Memorial Service Boycott Underscores Fragility of Kenya's Peace

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NAIROBI More than a year after ethnic gangs burned to death 28 people hiding inside a church during Kenya's post-election violence, a memorial service was held for the victims at the church's compound in the country's western Rift Valley region on a chilly day last week.

Hundreds of residents came on foot, by bike and by the busload to the old Assemblies of God Church grounds in the village of Kiambaa. President Mwai Kibaki, who comes from the same ethnic group as most of the victims, showed up to watch 28 coffins containing charred remains of victims being lowered into the ground.

The gangs that carried out the massacre had come marching in a military formation, locked the church doors and shoved gasoline-soaked mattresses against the outside walls, hacking to death people who tried to escape the flames through windows.

But what newspapers and angry letters to the editors have focused on in the days since the memorial service is who did not attend the ceremony, billed by hopeful organizers as one of "healing, forgiveness and reconciliation."

Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the former opposition leader in whose name the violence was carried out -- some of the gangs called themselves "Raila's Army" -- didn't show up. Not a single leader from the local Kalenjin community, whose members made up those machete-wielding, torch-bearing gangs, came to the ceremony, a deliberate boycott. Instead, some local Kalenjin residents said that if a monument to the victims were built, as has been proposed, they would destroy it.

"Burial opens up old wounds," read the headline Saturday in the Standard, a paper associated with Odinga's cause. "Kiambaa revealed unity still a mirage," read another. Odinga's absence "lifted the lid on the pretense our leaders are working in one accord and spirit," read an editorial in the Standard.

Kenyan newspapers are full these days of stories chronicling the slow death of the power-sharing deal that ended a wave of violence set off by Odinga's accusations -- backed up by international observers -- that Kibaki stole the 2007 presidential elections. In the weeks that followed, gangs of Odinga supporters went on a spree of house burnings and killings targeting members of Kibaki's ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Police and Kikuyu gangs also killed dozens of opposition supporters in retaliation. In all, more than 1,500 people died.

Then came the power-sharing deal and a speck of hope that perhaps the two leaders and their respective ministers could put aside their bitterness and ethnic politics and govern together. It has not happened.

Instead, the prospect that Kenya will sink once again into ethnic bloodshed seems so likely these days that some diplomats have advised embassy workers to stockpile food and water in their homes.

Odinga has constantly accused Kibaki's Party of National Unity of undermining authority granted to him in the deal. The argument has played out in feuds over appointments and protocol issues such as who should stand where and who should speak first at government events.

And it played out in Kiambaa last week, with opposition members accusing Kibaki of trying to co-opt the ceremony to cast his ethnic group as victims and the opposition as the perpetrators.

"We are asking why the president chose to go to Kiambaa, Eldoret, but not attend the burials of victims at Karatina," complained one Odinga supporter in parliament, referring to places where people were slaughtered by Kikuyu gangs.

Another said it was "insulting and inhuman for the government to spend resources on one community, but leave the rest to carry their own cross."

For many Kenyans, though, the failure of Odinga and Kibaki to come together to remember the people who were killed in the political fighting symbolizes the depths to which the country has sunk.

"The manner in which our leaders behave after purporting to bury the hatchet is mystifying," one reader wrote. "Peace is far from being achieved."

According to one newspaper report, a relative of one of the church victims spoke directly to Kibaki at the memorial service. "When I look at those coffins, I do not see members of your family or those of the Prime Minister," the man reportedly said.

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