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Ethnic violence – our moment of truth

At first I thought Justice Waki and his team had put the cat amongst the pigeons. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether they merely released some pigeons which are being devoured quickly by the cats.

There is no doubt that the Waki team did a commendable job. It went where few officially sanctioned commissions have gone before. It produced a report that was harrowing in its gruesome detail, and comprehensive in its damnation of the various players who commanded starring roles in Kenya’s election violence. And by producing a sealed list of key perpetrators that may yet reach the International Criminal Court, it has raised the stakes considerably.

There is a real opportunity for us as a nation now to say a resounding ‘NO’ to ethnic violence by trying and punishing those who planned and perpetrated it. But already the signs are not good. Already there is political game-playing and horse-trading going on. And we are hearing the usual noises about why implementing this report would be such a bad idea.

These noises include: we would destroy our fragile coalition government; we would reopen old wounds that are best left untouched; we would “burn the country” again. Many are urging everyone to exercise caution; to go slow; to see a bigger picture.

But wait a minute: what are those making these utterances really telling us? It can only be one (or both) of two things. The first is that the people of this nation are genetically intolerant ethnic thugs, who only need the slightest excuse in order to attack “the others” with pangas and rape and burn them. The Waki report may provide that excuse.

The second message is that there are many leaders out there who are capable of misleading their ignorant followers and inciting them to violence at the drop of a hat. These leaders will strike the match again if they are sent on trial, and the country will burn once more.

So explain the logic to simple me: because we have one or both of the above problems, that is a reason to NOT implement the Waki report; to bury our heads in the sand; to go back to sleep? Sorry, my brain will not compute here.

If we are indeed populated by chauvinistic goons; or we are led by demagogues and hate-mongers; then surely that gives us EVERY possible reason to do something about the situation. Otherwise, what are we saying: that we have no future? How can a country that can so easily lapse into ethnic mayhem ever prosper?

Let us never forget what sort of crimes we are talking about here. We are not debating some minor pilferage of funds, or a neighbourly squabble or two. We are talking about people who masked themselves, formed mobs, and then went out to attack others in cold blood. They hacked them like bits of meat; they raped them: they destroyed their livelihoods; they mutilated them; they burned them as though they were litter. We are talking about barbarism of the first order.

Equally, we are talking about those educated and wealthy persons who planned these outrages, who financed them, who supplied arms, and who identified targets. They were not constructing a business plan; they were plotting the brutal deaths of innocent children, simply because those children came from elsewhere.

Can we really look away and pretend none of this happened? It would be to our shame as a nation, and would be our undoing. Justice exists for a reason, and we must exercise it to the fullest when faced with crimes of this nature. And let us detach justice from amnesty, guilt from forgiveness. We may well decide to forgive these crimes – but only if they are acknowledged and repentance is sought.

If we carry on regardless, one thing is assured: it will happen again. If those who perpetrated it are never brought to book, then there is absolutely nothing standing in their way. We set many bad precedents during and after our last election. We showed that the highest institutions of the land are subject to awful manipulation; we showed that you get what you want if you kill for it; and we showed that those who fan violence can be appointed to public office. All of those things ring the bells of our future unravelling.

A final thought: let us not get carried away in blaming leaders and institutions alone, as though the people of Kenya were all innocent sheep who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Those heinous crimes were not committed by just 10 people; nor were they enacted by aliens flown in. The ordinary Kenyan also has a lot to answer for. Our superstitious, narrow-minded, bigoted national mindset puts us all on trial. We may not have participated in the mayhem, but many of us funded and fuelled the chaos, added to the hate in the atmosphere, and almost broke our country in two.

At the very least, let us feel a sense of national shame.

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