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Kenya's displaced left in limbo

In this 20 September 2013 article in the Mail & Guardian, Bertha Kang’ong’oi visits the plight of those displaced by the violence that followed the contested 2007 elections in Kenya. Bertha sought to write a feature that avoided the pitfalls of a highly politicized issue.

She sits across the room in the small shanty, gazing above our heads, perhaps at the ceiling, or at the glossy picture of Jesus hanging behind us, in a flowing white gown, the Lord’s Prayer flowing across his frock. Or maybe she is looking at the president’s red and white campaign flag fixed to the wall, next to Jesus.

Even when Martha Gathoni (19) looks straight at us, she seems to stare through us. It has been way too long for her, this hoping and waiting, with promise after promise from government officials, priests, nongovernmental organisation workers, and other Good Samaritans.

They arrive at the camp with smiles and assurances, and then disappear, never to be seen again.

“Everybody has been trying to take advantage of us,” reflects Gathoni. “People show up, take down our names and listen to our stories, promise to help – and then we never see them again.”

As the International Criminal Court at The Hague begins the trials of the alleged instigators of the violence that claimed 1113 lives after Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections, many of those who were forced to flee their neighbourhoods and villages are still waiting. President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are among the three men indicted, creating an unprecedented situation at the ICC and a cause célèbre within the country.

But while eyes turn to the televised proceedings, it seems as though the nation’s attention is drawn further from the more than 7000 families still stuck in deplorable camps.

It has been five years since Gathoni’s father died. The family was still at a temporary camp, near the shores of Lake Nakuru, to where hundreds of families like hers fled the violence, perpetuated by gangs of youth armed with machetes and other ad hoc weapons.

Gathoni breaks down when she talks of her father’s death. To her, his death marks the beginning of all the pain that she has had to endure. It should have been a sanctuary, a new beginning. He led his family safely away from the violence, but a heart attack took his life after they arrived at a temporary shelter.

As the new head of the family, Gathoni’s mother has wagered everything on the government’s promise to resettle each of the families on just under a hectare of land a short distance away in a town called Subukia, though a lawsuit over the ownership of that land could jeopardise the deal. Gathoni’s mother is so fearful of losing the plot to squatters, she stays there to protect it. Guarding her plot means she can’t return to her own work as a mechanic. She does odd jobs around Subukia, but it’s a pitiable income.

Perhaps unbeknown to Gathoni and to the thousands of displaced families at the time, former President Mwai Kibaki, after forming a coalition government, had set up a special committee to look into the issue of internally displaced people (IDPs), and to resettle them in 2008. Billions of shillings were set aside and, if all had gone as planned, Gathoni and family would already be resettled, either back to their farm in Keringet, or in an ­alternative location.

But all that political theatre seems quite distant from the reality here in Nakuru.

After the death of their father, Gathoni’s sister quickly recognised that continuing with school was near impossible. She got ­married – at just 13.

“We do not even know who she married, or where they live,” confesses Gathoni. “We’ve heard that she has two children now.”

That first committee commissioned by the president accomplished little. Money started to go missing. Some provincial administrators were reportedly cooking numbers and inventing ghost IDPs.

IDPs, real or imaginary, first received a payment of 10000 Kenyan shilling (Ksh) (R1123) per household to help them to “rebuild’”their lives. In a wise move, 966 families at the Nakuru showground camp pooled the money and bought an 11-hectare plot of land, enough for each family to construct a simple shelter, better than the inhuman conditions of the showground, but far from the land of promise. The area, a few kilometres from Nakuru, is known as Pipeline, but they call it “New Canaan”.

Gathoni’s family is one of the 966. She had just completed primary school and was offered a scholarship to a nearby high school. But by the end of that first year in high school, it was clear that the organisation that had promised to pay her fees would not honour its word. She was kicked out of school.

She attempted suicide.

“I really wanted to become a surgeon,” she says through her tears. “If only I could get just one more chance to go back to high school and graduate.”

The reality is that, two years after she was kicked out of high school, she got pregnant and delivered a baby boy. There is no father in sight. Gathoni alone cares for her now one-year-old son and two other children, a boy, eight, and a girl, six, whom a family friend bequeathed to Gathoni’s family on her death bed.

Five years since the violence that scarred the Rift Valley, two committees set up by the former president have each been disbanded and, a monumental Ksh6.1-billion later, Gathoni still has little that she can count on. Different arms of government point the blame at one another, and such is the lack of transparency, even the auditor general cannot confidently say where much of the money has ended up. In the end, only about 24% of the people displaced in the 2007-2008 post-election violence have been settled, according to official 2011 records.

The new government, championed by Uhuru Kenyatta of the National Alliance party (TNA) and William Ruto of the United Republican Party (URP), the grouping that won the March general election, received unreserved support from the IDP community, especially in the Rift Valley. One of the promises of the “jubilee coalition”, as the TNA and URP merger is known, was to settle all the IDPs affected by the post-election violence within the first 100 days in office.

It’s been more than 100 days. But in calculated timing, just a few days ago and before the trial of Ruto began at The Hague, he and the president visited an IDP camp in Naivasha and pledged even more money – Ksh400 000 per unsettled household.

It’s hard to tell exactly why, after five years and billions of shillings allocated and disbursed to IDPs, the last of the IDPs has not been resettled. It’s even harder to tell where the buck should stop. Money has been misappropriated, that’s a fact, though only a few small-time administrators have faced investigation, and it is not clear what has come of the charges raised.

A report, done in April last year by a parliamentary committee, was not able to account fully for all the money. The one thing that was clear was that there was gross misappropriation of funds in the whole IDP resettlement scheme, from the very beginning of the exercise in 2008.

While Gathoni waits for “those in Nairobi” to deliver on the promise of giving her some part of her life back, she makes about Ksh100 a day from doing manual jobs on nearby farms. All she can afford is to buy enough food for herself and the three ­children to eat one day at a time.

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Truth, trust the coverage of Kenya's IDPs

What does it mean to remain independent? What does it mean to remain impartial? Looking closely at the coverage of the IDP resettlement programme in Kenya - and looking behind the scenes at an effort to do something better - reveals some answers to these questions.

The Networked News Lab supported freelance journalist Bertha Kang’ong’oi to write about the Kenyans who were displaced by the violence that followed the contested 2007 elections.

The brutal attacks on fellow neighbours and villagers in parts of the country where political and ethnic fault-lines had aligned left 1133 people dead, forced 663,921 people to flee their homes and left an indelible mark on the nation.

As Bertha researched her story, at least 7,000 families were still residing in makeshift camps, unable to return to their homes, and waiting on government promises to resettle them. And many thousands more remained dispersed at the homes of relatives. The government has since changed its approach, giving the resettlement funds  directly to the IDPs, and ordered all the camps to be closed (though that too is the topic of controversy and uncertainty).

After looking at how polarized the coverage of IDPs had been, how openly partisan the debate, Bertha sought to find a narrative that avoided the political pitfalls of the story, while preserving her journalistic role as watchdog. The experiment shed some light on the challenge of finding truth when no on can be trusted.

Politicized coverage of the IDPs

When the resettlement of IDPs was at the apex of its politicization – from late 2009 to early 2010 – news media achieved impartiality by shuttling between the different sides of the political conflict. The story became about who is to blame for malfeasance and delays in the programme – but a close reading of the coverage suggests that this only served to obscure the real nature of the problem; the reader is bombarded by a confusing series of accusations and recriminations. Here are some examples, based purely on media reports, of what a reader would have to untangle.

In late 2009, an audit report by the President’s office accuses the Ministry of Special Programmes (then aligned with Prime Minister Raila Odinga) of squandering Ksh. 200 million intended to assist IDPs. The Minister accuses the report of partisanship, and returns with her own accusations, saying officials at presidency had tried to profit from plan to purchase land for IDPs, and saying Treasury had the money – not her ministry. Treasury later responds in November, saying money for IDPs had been distributed between the Ministry of Lands (also run by an ally of Prime Minister Odinga), the Ministry of Special Programmes and Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security.

By June 2010, charges are brought against 22 District Commissioners and more than 50 District Officers for embezzling up to Ksh. 500 million of funds. Media accounts are contradictory as to whether the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security or the Ministry of Special Programmes had the responsibility of supervising the distribution of funds that were allegedly embezzled. To our knowledge, media never reported whether any officials were ever found guilty.

Just to demonstrate that this treatment of the story was not unique to the 2009-2010 period, we looked at another politicized moment in 2011. In this instance, there were contradictory accounts as to whether land-owners were delaying the resettlement by refusing to accept the price offered by the government, and a volley of allegations from both sides of the political divide of “playing politics” with the issue.

Truth in the eye of the beholder

Reading the coverage of the IDP resettlement programme from even just from one paper (we focused on The Nation), a reader would be unable to reconcile the contrasting accounts of the corruption and delays. Rather, they would forced to make a choice – to believe one account or another. This choice, it seems, can only be made based on how the reader assesses the credibility of the source. In this way, impartiality is achieved through the “right to reply,” but this technique seems likely to perpetuate partisanship amongst the audience. Furthermore, there is an assumption underlying much of the coverage that this issue is merely two-sided.

While many of the human-interest features on IDPs had successfully sidestepped partisanship, they often did so by sacrificing their watchdog role. This Nation story from 24 August 2012 is illustrative of this: there is no mention of how the system has failed the young boy profiled in the story.

A more independent frame?

But could Bertha, who was acutely aware of these issues, do any better?

First of all, it is virtually impossible to independently verify how much money was allocated where and for what based on government records. As Nicholas Benequista previously wrote on his personal blog, the funding for IDPs is not fully accounted for in the Printed Estimates that are available to the public; most of the resettlement funding appears to be “off-budget.” Getting figures requires personal contacts within the ministries – and those whom Bertha contacted (even at Treasury) all confessed they were unlikely to have all the numbers.

Frustrated by the situation, Bertha turned to other sources closer to the ground; she spoke to some of the NGO workers who had served the IDPs and she travelled to Nakuru to report the story directly from the viewpoint of the IDPs and the people who purport to represent them.

While the NGO workers Bertha contacted seemed in their concern for IDPs genuine (though not all NGO workers are, as her story suggests), they could not speak with authority about the problems within the government programme for resettlement. Their experience may have been suggestive, but it was not definitive.

Those who represent the IDPs seemed partisan to Bertha; they were eager to apportion blame to one political camp (or another, depending).

The IDPs themselves seemed the only hope for truth – and yet even their experience is partial. They are not privy to the decisions that have affected them and rely on interlocutors who (as above) seem to have a political agenda.

In the end, Bertha avoids the partisan framing of the story with a grim proposition that all are to blame – that no one involved is genuinely concerned with the fate of the IDPs.

Truth and trust in the newsroom

There is one other difference that separates Bertha’s story from those by the Nation or Standard. Bertha is a freelancer – free from the politics of the newsroom. And in our many conversations at the Networked News Lab about political reporting, it has become clear that journalists in newsrooms have an extra disadvantage. An effort to do investigative journalism, to define an overarching narrative for a story, is often greeted with suspicion by editors and fellow journalists.

And so the challenge in newsrooms is especially difficult. With little trust amongst colleagues, even less between journalists and their sources, and no means of easy verification, it is easy to settle into the cynical opinion that there is no truth – or just as cynically, that the truth is just too bleak to report.