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The Great Rift

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In the span of about a week, starting on December 30, 2007, the day that President Mwai Kibaki stood awkwardly in an ill-fitting suit in the backyard of the Nairobi statehouse, Bible in hand, and had himself sworn in after a rigged election, Kenya went from one of the most orderly countries in sub-Saharan Africa to a war zone. The violence was as terrible as it was swift, but the real shock was that it could happen here at all. Kenya had just held two back-to-back national elections, in 2002 and 2005, that were widely praised as free and fair. According to pre-election polls, most Kenyans were backing the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, and they were expecting a peaceful transfer of power, which has happened only a few times in Africa, but Kenya was thought to be the happy exception, and for good reason.

Having been stationed for the New York Times in Kenya for more than six years, and having reported on Kenya’s amazing distance runners, its second-to-none safari business, and its golf-club-wielding middle class, I watched this country prosper as many other countries in Africa remained stagnant or, worse, imploded further. Kenya was different. It was the anti-Congo, the anti-Burundi, the anti-Sudan, the opposite of African nations where violence rules and the infrastructure is sinking back into the weeds. I used to get back from those countries, places where I feared for my life all the time, and want to kiss the tarmac at Nairobi’s airport. In Kenya, things work. There’s an orderliness here inherited from the British, manifest in the cul-de-sacs with marked street signs in neat black lettering and the SUVs driven by the wildlife rangers somehow without a speck of dirt on them. There are Internet startups, investment banks, a thriving national airline. It is still Africa, and most people are still poor, but even that has been changing. In the mid-2000s, the economy was growing by about 6 percent per year, far faster than those of Western Europe or the U.S., adding hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Kenya’s middle class—around four million people making between three thousand and forty thousand dollars per year—is one of the continent’s largest.

Which is all to say that when Kibaki’s men openly hijacked the vote-counting process and forcibly installed their man, I, along with most Kenyans, was astounded and then quickly appalled. Within minutes of Kibaki taking the oath of office that day, thousands of protesters burst out of Kibera, an enormous shantytown, waving sticks, smashing shacks, burning tires, and hurling stones. Police poured into the streets to control them. In the next few days, gangs went from house to house across the country, dragging out people of certain tribes and clubbing them to death. It was horrifyingly clear what was starting to happen—tribal war—and that promising GDP or literacy-rate statistics were no longer relevant.

By January 2, 2008, I was looking down from the cockpit of a helicopter flying over the Kenyan stretch of the Great Rift Valley, a four-thousand-mile-long fracture in the earth’s surface, searching for a church where several dozen people had just been burned to death by a mob. The pilot, Chief, was a big, good-looking Kenyan with all the confidence and command presence you’d expect of a guy named Chief. We were cruising at about five hundred feet, and he pointed out, with a grimace, the stripes of destruction down below—one farm smashed and smoking, the farm next door untouched. There seemed to be a pattern there, but I couldn’t figure it out; Chief was too busy working the cyclic stick and throttle to elaborate. Steel guardrails had been twisted across the highways and enormous trees slung across the roads, blockades that would have taken serious organization and manpower.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times. In 2012, he received the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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