Kenyan polls spark tribal battles – ISN

Logo ISN

Ethnic fires have been stoked by long-running graft and political cronyism, and Kenya’s much-touted stability was always tenuous at best.

By Simon Roughneen

Despite violence in Darfur, Somalia, eastern Congo and the Niger Delta, welcome and belated Africa-optimism was peddled among diplomatic and investment circles throughout 2007.

Continent-wide economic growth and some tentative conflict resolution successes – as well as growing engagement by China, India and Dubai – prompted western analysts to talk up Africa’s prospects, albeit within a monolithic paradigm.

However, just last week, Kenya’s flawed election results and ensuing violence have undermined such optimism given the country’s status as a stable and relatively prosperous one in a troubled region.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer followed South African Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu to Nairobi, where she met disputed presidential victor Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga, who claims he won the election.

International observers encountered numerous flaws in the counting process, including inexplicable differences in Kibaki’s tallies at local and national levels. French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher was typically undiplomatic, saying flat-out that the election was “rigged.”

Some optimism came out of Frazer’s meetings, held 4 and 5 January, when Kibaki offered a unity government – which Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) chief Odinga has spurned for now, demanding Kibaki step aside before any progress can be made.

The latter has signaled a willingness to re-run the elections, but only if directed to by a judiciary, which the opposition perceives as compromised.

As such, Kenya’s Mexican stand-off continues, with Odinga planning what he hopes will be mass rallies in the coming week, after similar moves last week were unceremoniously thwarted by riot police.

Unraveling the Kenyan fable

For many years, Kenya Inc has traded as a business-oriented tourist haven in a troubled region. However, more than 300 people were killed in the days following the 30 December announcement that Kibaki had retained the presidency, after trailing for much of the count. But a local media blackout means that the true death toll may be far higher.

It must be said that Kenya, bar some brief exceptions, has not seen the blood-letting inflicted in neighboring countries.

To compare: Sudan has seen war for all bar 11 years since independence in 1956, with over 2 million dead; Somalia remains a failed state, too insecure for most aid agencies to work in; the Congo’s multinational war caused 5 million deaths between 1998-2007 – the most any war anywhere since World War II; and northern Uganda was terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a psychopathic cult best known for abducting children as soldiers and sex slaves and cutting out tongues, lips and ears from villagers in its path.

But the beach-and-safari luster propagated by Kenyan tourist brochures does not hide currently widening fissures.

In 1992 and 1997, clashes during elections killed 2,000 people. Odinga served six years in prison for his role in a failed 1982 coup attempt that caused a similar number of casualties. For all its investment banker-oriented and UN bureaucrat-friendly nightclubs, restaurants and shopping, Nairobi – aptly-nicknamed Nairobbery – is a perpetually dangerous city, with high car-jacking rates and violent armed break-ins.

Indian Ocean beaches lure a continuous western influx, but are also rife with sex tourism. The luxury-lodge, safari-going south is a world away from the ethnic-Somali and Turkana northern and eastern borderlands with Ethiopia and Somalia. The latter regions are arid bandit country, with cheap small arms giving herders, nomads and smugglers means to hijack and rob at will (road travel here is undertaken with extreme caution and rarely without armed escort).

And despite US$16 billion in foreign aid since independence, and the recent economic growth, over 50 percent of Kenyans live in poverty. In 2006, over 3 million Kenyans in the aforementioned northern and eastern areas were threatened by a severe drought and ensuing food shortage, and ethnic groups in these regions are as poor and marginalized as any in Africa.

After a Rwanda-style church massacre on New Year’s Day, unknown numbers of murders and rapes in Nairobi’s slums and polarized ethnic divisions have continued to underwrite violence that has displaced around 250,000 people.

The Luo and the Kalenjin have purged the Kikuyu from western provinces and the Rift Valley, while violence in Nairobi’s slums have sparked rumors that the LRA-esque Mungiki sect, a mainly Kikuyu cult-cum-mafia, will be deployed to terrorize the Luo and others in return. Hitherto tranquil Kenya risks political meltdown along ethnic and tribal lines.

A familiar tale, with a Kenyan twist

So goes the typecasting. However, Kenya’s tribal divisions are a proximate cause, rather than the underlying source of last week’s violence. Second, the country’s stability has historically been rattled by elections and remains compromised by the winner-take-all perception that goes with the Kenyan political turf.

Kibaki’s successes in government – averaging 6 percent annual economic growth after years of stagnation under the Daniel Arap Moi dictatorship; introducing universal free primary education; and revitalizing 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.

With an estimated 22 percent of the population, the Kikuyu is Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Its members have the best socio-economic indicators of any tribe and dominated during the first two decades of independence under Jomo Kenyatta. The Luhya and the Luo are the second and third largest groups with 14 and 13 percent respectively. Both are based in Kenya’s two western provinces, with significant Luo populations crammed into Nairobi’s heaving and filthy slums, the site of multiple homicides, mutilations and gang-rapes during last week’s turmoil. Moi’s Kalenjin, dominant throughout the 1980s and 1990s, comes next with 12 percent. These are the largest of Kenya’s 40-plus ethnic groups.

Ethnic divisions have been provoked by Odinga in response to endemic political corruption among and flawed governance by Kenya’s political elites. Upon acceding to power in a clean 2002 election, Kibaki’s National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) was dismantled, undermining a multi-ethnic alliance that easily defeated Moi’s handpicked successor. That coalition replicated the steamroller Kikuyu-Luo partnership that forced the UK to relinquish colonial rule in 1963.

After that triumph, Kibaki concentrated power – and access to wealth and patronage – in his “Mount Kenya Mafia,” which took all the key ministries. This cabal of cronies is drawn down from the foothills of the eponymous mountain rising in the ethnic-Kikuyu dominated region just north of Nairobi. Odinga was a key member of Kibaki’s 2002 team, but was shafted during the power shake-up after the elections, leaving the two men as bitter personal rivals.

In May 2007, a Swedish government-funded report 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 last week’s presidential election. Although the document exaggerated the figures, making it seem that Central paid much less tax than other regions, the damage was done.

In Kenya, region is codeword for tribe. Some jaw-droppingly audacious multi-trillion shilling scams reaching into the highest levels of Kibaki’s government added ethnic fuel to a graft-ridden fire that burned anti-corruption watchman John Githongo, exiled to London in 2005. Odinga’s multi-ethnic coalition conflated graft with a sense of haves and have-nots. With American lobbyist Dick Morris on board, they implied Kibaki was but a front man for corrupt Kikuyu dominance.

Most protagonists see African power politics in zero-sum terms. Elections fought along identity lines lead to power grabs by particular ethnic groups – almost a guarantee when institutional graft and cronyism dominate. Kenya in 2007 did not buck the trend, so the post-election violence is not as surprising as some would have us believe.

The ODM election slogan “It’s our turn to eat” reflected this view. To the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin ethnic groups, the elections presented a means by which they could take their turn on the podium – to dine from the lavish political table at the expense of deposed rivals, thus perpetuating the dynamic that saw party and candidate votes coalesce along ethnic lines.

An uncertain future

Kenyans had plenty of reservations about their political establishment long before last week’s post-election violence. As one joke goes, “There is more chance of a Luo becoming president of America than president of this country” – referring to US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose father hails from same western Kenyan Luo heartland as Odinga,

Given Obama’s big win in the Iowa caucus last week and Odinga’s failure to stage mass protest rallies in his honor in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, that wisecrack seems even more salient now.

These days, official aid is not a major factor in Kenya’s economy, which is buttressed by lucrative tourism, and unlike much of Africa, has a functioning revenue system. Still, aid figures have been high, but have not improved the lot of average Kenyans (dollar-a-day poverty levels have risen above 50 percent during recent growth years) despite a growing and industrious middle-class.

Ignoring ample evidence in recent years, often provided by Kenya’s dogged media, donors have not put sufficient pressure on Nairobi to curb official corruption. Instead they have perpetuated the facile stability façade in a regional hub for field operations in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and the Congo. A multitude of UN agencies and NGOs run this activity from Nairobi, providing 20 percent of Kenyan foreign exchange.

With Chinese investment growing and much Kenyan banking now done in Dubai, western influence is limited. That does not mean the US will not attempt mediation, as per Frazer’s visit. To Islamist militants in Somalia, Kenya remains a key US ally, dating as far back as the 1998 al-Qaida bombings at US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Odinga sought the Muslim vote – mainly Kenyan Somalis – by pledging to loosen ties with Washington should he be elected.

If Kenya’s crisis continues, perhaps the most effective western gambit would be to stifle tourism, forcing leaders to establish a mental link between a corrupt government and empty hotels.

Interestingly, the UK government’s blanket warning on 3 January advising against travel to Kenya was followed hours later with some conciliatory noises later from both Kibaki and Odinga, prior to Frazer’s visit.

In the longer term, however, western military intervention cannot be ruled out, should Kenya’s crisis continue or worsen, given its pivotal role in east Africa.

In 2000, the UK made a decisive, if belated, entry into Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, where the geo-strategic and economic stakes were not nearly as high. And given Kenya’s vital role as a transport hub for the region, reports that Ugandan troops are gathering on its western border are unsurprising, given Kampala’s dependence on Kenya’s Mombasa port, and on a stable Kenya to enable essential goods such as fuel to reach Uganda. Much the same applies to Rwanda and Burundi.

Some short-term form of interim national unity government may be sorted out, perhaps paving the way for either a decisive recount or presidential election re-run. Kibaki’s apparently conciliatory words carry no weight, as according to Odinga, his position is illegitimate. The challenger stands accused of stoking tribal animosity to bolster his political ambitions.

Sticking to time-honored principles of irresponsible leadership, both men glibly spewed mutual allegations – in each case exaggerated beyond parody – of genocide and ethnic cleansing last week. But with mob foot soldiers attuned to political leaders’ words, such reckless use of language threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Follow us on Twitter