I was negotiating one of Nairobi’s terrifying traffic circles — a maneuver that requires jumping over a lattice of open sewers while playing chicken with a line of trucks snorting their way toward Uganda and Congo — when I was confronted with a vision to chill the heart and drop the jaw. Twenty young Kenyan volunteers in T-shirts and caps printed with the candidate’s face were jiving and chanting on the back of a campaign truck as it trundled toward the Sarit Center shopping mall in Westlands: “Vote for Brother Paul!” It was my first day back in the city that was once my home, and I’d just caught a glimpse of what must surely be the overriding characteristic of this East African country’s forthcoming general elections: shamelessness. For Brother Paul, as he is known since he found God, was once plain Kamlesh Pattni, the smirking, mustachioed brains behind Goldenberg, the biggest financial scandal in Kenyan history. The scam, in which top officials looted public coffers by claiming compensation for phantom gold exports, sent the economy into a nose dive that cost Kenya at least 10 percent of G.D.P. in the 1990s. Yet Pattni clearly sees no reason why that awkward fact should bar him from office.
Maybe he’s not so crazy. Because forgetting past financial scandals is only one form of amnesia a dazed public is being asked to demonstrate come March 4. The presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and his running mate William Ruto, a Kalenjin, are asking millions to effectively lobotomize themselves as they enter the voting booths, blanking out everything they saw five years ago. The Kikuyu are the largest and most economically successful tribe; the Kalenjin, a looser ethnic grouping, come second in size. Kenya’s last three presidents have all been either Kikuyu or Kalenjin.
After the 2007 election Kikuyu and Kalenjin militias were given machetes, spears and cash payments, trucked to where they could do most damage and let loose on rival ethnic communities. Houses and churches were burned; businesses were looted. Refugees went on exoduses, only to find their way often cut off by flaming roadblocks. Many analysts believe that the official estimate of more than 1,000 deaths is a laughable underestimation.
Now, thanks to an alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto, who both face trial before the International Criminal Court for allegedly organizing the violence, attackers and victims are being asked to become buddies. Anything to keep Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo who almost certainly should have won the 2007 election, from becoming president. Kenya has a tradition of strained tribal coalitions, but few have been more grotesque, or demanded more torturous mental acrobatics of scarred constituencies, than this.