most polls across the country, allowing clerks to start counting ballots before dark on Dec. 27. Each candidate was permitted two observing agents.

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Only two serious contenders vied for the presidency, but with more than 117 parties registered for civic and parliamentary seats, counting went well into the night.

* * *



Most stations finished counting by midnight, at which point the results were to be ferried to constituency headquarters. At last, the cheating could begin; this gymnasium in Nairobi was but one of many headquarters where agents and observers waited in vain for tallies that wouldn’t show up until the following evening.

* * *



By Friday afternoon, the day after the vote, the waiting game assumed lethal overtones in slums like Kibera.

* * *



A handful of lynchings precipitated military deployment to the troubled slums.

* * *



Peace-minded residents watched fearfully as gangs began to mobilize and maraud in slums throughout the country.

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Where there are mobs, there are tire fires.

* * *



Saturday came and still no news; riot police were now manning checkpoints throughout the city.
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16 comment(s)

Paul Edwards in DCJanuary 02, 2008 21:38 EST

tremendously moving

Chris FlavelleJanuary 03, 2008 16:56 EST

Amazing. Well done.

Zaheer MeraliJanuary 03, 2008 20:28 EST

Arno - excellent work, both visual and written. Having grown up in Nairobi it's desperately sad to see all of this transpire in such a wonderful place. Keep up the good work getting the word out and stay safe.
Mpaka baadaye

Z

FifeJanuary 04, 2008 01:25 EST

Brother, Troubling times to be sure. Thank you for risking your own safety to show us what is happening there. Please help us understand why the people are burning down their own neighborhoods?? Is it due to tribal inclinations or more like a hunger strike?? Who are those wielding machetes hoping to attack?? Thank you again and may God keep you safe.

RyanJanuary 04, 2008 10:20 EST

I lived in that slum for a month this summer, good picture. Kibera truly is one of the most violent places I have seen the 1.5 million people aren't being allowed to leave, no food is going in, they are starving...

Rich GelderJanuary 04, 2008 10:24 EST

Is there not anywhere in Africa safe from such political corruption and violence?

KashmiraJanuary 05, 2008 04:27 EST

Hey Arno,
It really hurts me to see how the fairly peaceful and beautiful country has slid into violence to become a 'mini-Rwanda'. But then again, didn't everyone see this coming?

Congratulations on your brilliant writing and photography. I can see that you are not far from becoming a good photographer too.

Kashmira

Alexander EichenerJanuary 07, 2008 03:56 EST

Kashmira: damning with faint praise, ahh? ;-) The pics are excellent, certainly above the usual CNN junk that sets the standards in the USofA. For additional comparison, I suggest a look at the Kenyan photoblog of Joseph Karoki:

http://josephkaroki.wordpress.com/

Alexander

el Jefe JustoJanuary 07, 2008 11:01 EST

AK.

It is hard for me to imagine what Anarchy looks like in reality, yet your words and photos help piece together the destruction of what seemed to be one of Africa's more stable countries.
"Where there are mobs, there are tire fires." is my favourite quote. It helps to add humour to this desperate situation.
Why are these desperatly poor people looting, robbing and generally upset at this election gone wrong? I think we know, and its about time to stop greed and corruption for good.

Dan McRaeJanuary 09, 2008 20:37 EST

Arno,

Fantastic reporting. You put it simple and straight amidst a sheer nightmare. Big kudos to the photography here. I could not begin to imagine the tension. Where are the superheros of good for Africa?

Gab.January 10, 2008 09:26 EST

If leaders run the government for the sake of positions and not for taking care of their people or citizens and lead them to the better future, then I think they will be no hope for all the people at all.Leaders need to be honest and sincere with their citizens and give hope, freedom, and security for as human beings. I do not know why leaders do not use their common sense and wisdom given them by God to do good.
Misused your gifts will be huge punishments.My payers and thoughts will be with people of kenya. God be with all
Gabriel

AnonymousJanuary 11, 2008 02:51 EST

Brilliant incisive photography of our chaotic democracy, elly

AnonymousJanuary 11, 2008 08:50 EST

More info on the situation from bloggers:

http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2008/01/11/ii-the-word-of-kenyans/

Stephanie OlsenJanuary 18, 2008 11:11 EST

Arno-Amazing work old friend! Keep safe.

Dave TaylorFebruary 13, 2008 13:00 EST

I lived in Limuru, and worked in the Mathare valley several years ago. The Kikuyu and other tribes lived there peacefully. I was shocked at the level of hatred and violence I have witnessed in the last few months. Politicians must put aside their petty differences in favour of lasting peace, otherwise kenya will never be the same.

BMJ MuriithiMarch 01, 2008 06:15 EST

I loved your article in the Kenyan paper- Daily Nation- (about the high-profile personalities that visited Kenya following the crisis) published on March 1st 2008. It was factual, well written and highly humorous. You are a great writer. I am a Kenyan journalist living in the US and I must say..that article truly made my day. Keep it up. PS. Please drop me a line if you can spare some time. I would like to know more about you.

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