Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

January 2nd, 2008:

Kenya post-election violence: How can we defuse the crisis?

The nearly 200 dead bodies we have seen on the streets of Kenya over the past few days are the tragic outcome of a form of politics that is seriously sick, politics built on idolatry of power and money, a religion that Kenyan politicians have fostered and nourished ever since independence.

As I write, on the morning of 2 January, the tension on the streets of Nairobi, and in particular in Kibera, has diminished. Obviously, people need to get back to their normal life, to earn a little money. But news coming in from Western Kenya continues to be very alarming. On the other hand, the problems that triggered the violence are all still there. Over the coming weeks, when Parliament is convened, many political issues will come to the fore and it is likely that tensions will rise once again.

At this point, the possibility that electoral fraud was perpetrated appears very likely. It now appears clearly that intimidations – not necessarily actions of violence – were carried out on election day and that votes were bought in many polling stations. This concerns both parties fielding candidates for the Presidency, both PNU and ODM, although it is likely that these actions did not decisively influence the results. It is, however, clear evidence of anti-democratic attitudes. What probably was decisive was fraud during the counting process. At present, no one has sufficient evidence to determine clear responsibilities, to cast the blame. Personally, I have heard people telling me about vote buying by ODM on the coast, but these people are fearful of speaking out. The documentary evidence that ODM claims to possess, demonstrating large-scale vote-rigging during the counting process, has yet to be brought forth.

To understand the current Kenyan political context we must go back at least to 1982. After an attempted coup d’état, President Moi transformed Kenya into a brutal dictatorship, although keeping in place a few elements that maintained a semblance of democracy. It’s worth noting that he remained a faithful ally of Britain and the US, and a friend of the West. It would take too long to retrace the political career since 1982 of the two main protagonists, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Suffice it to say that, since then, they have both, at different stages, been allies of Moi, allies and rivals of everyone else and with each other. In the case of neither of these two politicians can we speak of an ideological position: it has always been a matter of creating alliances with the aim of grasping power. Both possess a vast personal wealth, and on occasion make great show of it. Raila’s hummer is famous: it’s a huge gas-guzzling SUV that Raila uses to visit Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi and part of his electoral constituency. In the case of both men, to believe that they are motivated by the will to serve the country, or that they stand for democracy, or uphold the cause of the poor, means to be the victim of a dangerous illusion. Their attitude was aptly described in an editorial in The Nation, on 1 January: “Neither the Party of National Unity nor the Orange Democratic Movement during the campaigns demonstrated any particular restraint or regard for the country’s stability. The mantra appears to have been: We either rule it or burn it.” An uncontrolled thirst for power, an urge to protect through power their wealth acquired by legal or not so legal means, is what drives the political activity of these parties.

But, having said this, it is necessary also to draw some distinctions. Ever since taking power five years ago, Mwai Kibaki has introduced some important reforms, such as free education for all eight years of primary school, such as guaranteeing freedom of expression and the press (for five years we have not had any political prisoners and certainly no political assassinations, as was the case under Moi; and, never in its history, has Kenya witnessed such a free election campaign as we had last month, etc.). Kibaki also introduced a whole series of economic measures that jump-started the economy which, during the last years of Moi’s rule suffered a negative growth trend: since 2004, Kenyan economy has been growing at over 5% a year. But two big failures have characterized Kibaki’s Presidency. The pervasive corruption, inherited after 24 years of Moi’s bad governance, was not fought as effectively or with the determination that the common citizens demanded. It’s true that corruption has been somewhat curtailed, but it is still a cancer pervading the entire Kenyan society. Furthermore, the new Constitution that Kibaki promised when he was elected has not yet been approved: thus, his promise to decentralize power was not honoured.

As for Raila Odinga, who joined the government as a member of Kibaki’s coalition five years ago, he then switched over to the opposition on the issue of the new Constitution. He succeeded in having Kibaki’s proposal defeated in a referendum two years ago. ODM was born out of the successful defeat of the proposed Constitution. Since then, Odinga has concentrated in his own hands the power of the ODM and has accentuated the tribal issue. For more than a year now, the slogan amongst the Luo (Raila’s ethnic group and dominant tribe in the ODM, like the Kikuyo are Kibaki’s ethnic group and the dominant tribe in PNU) has been: “It’s our turn to govern the country.” Recently, this slogan has become: “If we lose the elections, it means they have been stolen”. During the election campaign, Raila played two extremely dangerous cards. First, he promised to implement “majimboism”, a sort of regionalism that Moi had proposed in the 1990s and Raila had opposed at the time. He launched the proposal without specifying the characteristics of this majimboism; this led to fears – based also on Raila’s personal history – that it would be a rigid regionalism that would break up the country. After that, he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the notables of the Muslim community the details of which were never divulged. His adversaries, and many Christians, saw this MoU as a mistake since it appeared to distinguish among citizens based on their religion, which is clearly against the current Constitution and also against the draft Constitution proposed by the ODM.

Kibaki and his group, however, reacted against this campaign simply stressing the divisions, falling into the trap of ethnic stereotyping. The ethnicization of politics is thus to be blamed exclusively on the leaders. Let me quote the editorial from The Nation again, as it addresses both Raila and Kibaki: “Never has there been so much animosity between people who have lived together as good neighbours for many years. The chaos we are now experiencing is the handiwork of the tribal, economic and political elite, which identify with you.”

No one can deny that the ethnic aspect of the issue has become of central importance. No getting round it. Odinga first, but then also Kibaki and his party, over the past three years, for reasons of personal political opportunism, have undertaken a whole series of actions – in some cases intentionally, perhaps in others by mistake – that have fed ethnic animosity.

Both parties occasionally use, especially in critical moments, the support of Mungiki and organized and paid gangs of desperate, unemployed youths.

The Mungiki were established in the early 1990s as a Kikuyo community who wanted to return to their ancestral religion, the worship of Ngai (God) represented as Mount Kenya, etc. Slowly, though, this group degenerated into a sort of mafia. In Nairobi, for example, they controlled whole sections of public transportation, and they can mobilize their members even for violent and criminal actions. Nowadays the group includes non-Kikuyo as well, although they basically still identify with the defence of Kikuyo community and interests. Opposing this para-religious sect, gangs of young unemployed from Kibera, controlled by Raila Odinga, were formed: Raila has used these gangs to provoke unrest and street riots, on several occasions, obviously with the intention of getting people killed so as to turn the deaths to his own advantage. These are the two ugliest faces of the current clashes.

I am not sure what happened in other places: the news I have received has been partial and fragmented. But in Nairobi I can certainly say that the majority of people killed in the past few days were not killed in clashes with the police: they have been the victims of organized actions by these two groups. In Kawangware, where the Kikuyo are prevalent, they attacked the dwellings and the small craftsmen’s shops of the Luo. The opposite occurred in Kibera. Alas, as is always the case, the main victims were innocent and harmless people. On the morning of 31 December, after the night in which the worst violence exploded in Kibera, a Kamba friend of mine told me, with terror, that he had seen the bodies of four of his neighbours, four Kikuyo acquaintances of his, lying just a few yards from his own home. Their throats had been slit with kitchen knives. The same is happening in Eastern Kenya, as an Italian volunteer told me: the shops and homes of the few Kikuyo there are being systematically attacked, burned, and the owners are being “invited” to go back to their own region. The worst kind of majimboism.

We saw this crisis coming. But none of us had fully realized its destructive potential, the surge of tribalism that it contained. Opinion polls published by Kenyan media over the past few months showed how the people still held basic faith in the President, but placed less and less trust in his party. While many looked favourably upon the promises of change being made by the ODM, they were less enthusiastic about Raila himself, perceived as a politician with dictatorial tendencies. Thus, the results of the elections (assuming the official results are genuine) make the country ungovernable: a President in whose hands many powers are invested, but who can only rely on a minority in Parliament and therefore cannot govern. And a tribal rivalry which has spiralled out of control, even out of the control of those who unleashed it.

And both sides now appear to be frozen in positions that refuse dialogue. A Kikuyo journalist friend of mine said, and I think his words represent a widely shared opinion: “I voted in my constituency for an ODM Member of Parliament, because I think that ODM can play an important role in Parliament exercising control over excesses of presidential power, but I would never accept Raila as a President. With him in power, in five years time we would not have rigged elections. We would not have elections at all.”

How can we move forward?

First of all, it is essential that both Kibaki and Raila commit themselves to acting only within the framework of the law, respecting legal norms and the existing Constitution. Both men must renounce and call off any kind of public rally, for that would inevitably cause more violence and more killing. And would only exacerbate divisions, and create pedestals for the leaders: My dead are more numerous than yours.

Parliament, as it is composed according to the announced electoral results, must be convened. The Judiciary must act independently to examine all the reciprocal accusations of electoral fraud. But that’s not enough. Kibaki must accept a serious review of the election process, a vote recount with international monitoring. There is no alternative, if he wishes to uphold his legitimacy.

But the most important thing is for Kibaki and Raila to talk to each other. Kibaki has so far reacted with repression; Raila wants to gain legitimacy from public rallies in the streets. But this kind of confrontation will lead nowhere. It will only succeed in taking the country towards an unsolvable conflict. International diplomacy must help Kenya; Great Britain and the US must help getting a dialogue underway. The European Union can exert a powerful influence. The African Union could help play for time. All possible pressures must be exerted on these two men and the parties they represent: until they accept the fact that Kenya is more important than they are. And that they must talk to each other and collaborate.

Ultimately, though, peace cannot come from outside. It must be born within, if it is to succeed in definitively overcoming the difficulties and the hatred that has been sown over the past few months. One possibility would be to bring back onto the scene a “third man,” Kalonzo Musyoka, who ran for the Presidency obtaining almost half a million votes. He belongs to a minority group. As far as we know, he has never resorted to the language of tribal hatred, in public or in private. He is competent and knows the political situation of the country. He could become the ideal inside mediator, capable of taking forward a process of reconciliation that cannot be imposed from outside.

Dialogue between the two sides must begin as soon as possible. We cannot wait. We must avoid tomorrow’s public rally. If this rally goes ahead, with or without government consent, there is no doubt that it will unleash a new cycle of death and violence which will only make the chances of reconciliation more remote.

Italiano English
This blog is multi language by p.osting.it's Babel