Internally Displaced Kenyans

[F]rom the perspective of the bracketed, the problem is how to endure the material conditions that compose their limbo.
—Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment

To go back was harder and to go further was hardest, so at last we made up our mind and started to go forward.
—Amos Tutuola, Palm-Wine Drinkard

In early October 2012, the Kenya Parliament passed the Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Bill, 2012. Reporting in the Daily Nation, Caroline Wafula noted that the Bill was designed “to manage internally displaced persons.” This word “manage” is very important. Management took shape formally and rhetorically, through the renaming of the bill, and emerged as a key strategy in parliamentary discussions through a process of bureaucratic erasure. I am interested in how we think about Internally Displaced Kenyans, the strategies we use, the worlds we imagine, the possibilities that emerge, the impossibilities we assume. I want to ask how Internally Displaced Kenyans matter and materialize and how they are, simultaneously, de-materialized and cease to matter.

Until October 2012, the Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities Bill, 2012 had been known as the Internally Displaced Persons Bill, 2012. This earlier, shorter naming permitted the fantasy that the bill was owned by Internally Displaced Persons, that they were, to use Kenyan parlance, important stakeholders in shaping Kenya’s histories, memories, presents, and futures. Within this fantasy, the state would serve the needs of Internally Displaced Persons: they would be “managed,” of course, but also granted some measure of agency through the fantasy of ownership. Moreover, the short title embedded Internally Displaced Kenyans within the post-election violence, as necessary metonyms for other displaced populations in the country—more on those later. As metonyms, they could demand a specific response from the rest of the country, as the most visible victims of state neglect, and as incarnations of failed nation-making.

The shift in name refuses that fantasy.

Perhaps the most interesting word in the new title is “Prevention.” “Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and Affected Communities” makes sense; but what is being prevented? And what is the relation between prevention and protection? Prevention and assistance? Prevention assumes a clumsy prophylactic function, delaying (perhaps indefinitely) access to the Internally Displaced Persons, who are now conveniently sandwiched in the middle of coercive and intrusive state procedures (prevention, protection, assistance) and an idea of “affected communities” so broad as to be meaningless. We are all “affected communities.” In the version of the bill I have, the term “affected communities” is not defined, though the term “affected” recurs with alarming frequency, referring to those displaced as “affected” and those in relocation habitats as “affected.” Let me shelve “affected” for now.

This “disappearing” or “burying” of Internally Displaced Kenyans in the title of the bill, and a certain urgency drives me to focus only on the title for now, mirrors their broader erasure from public consciousness. An erasure that has focused our attention on those deemed responsible for the post-election violence; driven us to startling and troubling ethno-nationalisms and ethno-regionalisms; created new public intellectuals who absent Internally Displaced Kenyans in the name of rigorous debate; exacerbated quotidian militarization as an ethno-regional, ethno-national, and national-regional project tied to neoliberal demands and aspirations; and foreclosed rigorous thinking in favor of liberal socio-ethnographic projects that promise empirical and cultural “solutions.”

I want to think a little more about this erasure by looking at an exchange in Parliament. I take this from the August 1, 2012 Hansard. As always, my deep appreciation to Mzalendo for making this—and many other documents—available.

Esther Murugi, Minister of State for Special Programmes, answered questions about the settlement of IDPS posed by Peter Njuguna Gitau, Erastus Mureithi, David Kibet Koech, Peter Njoroge Baiya, Luka Kipkorir Kigen, and Millie Grace Akoth Odhiambo.

Repeatedly, the questions emphasized the “fuzzy” nature of the IDP problem. First, as a problem of numbers. Murugi claimed that the government had resettled 5200 IDP households; was in the process of settling another 2,593; and would then turn its attention to the remaining 1,778 households. But what exactly is a “household”? What does it describe? What configurations of sociality and collectivity? What does it register as loss and violence? In other words, what kind of work does the term “household” perform to affirm and erase the materiality of post-election violence—the deaths of kin and friends; the re-shaping of social units; the ongoing fractures of lived sociality? What kind of confusion does the term “household” produce? This confusion was evident when Koech asked about the 1,778 IDPS still to be resettled, which seemed to translate household into individuals, an equation that is still too easy to make.

Complicating the numbers game, Kigen raised the problem of IDPs at Alco:

Luka Kipkorir Kigen: Mr. Speaker, Sir, there are a number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were told to decamp from their camp at Alco. They are about 472. What is happening to them because they are not in the camp and have not been given any settlement? What arrangement does the Government have to resettle them?

Esther Murugi : Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am not sure whether I know about these IDPs. Could the hon. Member clarify a little bit on who they are?

Luka Kipkorir Kigen: Mr. Speaker, Sir, Alco is one of those camps which were captured by the Government and it had 759 families. A number of them were taken to Trans Nzoia and 472 families were left behind. The Minister assured them that they would get accommodation by June this year. What is happening now since she has not given them accommodation? What is the arrangement to settle those IDPs?

As with the term “household,” the term “family” here complicates actual numbers and configurations. More interesting is Murugi’s claim not to know—to see as legible—what Kigen describes.

Indeed, Murugi often makes IDPs illegible—to be clear, I am not interested in chastising her; rather, I think her responses exemplify something systemic about the making illegible of Internally Displaced Kenyans. Two more exchanges are worth noting.

Baiya asked about the conditions under which IDPs live:

Peter Njoroge Baiya: Mr. Speaker, Sir, I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that there are some IDPs in Kieni Forest here in Kiambu who, actually, have been involved even in tracing land. They have identified a piece of land somewhere in Laikipia, but the Government, for one reason or another, is unable to assist them to acquire it. They are over 800 families settled in a parcel of about six acres in really squalid conditions. What is the Government doing to ensure that they are helped to buy that land and assisted to resettle out of the forest?

Esther Murugi: Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am aware of the Kieni as well as the other forest evictees. They are all being resettled together. The technical committee has already gone to visit the land. After inspection, they will furnish me with a report. But in the meantime, they are being looked after and they will be resettled as we resettle other forest evictees.

Murugi does not answer the question. Or answers it by making conditions irrelevant. IDPs are to be herded into a space, whatever space is available; the conditions under which they occupy that space do not matter. Cannot matter. The IDPs living in “squalid conditions” are “being looked after.” It’s difficult, here, not to think about the long histories of space-making—as the slave hold, the slave ship, the concentration camp, the detention camp, the slum—through which populations are “managed,” “looked after.” As though to place humans-bodies within a space is to “look after” them. We know from the long histories I’ve listed that placement in space is also about deracination and commodification and dehumanization and, following Elizabeth Povinelli, “making die” and “letting live.”

What does it mean to be legible? How is one made available to the state? In what state? And does that matter?

This question comes to the fore in the last recorded exchange of this particular parliamentary session between Odhiambo and Murugi:

Millie Grace Akoth Odhiambo: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, Sir. You have just heard the hon. Minister say very clearly that they have not covered integrated IDPs within their programme and that they will be covered under a policy. A policy does not actually talk about compensation or anything like that. Is the Minister, therefore, in order to deliberately discriminate or confess that the Government is deliberately discriminating against a category of IDPs?

Esther Murugi: Mr. Speaker, Sir, my mandate was very clear. I was given a data of the people who I was to settle. So, if that is discrimination, maybe it is, but I do not know. However, those are the people I was given to resettle, and that is exactly what I am doing.

For Murugi, Internally Displaced People are those included in the “data” she was “given.” If that “data” has gaps, elisions, erasures, that is not her problem. It might be “discrimination” not to consider the meaningfulness of the term IDP; it might be “discrimination” not to think about how the category IDP is conceived and functions; it might be “discrimination” not to think about the conditions under which those “resettled” actually live.” But this is largely irrelevant to a bureaucratic procedure of managing populations. Murugi is “doing” her job.

By the end of 2011, Kenya had an estimated 250,000 IDPs. In March of 2011, around 20,000 Kenyans were displaced from Mandera in the Kenya vs. Al-Shabaab war. A recent report from the Institute of Security Studies argues that displacements of pastoralist communities in Northern Kenya have been absent from national conversations. These displacements have taken place over decades—that is, over a temporal span that far exceeds the spectacular event of the post-election violence—and in that time, between 200,000 to 400,000 people have been displaced.

Northern Kenyan pastoralist communities risk becoming illegible—I’m being too cautious, are actually rendered illegible—by how the term “internally displaced people” is defined in the bill.

“internally displaced person” means a person or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, large scale development projects, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

“and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” In other words, pastoralist communities, you are shit out of luck. Northern Kenyan pastoralists become illegible as Internally Displaced Persons, that is, as people the state can accommodate within its frameworks of care, or, rather, management.

In my (admittedly brief) reading of parliamentary discussions focused on IDPs, I am stunned by how much they seem not to matter—materialized and de-materialized as “data”; made legible and illegible through their geographies and lines of ethno-descent; produced as variously human and inhuman through the conditions of their existence; fictionalized as an effect of a cause that is itself absent from discussion; framed as public and national nuisances, reminders and remainders of a time now deemed necessary in our contemporary ethno-national discourses, where the post-election violence is now framed as “teaching us” about the need for ethno-regional unity.

And if the lesson of the post-election violence and efforts to re-settle IDPs is that large populations can be managed into small spaces, into what historians of the prison term spaces of confinement, materialized as data and de-materialized as people who matter.

I’m sorry. I’d prefer not to finish that “if” sentence. But let me try.

It would be a mistake to believe that the unlearned lesson of the post-election violence and the “making” of IDPs has to do with displacement and re-settlement. Instead, I want to suggest that the making of IDPs as data, as material and immaterial, as legible and illegible, offers a fruitful way to think of how class and region function in Kenya, how space, to invoke Katherine McKittrick’s work, produces people and is produced by them.

Since the post-election violence, it has been easier to focus on grievance rather than grief, to pursue “those responsible” than to engage with those left behind as reminders and remainders. Indeed, our response to those reminders and remainders has shifted rapidly, from sympathy and empathy to irritation and annoyance. We want them managed, removed from sight, or, in this election cycle, used as evidence of ethno-regional conflict to marshal ethno-national sentiments.

Now that we have a nicely named bill, it’s tempting to believe that we are “done” with the problem—just as we seem to believe that producing nice long reports solves problems. What would it mean to make Internally Displaced Kenyans a Kenyan problem? How might this shared problem re-orient our geo-histories, compelling us to think as much about Northern Kenya’s pastoralist communities as we do about famers and traders in other Kenyan regions? It seems silly to ask, now, belatedly, what we can learn from the ongoing management of IDP populations, but it also seems urgent as they incarnate ongoing deracination under state management.

7 thoughts on “Internally Displaced Kenyans

  1. brilliance on point as always!
    And your questions are that much more relevant in the aftermath of the Baragoi Massacre. I fear for our Turkana brothers and sisters and the violence the state is about to visit upon them…

  2. We have the thinkers to think us into new places and spaces, to think the ideas we need today to find lasting solutions to our many problems. Thank you Keguro brilliant as always.

  3. Something is unbearable about Turkana and the state’s genocidal impulses in the name of “security.” “Cattle rustlers” and “bandits” are loaded code words for pastoralists. And so the killing continues. I am not optimistic, Sitawa, that thinking can help. The state’s solution is genocidal–against that, what can a call to rational or ethical debate do? The Kenyan police shoot first and listen never.

  4. Keguro, my argument has always been that re-settling is another kind of displacement of already displaced people because it is assumed that they will not go back to where they were displaced from — that their displacement is somehow valid, even legitimate. Thanks for this, has inspired me to write more, especially now that there is soon to be a court ruling about whether IDPs actually have a right to vote!

  5. Oh, my, on the voting issue. Had I the time, I’d like to think about the relationship between IDPs and refugees, especially as these become conflated in Northern Kenya. Because there’s a way, I think, that the refugee imagination, how we treat refugees (including those racialized and ethnicized as refugees) is precisely how we are treating IDPs, except IDPs don’t really have the limited options open to refugees: no country is going to offer refuge. And we fail them. When I get alarmist, I worry that the refugee and the IDP incarnate a potential relationship all citizens have to the state–not a banal “we are all IDPs now”–but to think through how IDPs (alongside those in slums) teach us something about a certain state system of indifference as management. But this, I confess, is in an alarmist register.

  6. Waigwa Ndiangui has a short story in the latest Caine Prize Anthology which some IDP stuff as its theme. Nothing earth shattering but it’s a simple and straightforward story which shows some of the things you talk about in this post.

  7. Thanks! I’ll take a look at that. I’d love to see more representations. Even as I think Kwani? 5 has incredible interviews in it worth revisiting at this moment.

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