Kenyans were cynical about their political establishment long before the latest election violence. One wisecrack doing the rounds since last year says “there is more chance of a Luo becoming president of the United States than president of this country” – referring to Barack Obama, whose father hails from the same ethnic Luo country in western Kenya as Raila Odinga, challenger to the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki of the Kikuyu tribe.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in the violence following the announcement by Kenya’s electoral commission that Kibaki somehow pulled back from a million-vote deficit to win re-election. This has prompted dire warnings that the country risks a political meltdown along ethnic-tribal lines.
But there are problems with this analysis. First, while Kenya’s tribal divisions are a proximate cause, they are not the underlying source of the bloodshed. Second, Kenya’s stability has always been tenuous; the current battle lines were drawn at least since Kibaki was soundly defeated by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement in a 2005 referendum on the Constitution.
In fact, the underlying cause of the violence is endemic political corruption and flawed governance by Kenya’s political elite. Upon coming to power in a clean election in 2002, Kibaki dismantled his National Alliance Rainbow Coalition and concentrated power – and access to wealth and patronage – in a cabal of cronies drawn down from the foothills of the Kikuyu dominated region just north of Nairobi. Odinga was a key member of Kibaki’s 2002 team but lost out in the post-election power shake-up, leaving the two men bitter rivals.
Kibaki government had legitimate successes: consistent 6 percent annual economic growth after years of stagnation; the introduction of universal free primary education; the revitalization of tourism. But this meant little in the minds of many voters daunted by the prospect of another opaque, Kikuyu-dominated government coming on the back of an almost-certainly rigged election.
Many media reports in the past painted too rosy a picture of Kenya’s stability and relative prosperity compared to its neighbors. Sudan has seen war for all but 11 years since independence in 1956, with over two million dead; Somalia remains a failed state, too lawless for most aid agencies to work in; Congo’s war has left five million dead; and northern Uganda was, until last year, ravaged by a millenarian cult known as the Lords Resistance Army, best known for mutilating villagers and abducting children as soldiers and sex slaves.
By comparison, Kenya certainly has not imploded. But election-time clashes killed hundreds of people in 1992 and 1997, and in 1982 hundreds of others died as the result of a failed coup.
Nairobi – aptly-nicknamed Nairobbery – is a dangerous city, infamous for violent break-ins and car-jackings. Kenya’s borderlands with Ethiopia and Somalia are bandit territory, where the easy availability of small arms gives nomadic bandits and smugglers the means to hijack and rob at will. Despite $16 billion in foreign aid since independence and the recent economic growth, more than 50 percent of Kenyans live in poverty. Those living in the country’s arid northern and eastern areas are as poor and marginalized as any in Africa.
In May 2007, a report funded by the Swedish government outlined the degree of political and economic favoritism granted to the Kikuyu stronghold in Central Province – where Kibaki took 97 percent of the vote in the recent election. Although the report exaggerated the figures, making it seem that Central paid much less in taxes than other regions, the damage was done.
All too often in Africa, politics is played as a zero-sum game. The state is often seen as a cash cow to be captured and retained at all costs. Power-grabs by particular ethnic groups are nothing new. But when combined with institutional graft and cronyism, it can be explosive. Kenya has not bucked the trend, and the post-election violence is not the surprise some observers would have us believe.
Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin ethnic groups saw the elections as a means to take their turn to eat from the lavish table of power at the expense of deposed rivals, perpetuating the dynamic that saw party and candidate votes coalesce on ethnic lines. Rewards for one’s colleagues and allies must be doled out – whether this transpires after an election victory or triumph in a civil war.
Unlike Uganda and Ethiopia, official aid is not a major factor in Kenya’s economy, which is buttressed by a lucrative tourist trade and has a relatively efficient tax collection system. Nairobi also provides a multitude of UN agencies and NGOs with a regional base for field operations in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and the Congo, activities that provide 20 percent of Kenya’s foreign exchange. But aid donors have not put sufficient pressure on Nairobi to curb official corruption.
With Chinese investment growing – and much of Kenya’s banking now done in Dubai – Western influence is limited.
Given these realities, perhaps an effective way to influence Kenya would be to discourage tourism, forcing its leaders to establish a mental link between corrupt government and empty hotels. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound: During the recent violence, a warning by the British Foreign Office advising travelers to avoid Kenya was followed hours later with some conciliatory statements from both Kibaki and Odinga.
Both Odinga and Kibaki have traded mutual allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing. But while the deaths of hundreds of people and the displacement of thousands more is tragic, it is not genocide. Reckless language can spur more attacks and create an uncontrollable situation, irrespective of what political dialogue can be arranged in the coming days. But some form of an interim national unity government may yet be sorted out, perhaps paving the way for either a decisive recount or an election rerun.
Simon Roughneen has worked in Kenya as a journalist and for the development organization GOAL.Show