Who are the victims of Kenya’s Post-election violence (PEV)? And what would it mean to secure “justice” for them? What would “justice” look like, feel like, taste like, sound like? The farther away we’ve moved from the PEV, the more distant these questions have become. Justice, we have learned, has something to do with the law and legal arguments and lawyers’ abilities to argue and counter-argue. Justice, we have learned, is about the time of the argument—collecting evidence, verifying it, evaluating witnesses, intimidating them, diplomatic negotiations, diplomatic failures, winning elections, losing elections, blaming victims, victimizing blame. Justice, it seems, has very little to do with people to whom specific things happened.
As with 9/11, in which every U.S. resident, citizen or not, was deemed injured and subsequently recruited to participated in the surveillance state—if you see something, say something—the PEV has been used to recruit Kenyans as infinitely vulnerable, woundable subjects, whose task is to build armor, or, more precisely, don Kevlar vests that prevent such wounding. In the years since the PEV, those of us who experienced the violence from a distance have been made proximal through exhibitions and stories, traumatized by our second-hand experiences. While I do not want to minimize the labor of witness and exhibition, I wonder what happens when we claim a trauma equal to those who witnessed their loved ones killed in brutal ways.
What does it mean to claim we are all victims of the PEV?
Even those accused of aiding and abetting the violence, the ICC 3, describe themselves as political victims of the violence. They merit as much prayer—with anointing oil—as those whose families and friends died under brutal conditions. The pain of the political class is always much more significant than the wananchi’s. And in an even more recent twist, we are told that the real victims are, variously, African sovereignty, African dignity, Kenya, and Kenyan masculinity.
News arrives that 93 witnesses for the ICC have withdrawn from the case. That is, 93 victims of PEV violence have withdrawn. Their reported statement is heartbreaking:
“The utterances of the prosecution against our government threatens the process of national healing and reconciliation. Our peaceful coexistence as a community is much more important.”
Is “our government” the same as “Our . . . community”? And what does it mean to understand oneself as an obstruction to “national healing and reconciliation”? It’s worth remembering that PEV victims have been actively constructed as undeserving criminals for the past few years: lazy, unmotivated, liars, and cheats. The burst of sympathy and goodwill from early 2008 has been transformed to disgust and contempt. We have been taught to regard PEV victims as irritants who are holding us back, as incarnating a “bad time” that was a “little mistake” when “passions were inflamed.”
And we have been told that anything is worth doing (silencing, suppressing, repressing, arresting, disappearing) to maintain peace. At a moment when peace increasingly means not irritating those in power.