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Ghosts of Kiambaa fire return to haunt Kenya’s politics

25 June 2019 - 08:06

By Waga Odongo

No memorial stands at Kiambaa, the site where a Kenya Assemblies of God church was torched with 35 souls inside on New Year’s Day 12 years ago.
A perimeter wall of stone rings the property, but since the mass burial of those killed in the fire attack at the height of the post-2007 election violence, boycotted by local leaders and area residents, its memory has remained too raw to confront.
An eight-minute recording of an alleged telephone call between Jubilee Secretary General Raphael Tuju and former Limuru MP George Nyanja has forcefully thrust the horrors of the Kiambaa attack, considered the signature atrocity of Kenya’s post-2007 election violence, back into national consciousness. Because the arson attack occurred in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu, where Deputy President William Ruto draws his political base, its mention evokes deep emotions because it formed part of the evidence used to build charges against him at the International Criminal Court. The case against Ruto, who was charged alongside radio journalist Joshua arap Sang, was terminated at midpoint in 2016 because of what one judge termed as “intolerable levels of witness tampering”.
Contending versions of what really happened at the church and why have emerged over time, blurring the picture of truth, but the local community is yet to come to terms with what happened. A church committee claimed in 2009 that they had no plans to build a monument in honour of the victims of the arson attack, saying that doing so threatened the peace initiatives in the area.
Although Tuju, who also serves as a Cabinet Secretary without portfolio, has dismissed the recording as a forgery, allies of Deputy President William Ruto have reacted to it as though it was real.
Ruto teamed with Uhuru Kenyatta, who was also facing his own crimes against humanity charges at the ICC, to cobble together the Jubilee Alliance – two antagonists united by suspicion to craft a political platform they promised would address the differences that triggered the violence between their respective communities. Once in power, as President and Deputy President, they expended great energy in defeating the cases against them, which collapsed as witnesses died or recanted their testimonies.
With Kenyatta now serving his second, controversially secured term, focus is turning to his deputy and heir-apparent who has become the patron saint of fundraising as he goes around the country handing out large cash donations to churches.
Nyanja, who has unsuccessfully contested senatorial election in Kiambu, has not denied being on the call. In the recording he appears to blame Ruto for his failure to secure nomination to vie for the Kiambu senator’s seat in 2017. He poses: if Ruto is so flush with cash and keen to accumulate riches in heaven by building a few churches on earth as he often claims, why does he not start in Uasin Gishu, with the burnt down Kiambaa church?
In the recording, the two men gleefully laugh as they relish the political opportunity of using the Kiambaa church as a stick with which to beat Ruto. Mentioning Kiambaa and Ruto in the same sentence is incendiary not just because of the uncomfortable memories it evokes, but also because it places the Deputy President in a difficult position. Within his political base, Ruto cast himself as a victim of unfair political persecution smeared with responsibility for the church arson attack. Even as the ICC was investigating the case against Ruto, church clerics circled wagons and laid their hands on him, praying for his exoneration. He cannot now risk excessive contrition as it may be seen as an outright condemnation of the action, and by extension the local community for whatever role it may have played in it.
The Kiambaa attack targeted members of Kenyatta’s community, whom Ruto is eager to court in his quest for power, and failing to show remorse for it could come at a great political cost. Ruto has to admit that indeed something terrible happened in Kiambaa, but to maintain his base, he must ask the nation to move on.
The situation is not unlike the Yasukuni Shrine that honours Japan’s victims of the Second World War alongside the island’s war criminal leaders. Every time a member of the Japanese Diet or cabinet member visits the shrine, there are protests in China. Japan is forced to walk the tightrope during memorials -- with its leaders offering “profound regret” over what happened but always falling short of an actual apology to China, Korea and other places that bore the brunt of their attacks.
The clearest indication that it is open season in the ruling party is the use of a common anecdote to illustrate the vileness of the hated other. One voice in the recording talks of children whose mothers threw them out of the burning church to save them only for them to be thrown back in to burn to death. Although no such incident was reported during the Kiambaa tragedy, the anecdote is employed to embellish a narrative that would rule out any chances of reconciliation in the Rift Valley.
Numerous arson attacks across history are embellished in this way. In the Kilvenmani massacre in India, the story goes, children thrown out of burning huts were thrown back in by the landlords, who were cracking down on leftist peasants. The same is said of the Godhra train burning incident in Gujarat where the majority Hindu population accuses Muslims of burning pilgrims. In Godhra, the anecdote about tossing babies back into the flames led to a massacre of the minority Muslim population in retaliation, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is accused of condoning the violence.
It is such a loaded accusation that guarantees no party will be in the mood for reconciliation.
Ruto has made no secret of his avoidance of difficult historical issues. In the run up to the 2017 election, he said that implementing the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission would be too divisive. The report calls for investigation and prosecution of criminal activity and restorative justice to those affected.
As Kenya heads into another election in 2022, it is nearly impossible to separate the trigger for the 2007 violence — the disputed election -- from the historical justice questions, especially around land.
The post-2007 election violence has left a deep scar on the country, and despite the ignominious end of the ICC cases, it still looms large over the nation’s politics.
In the 25 years of multiparty democracy, Kenya has experienced four waves of electoral violence concentrated in the Rift Valley that have been well recorded and extensively covered, with barely a court conviction.
Jubilee Party’s leaders are direct beneficiaries of the sense of victimhood they cloaked themselves in after the ICC brought charges against six Kenyans. The suspects were lionised as protectors of their communities, forcing denial as a historical necessity.
The leaked recording should be a clear signal that the armistice between Kenyatta and Ruto is now over. Remarkably, the conversation has shown the moral bankruptcy of Kenya’s political class: it is not beneath them to desecrate the graves of the Kiambaa dead. For now, reactions have been limited to demanding Tuju’s resignation, but it is just a matter of time before someone similarly offers to start a fundraising effort for a monument to those murdered in Naivasha to embarrass Kenyatta, whose charges related to those incidents.
It is a perhaps a final irony that the Jubilee Party, forged in the white heat of The Hague trials should begin coming apart over the same issue that brought it into existence.

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