The weeks of inter-ethnic violence that followed Kenya’s last presidential election four and a half years ago have left deep wounds on the population. Our Observer, who photographed the clashes, believes that to heal these wounds, Kenyans need to remember what happened and talk about it. For the past four years, he’s travelled from town to town to display an exhibition of harrowing photos. This isn’t to everyone’s liking.
On Sunday, without warning, police took down his photos in Naivasha, a town in Rift Valley, one of the areas hardest-hit by the clashes that followed the disputed December 2007 election. The violence, which claimed more than 1,200 lives nationwide, erupted after police ejected election observers from polling stations and the electoral commission declared the ruling Party of National Unity's candidate, Mwai Kibaki, the winner. The opposition candidate from the Orange Democratic Movement, Raila Odinga, accused Kibaki of rigging the vote. Only after weeks of clashes between tribes allied with each candidate were international mediators able to broker a coalition government, with Kibaki as president and his rival Odinga as prime minister.
Today, four prominent Kenyans, including two vying for the presidency in the next elections, stand accused by international prosecutors of masterminding the bloodshed. Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, from the ruling party’s side, is accused of having long-running ties with the Mungiki, a shadowy criminal organisation, which he allegedly ordered to attack opposition supporters. MP William Ruto, aligned with the opposition, is accused of “carefully orchestrating” attacks against supporters of the ruling party. While they both deny wrongdoing, they have agreed to stand trial at International Criminal Court in The Hague in April 2013 – a month after Kenya’s next general elections.
Kenyan human rights groups have called for the two presidential hopefuls to be removed from the race, unsuccessfully, fearing that their participation could trigger renewed violence. Kenyatta is considered the second most popular figure in a race currently dominated by Prime Minister Odinga.
Activists from Picha Mtaani filmed the police taking down their photo exhibition in Naivasha on Sunday.
“Pictures don’t lie – that’s why they’re not very popular with politicians”
Boniface Mwangi is photojournalist and an activist. He founded Picha Mtaani, a youth-led organisation that brings Mwangi’s photographs of the 2007-2008 violence to towns around Kenya and moderates debates among the exhibit’s visitors.
The exhibit had been up for a day and a half in Naivasha, and was going very well, when the police arrived and ordered us to take the photographs down. Since we had not only obtained a permit but were renting a plot of land from the police to display the exhibit on, we were somewhat confused. They gave us no explanation. We later learned in the press that the police had received their orders from local MP John Mututho, who said the exhibit was causing “unnecessary tension.”We’ve held this exhibit in dozens of cities, and have always had a very good reaction from visitors. When they see the graphic photos, which were sometimes taken in the places they live, some of them cry or get angry. But they aren’t angry about us showing the photos. The issue is a political one – this is the third time our exhibit has been shut down [see videos of earlier closures here and here], and it is always, in my opinion, because of politicians who are afraid that if their constituents are reminded of what happened, they might lose votes in the next election [in March 2013, Kenyans will vote not only for their next president but also their members of parliament, senators, and governors]. The pictures don’t lie – that’s why they’re not very popular with politicians.While we try to fight these closures in court, our organisation simply doesn’t have the time or the resources – we would rather bring our exhibit to more places and impact more people.A child examines a photo taken by our Observer during the post-election violence. All photos courtesy of Picha Mtaani.“We advise visitors to the exhibit to use their votes wisely so that they don’t elect troubled men who will cause more trouble for our country”Our goal is to use these photographs to create dialogue. When we engage in debates with visitors to the exhibit, we never tell them who to vote for, but we do advise them to use their votes wisely so that they don’t elect troubled men who will cause more trouble for our country.Kenyans are still living in denial. Thousands of people who burned property, looted, and raped have not been brought to justice. So there’s a lot of anger and frustration among victims. We need not just justice but also reconciliation, so that this pent-up anger does not lead to more violence.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.