Kenya’s IDP crisis: Only history can judge our collective inaction

IDPsIn the aftermath of the 2007 general election over half a million people were displaced. Fleeing homes, loosing livelihoods and loved ones. To date some of the 2007 internal refugees still remain both in camps and transit sites. Yet the anomaly of internal displacement is not new to Kenya. From pre-independence many Kenyans have been forcibly removed from their homes, having to settle elsewhere as refugees within their own country.

In contemporary history, the IDP crisis has been closely linked to the country’s electoral process, particularly with the advent of the country’s multi-party era. The crisis became the proverbial elephant in the living room – a topic that was too taboo to mention. For years following the post-election clashes of the 1990s the Moi regime swept the issue under the carpet, maintaining that there were no IDPs. However, with more freedom of expression and opening up of the media, the plight of IDPs has gained more limelight.

Kenya’s internal conflict has been almost like clockwork set to the political scene during general election years of 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007 as well as the constitutional referendum of 2005. Every five years people have had to flee their homes and that is why the IDP situation falls into the category of a “complex emergency”.

So why term Kenya’s IDP crisis a complex emergency? For the simple reason that unlike natural catastrophes, people loose all they have in a matter of minutes yet the underlying cause is politically instigated and conflict-generated (Macrae and Zwi, 1994).

The United Nations’ Office for Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (which draws its definition from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee) defines complex emergencies as ‘a humanitarian crisis … where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict …. (IASC, 1994). However, this reliance on authority breakdown has been criticized. David Keen author of the book “Complex Emergencies” writes on OCHA’s definition having shortcomings arguing that in the case of 1994 Rwanda, the problem was not so much the breakdown of authority, rather that the “authority” being imposed was “ruthless” and had “vicious efficiency”.

Indeed Kenya has always had a government, and the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that it is this same government that should ensure that the IDPs receive requisite humanitarian assistance, are resettled and reintegrated back into society. However the Kenya government has mismanaged this obligation.

The Government’s Ministry of State in charge of Special Programmes initiative to resettle the nation’s IDPs has been dubbed “Operation Rudi Nyumbani” which includes financial assistance and transport among other short- term measures.The causes of displacement and obstacles to resettlement have not been adequately addressed and the Ministry’s stop-gap activities have failed to assure Kenyans that the Operation is not just a PR exercise so the government looks good to donors.

There has also been a disturbing tendency where anyone (whether an IDP or an interested party such as the Kenya Human Rights Commission) who questions how an unaccountable government can accountably distribute funds and materials to IDPs are met with torrents of abuse and muzzling.

Queries on government commitment and initiatives to assist IDPs to ensure long-term peace have centered on: poor co-ordination and corruption; insecurity; child and gender based violations; inadequate shelter and compensation for loss. The Kenya Human Rights Commission in an October 2008 report “A Tale of Force, Threats and Lies” even accused the government of forcing IDPs to go back to their homes.

As for the UN and those that adhere to the IDP Guidelines and rules regarding complex emergencies, they have been confined in that they have to deal with the government of day and trust that the government will most effectively and equitably distribute humanitarian assistance. However when the lives of people and those of future of generations are at stake, a dire need emerges to make sure that this complex emergency does not become a permanent one. It is thus imperative that the international community demands that the government ensures that the rights of all IDPs are upheld.

Indeed recent political events have shown the danger of inaction in enforcing strict observance of ethical standards regarding resettlement. Just last week, the government decided to compensate settlers in the Mau forest. This is hardly the first time such a compensation scheme has been conceived, however the common occurrence has been that the majority of the money falls into the pockets of the fat cats who grabbed the land.

The eponymous Ndung’u report lists no less than the families of former presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi as those who grabbed land for squatter resettlement. On this issue, Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai was today quoted in the media saying, “… the Kenya government does not have money, it’s your taxes. So if they don’t have taxes they will ask the World Bank to give them money to come and compensate leaders who misused their power (to acquire) land they should never have acquired …” As it is, the Ministry of State for Special Programmes requires more funds which will come from the National Budget and the excess from donors. Isn’t it about time to first question whether Operation Rudi Nyumbani has been a success and whether indeed the government should still spearhead IDP assistance?

In August 2000, Fr. John Anthony Kaiser, a crusader for the rights of internally displaced persons was murdered. He was vocal speaking out on the injustices meted out to the displaced. However, almost a decade later, even more people languish miserably away from their homes.

As it is who knows how many more people will join the ranks of IDPs come the next general election, or for that matter the anticipated constitutional referendum? We also need to re-examine our outlook towards Kenya’s IDPs. In an age of reality television where shows such as Big Brother Africa keep viewers glued to their screens; alas when it comes to our brothers and sisters living in camps we are no longer voyeurs. Indeed, there is no difference between our IDPs and those in Darfur, yet though our eyes face the screen watching news stories on their plight, we no longer see the real suffering; we no longer question why this is happening; we only say a silent prayer that come 2012, we will not be the ones taking up airspace as IDPs.

Is it only in Kenya where we have become immune and impervious to news stories on corruption, impunity and gross violations of human rights? Could this be because this is the country where even those that engineer and carry out grand larceny on our nation’s coffers have the opportunity to transform themselves into tele-vangeslist? Is that why we do not find it dysfunctional to watch the IDPs in their tattered clothes which cover emaciated bodies and hold up despondent faces?

Update: read an interesting take on Kenya’s IDPs

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About yipe
Yipe an acronym for the Youth Interactive Portal for Enterprise is an organization that assists entrepreneurs to start up and manage their small businesses.

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