Africa Update: Kenya Gang Violence

NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins talks about an increase in gang-related violence in Kenya and what the government is doing to stop it. Plus, she highlights the news about peace talks in Sudan and Somalia.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's time for Africa Update. And this week, we head to the east of the continent. Gang-related violence isn't limited to the United States. It's killed scores of people in Kenya over the past few months. The nation's leaders have been surprisingly quiet and the police may actually be contributing to the problem.

For more, I spoke with NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Since March, more than 150 people have died in the Rift Valley, in Central province and in the capital city of Nairobi. And about 20 of those people were beheaded. Now, the brutality of this spasm of violence has shocked and frightened nearly everyone here.

CHIDEYA: So who's killing whom?

THOMPKINS: Well, this is where the story gets complicated. You see the violence ostensibly began when a local gang called the Mungiki reached a standoff with about 30,000 small bus drivers in the region. Now the Mungiki had been extorting money from the bus drivers for some time now. Everyday depending on the route, the Mungiki collect up to the 200 Kenyan shillings from each bus. And that's somewhere between $3 and $4. It doesn't seem like a whole lot of money, but think about it, it's per day, there are tens of thousands of buses on the line and so over a year, this ends up to a multimillion-dollar business for the Mungiki.

Now, back in March or earlier this year, the Mungiki reportedly doubled its rate, its daily rate from the bus drivers. And that's when the bus drivers fought. And this is the first time that there's ever been any kind of real resistance to the Mungiki. And the Mungiki have decided to strike back and to strike back very fiercely because they want to send a message apparently. And they're believed to be behind the gristly murders of a number of bus drivers and bus crews.

CHIDEYA: Have any foreigners been targeted?

THOMPKINS: No. No foreigners have been targeted or caught in the crossfire so far. But word of gang trouble could affect Kenya's tourism business, which is a lynchpin of its economy.

CHIDEYA: So is there a chance that the police are exacerbating the problem?

THOMPKINS: Yes, yes. There is a chance of that. There's a strong chance of that. I should mention here that a dozen police officers have been killed over these past months including one on Friday night. So the police, they've decided to hit back at the Mungiki and to hit hard. So they've been going into the slum areas where the Mungiki members are known to live and do business. And they conduct very dramatic daytime and nighttime raids.

And these raids have been extremely disruptive in these areas where the poorest of the poor live. Many people have reportedly been killed including some school-age kids, 15, 17 years old. The police believe they are fighting a war of attrition in which they say that if they incapacitate the gang's foot soldiers then they defang the gang.

But human rights groups, citizens groups and the people who live in the slums are criticizing this tactic because they're saying that it leaves too many people dead including people who may be innocent of any wrongdoing. And they're also complaining that the police have failed to nab any of the gang's leaders.

CHIDEYA: So what in turn is the government doing?

THOMPKINS: President Mwai Kibaki has made some statements saying that the people behind the violence will be killed or if they're let to live then they will be brought to justice. But the rest of the government and even Kibaki's political rivals have been reluctant to say anything. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. First, the Mungiki are operating within a very particular area of Kenya so those politicians representing other regions are not getting involved.

The Mungiki members are also overwhelmingly Kikuyo, which is the largest ethnic group in Kenya. And the killings have not yet spilled over to the other ethnic groups or to foreigners as I've mentioned earlier. So there's a lack of national unity on this phenomenon.

CHIDEYA: So is it clear that this broad ranging group the Mungiki are actually responsible for all these deaths?

THOMPKINS: Well, I'm glad you asked because the answer is no. There are lots of gangs all over Kenya, there's a real possibility that there are copycat killings going on. Other gangs, who, for instance, want cops dead and kill them, knowing that the police will think it's Mungiki related. Nothing is very clear here in terms of who is guilty of what.

And this is another area where the police figures are really exacerbating the problem because those figures are really weird. The police information officer refused to tell me how many cops are working in Nairobi. He says he wants to keep the gang guessing. And the police are also claimed to have killed a number of people in their sweeps of the slums, but the bodies are not turning up at the morgue and they're unaccounted for. So the police could be inflating the figures to intimidate the Mungiki.

CHIDEYA: So Gwen, why are there so many gangs in Kenya?

THOMPKINS: Because even though Kenya has a vibrant economy that is actually posting some record numbers at this point, the majority of the people here live in poverty and an awful lot of that majority are living in abject poverty. These are folks, young people, who don't have a chance to further their education, to get training for a good job. And what's more, there are so few jobs here. This is especially true of people who are living near Kenya's borders with other countries.

In Nairobi itself, the poor live within walking distance of the mansions and expensive compounds of the comparatively rich. One researcher from the Kenyan Human Rights Institute I spoke with recently told me, he compared the membership of the Mungiki to the character Bigger Thomas in the Richard Wright novel "Native Son." He said they are living on the bottom ran(ph) of life, ignored as if they're already dead and they come to life in the underworld.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gwen, thanks for that aspect of the reporting that you bring us. Before we close though, why don't you give us an update on what's going on in the rest of the region?

THOMPKINS: Well, there are couple of big meetings that are coming up, that are supposed to be important to ongoing conflicts in Darfur and in Somalia. On matter of Darfur on July 15th and 16th, the special envoys for the United Nations and the African Union are meeting in Tripoli. They're also going to be meeting with representatives from the Security Council, from the Arab League and from neighboring countries of Sudan. And they are going to be talking about this joint hybrid peacekeeping force that Khartoum has finally agreed to. And if things go well, they say that they will try to tackle the issue of bringing more of the black rebel groups in Darfur together to see about forwarding the Darfur peace agreement which was signed by only one rebel group last year. So that's the latest on Darfur.

In terms of Somalia, there is a peace and reconciliation Congress that is scheduled pretty much the same time as the big meeting in Tripoli on Darfur. And this is a meeting in Mogadishu that's supposed to bring all sorts of representatives from different walks of life in Somalia, clan leaders, civic leaders, women's groups, the transitional government, of course, and others who are going to try to figure out a way to wipe the slate clean if possible and figure out how to move forward in Somalia.

As you know, the situation has declined a great deal in terms of security where there have been all manner of tragedies over the past several days that have claimed the lives of children as well as people who are trying to flee the area of Mogadishu. Mogadishu is filthy and is extraordinarily violent. It will be interesting to see whether this Congress actually occurs. It's already been postponed twice and the security situation does not look promising.

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins, speaking with us from Nairobi, Kenya.

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