Tribal paranoia

Ethnic polarisation is taking hold in Kenya reports Michela Wrong Photos by Peter Chappell

Samuel jabs his finger at the television screen, which is broadcasting images of opposition supporters lobbing tear-gas canisters back at the riot police who fired them. "They say these are ODM supporters. But look, he's a Luo, she's a Luo; that's another one. That one, he could be anything. But these are all Luos, not just 'opposition supporters'."

I stare at the screen, comparing the faces to those of Samuel and his brothers, all of whom are Kikuyus. After 15 years reporting Africa, I can usually distinguish a Dinka from a Maasai, a Tutsi from a Hutu, an Eritrean from a Djiboutian, but I'm struggling here. "How can you tell?" "Luos are stocky, very well-built. They have big jaws. It's just obvious."

It was a conversation that would have been inconceivable a fortnight ago, clunkily tasteless five years ago. Samuel, a talented painter, comes from a section of Kenyan society I have come to know and admire, and on which rests this country's future. Born in a multi-ethnic slum, he has rubbed up against members of the Luo, Kamba, Luhya and Kisii communities all his life. He belongs to a cosmopolitan urban generation that always used to bristle when asked the question "Which tribe are you?", responding defiantly: "Actually, I'm a Kenyan."

Like many of that generation, he voted across tribal lines during the recent elections, choosing the Luo opposition leader Raila Odinga - whose Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) he regarded as a force for change - instead of the Kiku yu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki. Today Samuel, who abandoned his shack when Luos set the neighbourhood aflame, is reassessing some fundamental beliefs. He would never vote that way again. And he will be very, very careful in future to live among his own. "I'm becoming more tribalistic with every passing day."

Those who know Kenya have winced at the international media's portrayal of the crisis as some sort of Rwandan Genocide Mk II, with Luos and Kikuyus pitched against one another in the wake of "tribal voting" that reflected ata vistic hostilities. Kenya's violent explosion was rooted, rather, in cynical governance, the ruthless ambitions of its politicians, the yawning divide between prospectless poor and the smug elite, and the generational exasperation of millions of youngsters chafing at the indifference of a geriatric leadership.

But if the factors are complex, their expression has been horribly crude. And the lynchings, church-torchings and manhunts have triggered an accelerated process of ethnic polarisation - mental and physical - in a country that believed it had reached a level-headed accommodation with its tribal differences. As the atrocities mount up, Kenyans are starting to think of themselves in radically different ways.

Nowhere more so than in the slums. "In my area, the kiosk owners are now asking for people's IDs before they sell you anything," says Joseph, a taxi driver who lives in a largely Kikuyu slum and is himself a Kikuyu. "If you're a Luo, they won't serve you. And everyone is saying no Kikuyu will ever rent premises to a Luo again. The Luos in Kawangware will have to leave and no new ones will be allowed to come in."

But the middle classes also feel they are being forced to choose their camp, having brushed off ethnic sensitivities along with the mud of the upcountry samba (farm). "I went to dinner with colleagues recently and there was silence round the table," says Ruth, a young journalist. "We were so aware of the landmines in the conversation - because it was a mix of ethnic groups - that no one dared say anything."

A kind of reckoning

Even mzungus (westerners) are having to recalibrate, sprouting ethnic antennae they possessed when it came to hot spots like Rwanda, but never seemed necessary in Kenya. "Somehow, we've managed to send a Kikuyu camera crew to Kisumu," one television producer confessed with embarrassment. Stuck in a Luo stronghold, his Kikuyu reporters didn't dare venture out, let alone film. Western employers are chartering planes to scoop up employees whose ethnicity was regarded as irrelevant on appointment, but who are now regarded as being at risk.

"There's been a kind of reckoning with the idea of Kenyan-ness," says Parselelo Kantai, a Kenyan writer. "It was something we'd all been talking about but hadn't got round to. Now people have to make a hard decision about whether it's a viable concept or not."

In Kenya, as in most African states, self-image cannot be disentangled from colonial story. The British imperialists who settled the country did not invent its tribal configuration. Speak to any elderly Kenyan and they will tell you that their gran dparents were keenly aware of differences between Kamba and Kikuyu, Kikuyu and Maasai, with cattle raids and small wars against rivals across the lines peppering village existence.

But historians say that ethnic identity was a surprisingly malleable concept, becoming set in stone only with the colonial state. As white settlers rushed into Kenya in search of land, indigenous people were allocated "tribal reserves" and issued with the kipande, a pass defining their ethnicity. Some of Kenya's ethnic labels today did not exist before the colonial experience - the term "Kalenjin", for example, started being used only in the late 1940s, as a convenient way of grouping the Nandi-speaking peoples.

Acting on the well-established principle of divide and rule, British administrators allotted certain tribes certain functions: Maasais made good soldiers, the farming Kikuyus - deemed money-hungry and too clever by half - were meant to feed the nation, Kambas made for excellent houseboys. Those stereotypes are still in common use today, bandied about among Kenyans as though they capture eternal truths.

Under Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, a cynical system of presidential patronage reinforced these distinctions. In the top-heavy post-colonial state, prosperity depended on access to State House. Encouraging his fellow Kikuyus to settle outside their usual confines, Kenyatta made clear that those groups which supported the opposition would not be invited to "eat" from the national table, paying for their disloyalty by blocking their way to civil service jobs, private sector contracts and infrastructure. It is no coincidence that Kisumu, Odinga's home town in western Kenya, is today a decaying urban centre, its fish, rice, sugar and cotton industries either stagnating or dead in the water.

As poverty levels soared under Daniel arap Moi, ethnic hostility simmered. Moi, a Kalenjin, capitalised on the suspicions of the smaller tribes, presenting himself as the only leader who could keep the Kikuyus' vaunting ambition in check. You could detect the antagonism in the coded language: politicians railed against "a certain community" (the Kikuyus) or "the people of the lake" (the Luos). But the lid stayed on, thanks to Moi's iron grip. Kenyans of all stripes came to see themselves as brothers in suffering, victims of a sleazy and brutal leader.

When Mwai Kibaki won the 2002 elections at the head of a multi-ethnic coalition, many expected such tensions would dissipate. But the new president threw out the draft of a new constitution trimming his executive powers, sacked his coalition partners and withdrew into an ethnic citadel. While western governments expressed delight at the new administration's economic performance, Kenyans complained that the Kikuyus were at it again. The "Mount Kenya Mafia" - cronies from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and its neighbouring Embu and Meru groups - was playing the old patronage game.

Important ministries, critics noted, rested in the hands of "a certain community", with only inconsequential portfolios going outside the ethnic circle. With them went dodgy procurement contracts, local investment and jobs for the boys. "Go to any government department and you will be able to tell the minister's eth nicity by looking at the faces of the staff," one Nairobi-based journalist told me.

The conviction that only Kikuyus and their cousins were "eating" meant Odinga's campaign promise of majimboism - federalism - found a ready audience. The notion sounds uncontroversial to outsiders, but ordinary Kenyans interpreted it very differently. To their ears, maj im boism meant that, in future, only Luos would be allowed to own land in Luo areas, only Kambas would be allowed to run shops in Kambaland.

Raila Odinga was officially declared the loser of the rigged elections, but majimboism is in effect already being practised on the ground. The old kipande, with its ethnic labels, may have gone, but Kenyans can usually pinpoint tribal affiliation on the basis of name alone, spelled out on national identity cards. These are now being demanded at makeshift barricades by young, angry men wielding machetes and clubs. Already, a quarter of a million Kenyans - most of them Kikuyus fleeing Rift Valley homes - have been displaced and made homeless.

"Majimboism is already here in our country," says one Kikuyu kiosk owner, who, like many Kenyans in an increasingly paranoid nation, does not want his name used. "People have learned never to move to an area where you don't belong. Or go there to work but never move your family there. Then, if there is trouble, you can pick up and go. It's good to stay where you belong."

It is too early to say how far this de facto ethnic partition will go, how deeply the scars of the past weeks reach. Working against the trend is urbanisation, which forces tribes to live cheek by jowl, socialising and working with each other, dating and marrying one another. What is undeniable is that ruthless politicians, seeking the most effective issue around which to rally support, in the age of multiparty democracy, have pushed the concept of the nation state to breaking point.

"This crisis is a direct result of Kibaki politics," says Kantai. "Five years ago, no one was talking about Kikuyus or Luos. It just wasn't an issue."

Kenya's ethnic groups

The population is roughly 34 million, made up of more than 40 groups, the largest of which are the Kikuyus, Luhyas, Luos, Kalenjins and Kambas.

Ethnicity has seldom been an issue in Kenyan politics and some group labels such as Kalenjin became common only in the 1940s under British rule.

The largest group, the Kikuyus, makes up 22 per cent of the population. Their traditional home is central Kenya, to the north and west of Nairobi. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, is a Kikuyu.

The opposition leader Raila Odinga is a Luo. Luos and Luhyas together make up 27 per cent of the population; they traditionally come from western Kenya.

Kalenjins, from the Rift Valley district, are the next-largest group. Kibaki's predecessor Daniel arap Moi is a Kalenjin; he was elected with support and opposition from both Luo and Kikuyu politicians.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.


For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.


The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”


Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit