Kisumu yearns for peace as election chaos survivors search for justice

The abandoned Gulf Stream Hotel at Milimani Estate in Kisumu. [Washington Onyango, Standard]

It has been 14 years since the 2007-2008 post-election violence threatened to tear the country apart. But even as most perpetrators went scot free, survivors continue to live with the consequences of their altered lives every day.

While some hard lessons were learned, the chaos witnessed in Kisumu again in 2017 was a stark reminder that the ogre of violence had not been slain.

The violence took a toll on both lives and livelihoods. For instance, Lucas Otieno of Kano Kobura in Ahero is yet to return to work after a stray bullet hit him on the pelvis at the height of demonstrations in 2017.

Mr Otieno had left for Otonglo where he worked as a welder. After trying unsuccessfully to maneuver his way around a security cordon thrown around town, he opted to return home.

“I had managed to go through the flyover to Kondele and got to the market. A large group of people were walking past. They were probably from town. I decided to get into one of the stalls to watch from a distance and also hide, since I could see the police.

“There were three of us and I was standing in the middle. I suddenly felt a very sharp pain in my waist. I tried to move my legs but I could not. I lost consciousness. The next time I woke up, I was at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital,” says Otieno.

The 29-year-old welder had been shot. The bullet was later removed but his family says they never saw it. They only have the X-rays taken before surgery.

Otieno’s father, Barrack Alal, says the young man has become their responsibility due to his injury. Mr Alal is urging the State to compensate victims and survivors of the post-election violence.

Lucas Otieno and his mother Monica Juma look at an X-ray taken after he was shot in 2017. [Olivia Odhiambo, Standard]

“Only the human rights activists tried to help my son with counselling. I used to visit them after every two weeks back then. The things he was in a position to handle, he cannot do them now. He had to stop working as a welder yet that is what he trained for. He cannot do menial jobs because he cannot carry heavy things,” the father says.

Ten years previously and the city was in upheaval. Ali Daya, the managing director of Punjani Electricals Group who has lived in Kisumu for 35 years, narrates how he received a call at about 3am that his office was on fire. Daya says his family lost a lot, including 40 years of progress, and it has been difficult for the business to recover.

“But we have rebuilt. We have earned our money here and we think we can do it again. We continue to progress and I think we are reaching a stage where we are recovering from the dark period of 2007. I think the scars left on Kisumu are beginning to shift to a more positive note,” he says.

However, Daya says there is need to worry especially if things get out of hand again this year. 

“Then the future is absolutely zero. I don’t think anyone would want to live here or invest here. It will be challenging if things go wrong this time”.

Kisumu has not recovered from the 2007 and 2017 chaos. Many lives were lost, while many people who got scared left.

“They either moved to Nairobi or Mombasa or left the country. A lot of businesses closed down in 2007,” says Daya.

According to him, many progressive business people left and have never come back.

The years 2005 and 2006 were good. Things were going well but after 2007, we have not gotten back to where we were. I worry that if this happens again, we will be in big trouble.”

At the time, Daya was in Canada for studies. His father was not in Kisumu and the rest of the family was on vacation. 

“Someone met my dad and asked what he had returned to do. He advised him to get on a flight and get out of Kisumu. But my dad insisted that he must see his office.”

Daya returned to Kenya after a few days. He recalls one day there was gun fire in Nyalenda and the house staff and family members literally dove to the floor because they thought the gunshots were in the garden.

His family requested a relative who had a gun to stay with them because they needed protection.

“We thought we would never stay in Kisumu again. We thought of moving to Tanzania or Uganda. Those were very scary and unbelievable moments but my father had no intention of leaving Kisumu. He told us we could go but he would stay. So at that point we decided to stick together.”

Daya says the uncertainty and worsening political situation only changed when political temperatures cooled and a political solution found.

With six months to the election, Kondele MCA Joachim Oketch says his ward has been on the map for the wrong reasons after every election, and anxiety is slowly creeping in.

He says many people are afraid they may be confronted with chaos after the August elections. 

“Our people have come to learn that elections are not the end of life. This is what we are preaching. We have held a lot of public meetings with the civil society in my ward,” he says.

“Together with the county government we have devised ways to keep our young people busy. The county has donated things like carwash machines and hatcheries.”

According to Oketch, this is to ensure the youth don’t only think about elections but about their future, too. He urges them to peacefully support and campaign for their candidates, and refuse to be used to create chaos during the elections.

Audi Ogada, a human rights activist, argues that because of the unity pact between President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga, there will be cohesion as the country heads to the elections.

He says the effort of both leaders must be appreciated, given the fact that the country is coming from a dark past.

“We have come from a situation where people were killed and maimed. A number of Kenyans were displaced while others lost property. And so for me and other Kenyans, the unity between these two is a positive gesture to this country,” says Ogada.

He, however, says there is need to remind leaders that there are internally displaced persons who have been crying to the government for years, especially from Nyanza, and victims who were executed by the police, especially the youth who were agitating for change.

“We lost a number of young men while others remain with scars. Good thing is that all this is documented. I appeal to our leaders to ensure those victims who are still alive, or the families of those we lost, are given special recognition and comfort.”

Chamber of Commerce Kisumu branch chairman Israel Agina says some enterprises were looted and destroyed during the 2007 election violence and some have never recovered.

“Many people lost their jobs after owners closed down businesses. In 2013 and 2017, the damage was less but people still lost their lives. We are urging our people to avoid violence.”

Agina wants the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to ensure all political parties sign a memorandum of understanding that they will maintain peace during and after the General Election.

Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o says the ghost of political violence must be exorcised and buried forever. 

“Kisumu bore the brunt of the 2007 violence but we have since invested heavily to rebuild the business infrastructure that was affected. Kisumu City looks beautiful and refreshing. It is now the investment destination of choice,” said Prof Nyong’o.