An important shift has taken place in how we think about Displaced Kenyans. As their ongoing presence in unsafe, makeshift camps rife with disease and sexual violence continues to embarrass our national leaders, our leaders are experiencing compassion fatigue.
Displaced Kenyans are increasingly portrayed as stubborn children who resist the government’s resettlement schemes. Once objects of compassion, they are now victims who revel in their victimhood.
William Ruto, the controversial minister for Agriculture, is one of these figures leading what, borrowing from the U.S., we might call compassionate conservatism. As the Daily Nation reports, Ruto says that Displaced Kenyans should be re-settled on their farms by the government.
Obviously, the irony is lost on Ruto that the very agents whose vacillations and falsehoods led to displacement now seek to re-settle Displaced Kenyans.
Even more troubling, Ruto is blind to ongoing ethnic tensions. In responses to expressed fears that further violence might break out on farms, Ruto brashly argues that “peace” has returned to Kenya. In a Kenya where ethnic groups across affected areas have vowed “never again,” it is worrying, though not surprising, to see Ruto remain deaf to chatter on the ground.
It is not surprising because by claiming that peace has returned, Ruto can re-fashion Displaced Kenyans as self-created victims, people who stubbornly refuse to move on, even though they have been given every opportunity. Worse, like those infamous “welfare queens” in the U.S., who supposedly took government welfare checks and drove around in expensive cars, a lie peddled to great effect by Ronald Reagan, Displaced Kenyans seem to want their status.
In what is probably the most callous statement of the year so far, Franklin Bett, the minister for Roads, has claimed that some Kenyans are “masquerading” as poll victims to defraud the government.
Apparently, the status of Displaced Kenyan carries some kind of status and prestige and cons have decided to cash in.
By claiming that some Displaced Kenyans are not really displaced, Bett not only diminishes the ongoing struggles faced by Displaced Kenyans, struggles to find clean water, sanitary waste disposal spaces, adequate food, money for school fees, personal and familial safety, and desperately needed medical attention, he also, sadly, transforms Displaced Victims from victims of systemic government corruption and failure into criminals.
There is no pride in being a Displaced Kenyan. It is a shame-filled terrible state. Many of those in camps once had flourishing farms and businesses. These were destroyed in terrible and tragic circumstances, and many were lucky to escape with their lives, though their families were destroyed and many continue to carry physical and psychic scars that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Displaced Kenyans are not criminals, nor are they opportunistic victims looking to get free handouts from the government. If they stay in unsanitary and unsafe camps because they believe the threat of violence is too great for them to return to whatever remains of their homes , many of which were burned and utterly destroyed, then the government needs to take their concerns seriously.
Instead, by criminalizing Displaced Kenyans, leaders such as Ruto and Bett reveal their own lack of compassion, their lack of understanding about the plight of the very people they claim to represent and serve.
Displaced Kenyans are not strangers. They are us. And their tragedy is not theirs alone. It is our tragedy and our shame. We cannot, must not, let the government criminalize them and abrogate its responsibilities to them and to us.