It is too simplistic to say that Kenya’s troubles stem from tribal differences, writes Simon Roughneen.
Kenyans were coyly cynical about their political establishment long before the violence following the presidential election last weekend.
One wisecrack doing the rounds since last year goes ‘‘there is more chance of a Luo becoming president of America than president of this country’’ – a reference to Barack Obama, whose father comes from the same ethnic Luo region in western Kenya as Raila Odinga, the challenger to the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, who is from the Kikuyu tribe.
While Kenya is often portrayed as a business-oriented tourist haven in a troubled region, more than 350 people have been killed in the past week since Kenya’s electoral commission announced that Kibaki somehow pulled back a million vote deficit to win the election.
Street violence, church massacres and foiled demonstrations followed, suggesting that Kenya risks political meltdown along ethnic-tribal lines.
After a US diplomatic intervention, Kibaki said yesterday that he is ready to form a government of national unity to end the crisis that followed his disputed election. The president also said he may accept opposition demands for a fresh election, but only by court order. However, o n the streets the fighting continues.
While Kenya’s tribal divisions are a proximate cause, they are not the underlying source of the violence. Secondly, Kenya’s stability has always been tenuous, and the battle lines have been drawn at least since Kibaki was soundly defeated by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in a 2005 referendum on Kenya’s constitution.
Underlying the post-election violence is endemic political corruption and flawed governance by Kenya’s political elites. On acceding to power in the 2002 election, Kibaki’s National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) was dismantled, and Kibaki concentrated power – and access to wealth and patronage – in his ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’.
This cabal is drawn down from the foothills of Africa’s second highest mountain, which rises in the Kikuyu-dominated region north of the capital, Nairobi. Odinga was a key member of Kibaki’s 2002 team, but was dropped in the post-election shake-up, leaving the two men as bitter personal rivals.
Kibaki’s successes in government – consistent 6 per cent annual economic growth after years of stagnation, the introduction of universal free primary education, revitalising tourism – all paled in voters’ minds compared with the prospect of another opaque, Kikuyu-dominated government, this time on the back of an almost-certainly rigged election.
Many media reports in the past week painted too rosy a picture of Kenya’s historical stability or relative prosperity vis-a-vis neighbouring states.
To compare: Sudan has seen war for all except 11 years since independence in 1956, with more than two million dead.
Somalia remains a failed state, too lawless for most aid agencies to work in. The Congo endured the most destructive war since World War II – measured in absolute human losses – with five million dead between 1998 and 2007.
Northern Uganda was, until last year, ravaged by a millenarian cult known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, best known for abducting children as soldiers and sex slaves, and cutting off the tongues, lips and ears of villagers who resisted.
Kenya has not imploded to such an extent, but election-time clashes in 1992 and 1997 killed 2,000 people. A similar number died after a failed 1982 coup attempt. Nairobi – nicknamed Nairobbery – is a dangerous city, with high car-jacking rates and violent armed break-ins.
Kenya’s northern and eastern borderlands with Ethiopia and Somalia are remote bandit territory, with cheap small arms giving herders, nomads and smugglers the means to hijack and rob at will. Road travel is undertaken with extreme caution and rarely without armed escort.
Despite $16 billion in foreign aid since independence, and the recent economic growth, more than half of Kenyans live in poverty. In 2006, more than three million Kenyans in arid northern and eastern areas were threatened by a severe drought and ensuing food shortage, and ethnic groups in these regions are as poor and marginalised as any in Africa.
All too often in Africa, politics gets played as a zero-sum game. The state is viewed as a cash cow to be captured and retained at all costs – as played out in numerous civil wars in recent years. The phenomenon of power-grabs by particular ethnic groups is not new and, when combined with institutional graft and cronyism, it has made for an explosive dynamic. Kenya has not bucked that trend.
The ODM election sloganeering went ‘Now it’s our turn to eat’. Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin ethnic groups saw the elections as a means to take their turn on the podium, ‘to eat’ from the lavish table at the expense of deposed rivals, perpetuating the dynamic that saw party and candidate votes coalesce on ethnic lines.
Rewards must be doled out to one’s colleagues and allies, whether this transpires after an election win or triumph in a violent civil war. As with Kenya last week, even in an ostensibly viable democracy, this dynamic can result in violence and conflict.
Unlike nearby states such as Uganda and Ethiopia, official aid is not a major factor in Kenya’s economy. Instead, it is buttressed by lucrative tourism revenues, and the tax collection system works relatively well. However, there has not been sufficient pressure on Nairobi to curb corruption, and many remain content with the facade of stability – now shown to be hollow – in a regional hub for Barclays, British American Tobacco, Diageo and Unilever.
Nairobi also provides a regional base camp for the field operations of UN agencies and NGOs in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and the Congo. With Chinese investment growing, and much Kenyan banking now done in Dubai, western influence is limited, although Kenya remains a key US ally, dating to at least the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
Other than a highly unlikely military intervention, perhaps the most effective western gambit would be to stifle tourism, making leaders establish a mental link between corrupt government and empty hotels.
Interestingly, a blanket warning by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advising against travel to Kenya was followed hours later by conciliatory noises from both Kibaki and Odinga.
Since Kibaki indicated some willingness to talk late last week, some form of interim national unity government may be sorted out, perhaps paving the way for either a decisive recount or a rerun of the presidential election.
However, allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing by both sides last week could threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With mob footsoldiers attuned to the words of their political leaders, language can spur more attacks and create an uncontrollable situation, irrespective of what political dialogue can be arranged in the coming days.
Simon Roughneen has worked in Kenya as a journalist and with the Goal aid agencyShow