Aidan Hartley

Kenya election: bullets and the economic boom

It’s a time of hope for machine-gun-toting criminals — and, ultimately, for me

Kenya election: bullets and the economic boom
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The bandit opened fire at me from a distance of about six feet. He rose out of darkness and pumped three bullets into my car as I drove slowly through my neighbour’s farmstead gate in time for supper. The shots were loud but what I remember most is the muzzle flashes showering sparks across the windscreen. I assumed that my guest from London, who was sitting in the passenger seat closest to the ambush, must be dead — until he asked calmly, ‘Are you all right?’

I floored the accelerator and as we sped away the attacker fired eight more shots at us — we later counted the bullet casings — failing to make any more direct hits though ricochets splashed off trees or walls along the garden drive and fragments peppered my car flanks and burst a tyre. A mist of black oil spurted from the engine.

Outside the house I halted and we jumped out of the vehicle. Fresh shots were crackling all around us. There were two more gunmen, but since it was dark I could not see where they were. The lights were off in my neighbours’ house and I considered they might already be dead. Leading my astonished guest by the arm, we ran into the African bush and I found a wild caper tree for us to crouch under. As my eyes adjusted to the moonlit night, I heard my neighbour’s vehicle arrive. More gunfire erupted and then I heard a woman crying. ‘She’s being raped,’ said my London guest. ‘No,’ I whispered. ‘Somebody’s dead.’ It later turned out that, in this raid, nobody was killed. The woman was the farmer’s wife, who when she saw the oil pouring from my bullet-riddled car in the semi-darkness had taken it for pints of spilled blood.

After about 30 minutes the gunfire died down and I led my guest to the farmhouse, where we discovered all the lights on and music playing on the stereo. Our attackers were Samburu livestock rustlers taking advantage of Kenya’s election time.This happens every five years. Elections should be times of solemnity and even joy, when people get the chance to contribute to change. But I dread elections.

Our ambush occurred two days before Kenya went to the polls. Armed rustlers had already attacked our place and robbed cattle on two previous nights. I rang all the senior officials responsible for security in my home district north of Mount Kenya to ask for help. They all said the same thing. All police and other security officers were deployed to the polling stations to prevent a repeat of the violence that followed the elections in 2007, when more than a thousand people were butchered. One official said he could neither protect our properties nor pursue the rustlers — whose tracks we followed so efficiently that we even knew where they lived and where our stock might be hidden. The official’s exact words were, ‘Do it yourself… Protect yourselves. There is nothing we can do.’

In the run-up to the elections, one of my neighbours’ farm was attacked four times over three nights by bandits carrying AK47, G3 and M16 rifles. Some 19 cattle and 125 sheep and goats were rustled. A man on a third farm had his foot blown off. From beyond the plains, reports arrived on the dry season winds of other raids between ethnic groups: three people wounded here, a man allegedly decapitated there, four bandits shot, dozens of stock rustled.

None of this reached the newspapers, which were desperate to avoid causing alarm that might trigger a repeat of last election’s panic. Kenyan social media lampooned foreign correspondents who dared suggest that the country faced any danger at all. Far from the twittersphere, our dusty valley took on a gothic reality. As night set in, my neighbours and I loaded our 12-bore shotguns, waiting for the next assault, which might involve up to 20 bandits at a time. My workers slept in the bush, afraid they would be slaughtered in their beds.

Election day came around and despite days and nights of tracking, of bullets and alarms, our company staff steadfastly demanded to exercise their democratic right to cast their votes. Off they drove to queue for hours in the hot sun. The foreign hacks in carefully worded tweets and bulletins praised Kenyans for behaving peacefully, using words like ‘noble’ and ‘dignified’. I was in a sulk until I walked into a polling station and saw the multitude of ordinary people — impoverished, beaten down by decades of misrule, but here in their crowds and crowds. I thought of all the elections I have witnessed in Kenya. I felt the scar on my head from pro-democracy riots in 1990 when I was a young journalist and a policeman beat me on the head with a club in a prison cell.

Days later the results came in — and it took days because as usual things didn’t quite work as they should in Kenya, which had invested in very expensive voting technology that broke down, so the votes had to be counted by hand anyway. Uhuru Kenyatta won with a big lead over his rival Raila Odinga. The British and Americans murmured about there being ‘consequences’, because Mr Kenyatta is standing trial at The Hague later this year, accused of being one of those who orchestrated the post-election violence in early 2008. The election losers and their supporters are unhappy and allege a rig, but they will take it to the courts rather than on to the streets.

But as one who lives in Kenya, where everything I love is, my relief that the elections were over was intense. And I can’t be the only one. The Nairobi Stock Exchange, which has already risen 50 per cent in a year, is in super-drive. Property prices are rising faster here than anywhere else in the world. There’s talk of Kenya’s oil discoveries being so huge that we may be ranked 13th  in the world. We have a new constitution that nobody can pay for, but Kenya could probably survive without foreign aid even if it was taken away today.

As the sun came up on the morning of the election results, I watched an old bull elephant drink at the dam. He splooshed mud over his back and flapped his ears at me. Back at the farm I found a policeman waiting for me. ‘I am sorry for what happened to you,’ he said. ‘But it’s all over now.’