The admittedly dire situation unfolding in Kenya today–where violence has flared up in Nairobi, Eldoret, Kisumu, Mombasa and elsewhere–is not another Rwanda. The underlying crisis is more like that of Ukraine, where, four years ago, an election commission also rigged the results in favor of one candidate and a commanding majority of the people rose up in protest, forcing a cancellation of the fraudulent election and, ultimately, a revote that installed Viktor Yushchenko as president. Raila Odinga has yet to get his revote. But he has vowed not to negotiate with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki until the latter admits the election was stolen and resigns. (In an unusual coincidence, the banner color of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, like Yushchenko’s, is also orange.)
Running clearly ahead in all major polls leading up to the December 27 election, Odinga, by the government’s own figures published on an official website, won four of the eight regions of the country outright and ran a dead heat in two others. President Kibaki clearly led in only two regions–his stronghold Central Province and the sparsely populated Eastern Province. One by one, electoral commission officials have broken down on national television and recanted their certification of the results. The government, which swore Kibaki back into office in a stealth ceremony more akin to a coronation, has now resorted to a jury-rigged national security state–suppressing the freedom of assembly and partially muzzling the press–to keep the sordid truth from coming out.
It’s already too late. The United States quickly rescinded its ill-advised congratulations to Kibaki, and the “Preliminary Report of EU Observers” was a damning indictment of irregularities. These occurred not on election day but in the drawn-out three-day postelection vote count, in which Odinga’s initial lead of more than 1 million votes mysteriously shrunk to a squeaker loss to the incumbent. Outrage is now growing worldwide at what is essentially a state-triggered wave of ethnic violence and needless bloodshed.
Calls for peace to prevail cannot sidestep the present chaos, which has its roots not in “atavistic tribalism” but in a bold power grab by a tight clique around the president. True, stifling of legitimate means of protest has given vent to violent means. But the Western penchant for “disaster porn” coverage hasn’t shed much light on the situation, as horrifying images of mayhem and murder inevitably lead to ill-informed speculations regarding long-suppressed hatreds boiling to the surface. CNN, for example, described the crisis as taking shape between a “majority” and “minority” tribe. In fact, Kenya is a polyglot nation of more than thirty different 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 unfounded fear that Kenyans can’t demonstrate peacefully only plays into the hands of the government–which can then present itself as a neutral arbiter of peace and security, when it is in fact the primary obstacle to both. The regime would love nothing better than a “cooling off” period during which to consolidate its illegitimate hold on power, with the ban the police have proclaimed on political assembly continued for purposes of “national healing.” But the true healing in Kenya came weeks earlier, when the three major candidates for president held massive rallies throughout the country, demonstrating the capacity of Kenyans to engage in vibrant debate without descending into chaos or bloodshed. Election day itself was tense but unifying, with high voter turnout throughout the country and a genuine expectation that the democratic gains of the previous, breakthrough election would be consolidated rather than, as has now happened, cast to the winds.
A tale of two cities is unfolding in Nairobi, as the middle class retreats to its protective enclaves to wait out the worst while people in large slums like Kibera, part of Odinga’s parliamentary constituency, are cordoned off from vital food and commodities, made prey to thuggish gangs and terrorized from exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. On election day, the voting queue was a grand, if temporary, social leveler. Now the fate of democracy seems to rest on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. Key voices in Kenyan civil society, such as Maina Kiai of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, are struggling to remind Kenyans that the breakdown of the past week is not permanent, and with luck, their democratic desires will continue to burn strong.
The way to end the tragic violence is to demand a speedy return to full democracy, transparency and accountability. Kenyans once looked to Kibaki as the man who could deliver all three; their disappointment in him has now turned to bewildered astonishment and anger that he would let Kenya burn rather than admit electoral defeat. Ironically, Odinga helped bring Kibaki to power five years ago by brokering a coalition of regional leaders to unseat longtime Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi. Kibaki chose to abandon the coalition that put him in the presidency, however, and to take advantage of the very executive powers he had vowed to curtail. Odinga and others rebelled against the president’s hand-tailored constitutional revisions, campaigning against them and ultimately quitting his government. Out of the referendum that rejected Kibaki’s constitution was born the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya, which split 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.
In Ukraine, repeated displays of people power on the streets peacefully but forcefully drew the attention and conscience of the world and unseated an illegitimate government. Kibaki’s greatest fear is a repeat of such people power. Much is riding on how events unfold now; peaceful demonstrators attempting to reach a rally called by Odinga were met today with tear gas and hoses. But vibrant demonstrations by the opposition should not precipitate further bloodshed. To the contrary, it is the only valid alternative to tragic and wasteful violence.