Fred Muvunyi, a former chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission, is an editor at Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.
Kenyans are bracing themselves for a potentially disastrous presidential election on Oct. 26. It’s a rerun, actually — an earlier one on Aug. 8 was annulled by the Supreme Court after bitter disagreements over alleged voter fraud. Many Kenyans hoped that repeating the election might help to defuse the potential for violence in a country plagued by deep ethnic divisions.
So far those hopes don’t seem to be materializing. The country’s two leading politicians, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who both head parties based on tribalism, are once again pitting Kenyans against each other.
This worries me deeply. As a Rwandan who lost many members of my family in our country’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, I fear that Kenya could go down a similar road if its politicians don’t reject destructive tribal politics.
Yes, it’s true that Kenya and Rwanda have different histories and backgrounds. The contexts in both places are entirely different. Yet as I watch events unfold in Kenya, I can’t help being reminded of the ethnic divides that ultimately tore my homeland apart.
In Rwanda, members of the majority Hutu ethnic group developed intense grievances against the Tutsis and worked to marginalize them wherever possible. In 1994, that hatred exploded into a slaughter that left nearly 1 million dead. My aunt, a Tutsi, was killed along with her children. Their killer was her own husband, who was a Hutu. He killed the woman he once loved, and his own children, because he was convinced that they had Tutsi blood. Twenty-three years later, I am still trying, like so many other Rwandans, to come to terms with the nightmare that befell our country.
In the years before the genocide, Hutu extremists exploited our divisions to buttress their own claims to power. They spread hate speech on national media.
In Kenya, both Kenyatta, an ethnic Kikuyu, and opposition leader Odinga, a Luo, are relying on divisive rhetoric. Kenyatta has issued veiled threats to the members of the Supreme Court, speaking darkly of his desire to “fix” the judiciary. Meanwhile, thousands of Kenyans have been tweeting with the hashtag #LuoLivesMatter. Many Luo people complain of discrimination and violence at the hands of the majority Kikuyu tribe.
Kenyans are clearly not immune to ethnic violence. Ten years ago, the country descended into a small-scale civil war that left about 1,200 people dead. Today, Kenyans seem to have forgotten.
In an extraordinarily destructive move, Kenyatta and his party decided to change the electoral law in September, just weeks ahead of the rescheduled vote. Why would anyone change the rules in the middle of the game?
Odinga has called for massive protests on Oct. 26, the date of the repeat election. On Oct. 10, he threw the country into uncertainty when he announced that he wouldn’t be taking part in the vote, claiming that the electoral commission has failed to address the issues raised after the August vote. He’s demanding the removal of the leaders of the electoral commission, who are accused of rigging the vote in favor of the president.
Earlier this month, one member of the election commission resigned and fled overseas. Roselyn Akombe said she does not trust the commission to hold a credible vote. The alarm signals are flashing red.
On Aug. 13, Odinga told cheering supporters in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s shantytowns: “They rigged our elections, and now they’re killing us.” In many of Odinga’s speeches he has called on his supporters to stand up for themselves. That’s not inherently bad. Yet his language has steadily become more radical in recent weeks — to an extent that is pouring fuel on the flames.
I’ve seen many Kenyans on social media praising Rwandan progress after the genocide.
Well, that’s good. But they shouldn’t define the Rwanda of today as only a clean and organized country. We have other facets that I’m sure they would not wish to see. If Kenyans don’t acknowledge where we went wrong, they will be doomed to repeat our mistakes.
In the past, Kenya was one of the few good examples of democracy in Africa. Today, though, its leaders are taking it down a path that could culminate in people turning on their own neighbors. They are destroying the country in the name of democracy.
If they are wise, Kenya’s leaders will agree to postpone the Oct. 26 election and wait until the current passions have subsided. Otherwise the consequences are likely to be grim.
The only ones who will profit from the bloodshed are the politicians. When the killing is over, they will run to the African Union, pleading for protection from the International Criminal Court, like so many other leaders before them. Ordinary people will pay the price.