Kenya’s Crisis

Kenya’s Crisis

The way to end Kenya’s electoral violence is to demand a speedy return to full democracy, transparency and power-sharing.


Imagine that George W. Bush had himself sworn in on day three of the 2000 Florida recount in a White House ceremony so hastily thrown together they forgot to play the national anthem. Then imagine he declared an immediate ban on any further political rallies or live television broadcasts contesting his coronation. This scene should give Americans an approximation of what has happened in Kenya since December 29 and a sense of why the situation is so explosive. The roots of violence and chaos lie not in tribalism but in a bold power grab by a tight clique around the president.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, candidate of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), clearly ran ahead in all major polls leading up to the election. According to figures published on an official government website, he won four of Kenya’s eight regions outright and ran a dead heat in two others. President Mwai Kibaki led in only two: his stronghold Central Province and the Eastern Province. One by one, officials have broken down and recanted their certification of the election results, and the attorney general has promised an inquiry. The EU, France and now the United States have declared the vote rigged.

Hardliners in the government have apparently decided that if they can polarize the country enough, the opposition coalition around Odinga will splinter and Kenyans will be left with a bare-knuckled brawl between the Gikuyu and Luo tribes (with perhaps another fight brewing between Gikuyus and Kalenjins). They seem prepared to weather this tragic outcome, since they know that they have always prevailed in the past in this kind of ethnic one-on-one. In a further sign of intransigence, Kibaki has now named his Cabinet, in defiance of the expectation that ministers be sitting members of Parliament, which has not yet convened. The “losers,” if the hardliners get their way, will be the Kenyan people, whose hopes for democracy and a rising standard of living now lie in tatters as many flee for their lives, abandoning homes and livelihoods. Brave Kenyans and their international allies, such as those working with the NGO Common Hope for Health in the western region of the country, are delivering aid across ethnic lines, at the risk of their lives and in hopes of calming tensions. But Kenya cannot move forward without a political solution that pushes the hardliners aside.

The Western penchant for “disaster porn” coverage doesn’t shed much light on the situation, as horrifying images of mayhem and murder inevitably have led to ill-informed speculations regarding long-suppressed hatreds boiling to the surface. CNN, for example, described the crisis as taking shape between “majority” and “minority” tribes. In fact, Kenya is a polyglot nation of more than thirty ethnicities, none of which are a demographic majority. Tribal violence is an effect of the crisis provoked by the rigged election, not its cause.

The way to end the violence is to demand a speedy return to full democracy, transparency and accountability. This should include, at a minimum, some interim power-sharing beyond the fig leaf of “national unity,” and new presidential elections, conducted under auspices other than those of the now-discredited Electoral Commission. Key voices in civil society, such as the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Law Society of Kenya and the clergy, are struggling to remind Kenyans that this breakdown need not be permanent.

Kenyans once looked to Kibaki as a deliverer. In the 2002 elections, he carried Odinga’s stronghold province of Nyanza by the same commanding majority Odinga enjoyed this time around. Ironically, Odinga helped bring Kibaki to power by brokering a coalition of regional leaders to unseat longtime Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi. Kibaki, however, chose to abandon the coalition that put him in the presidency and to take advantage of the very executive powers he had vowed to curtail. (Full disclosure: my uncle was part of Kibaki’s government and is now Secretary General of the ODM.) Odinga and others rebelled against the president’s hand-tailored constitutional revisions. Out of the 2005 referendum that rejected Kibaki’s Constitution was born the ODM, which split last year to field two presidential candidates, only one of whom managed to break out of his ethnic enclave to command significant support across the country. That man, Raila Odinga, is also the only one who can now hold Kenya together democratically.

The way forward for Kenyans, to quote Alice Walker, is with a broken heart such as I face when hearing that Luos have been chased out of Limuru, the town where I spent my salad days. We know this ugly violence is not Kenya, but the sooner we admit that it has happened to us anyway, the quicker we will wrest this process from the hands of unscrupulous politicians and build a new, multicultural and more egalitarian society.

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