News 2008


Why Kenya is burning

Faryal Virk


February 04, 2008

The solution for Kenya lies in an inclusive government of national unity comprising Kenyans who care for their country and who are willing to be held accountable for their actions

The last four weeks have been painful for many Kenyans who are agonising over the violence gripping their country following disputed presidential elections. Almost nine hundred people have been beaten, burned or hacked to death by rampaging mobs. A quarter of a million are displaced because of senseless violence that is driven by deep-rooted tribal rivalries and mistrust.

Suddenly, an apparently stable democracy in Africa has turned into a battlefield and is spiralling towards mayhem. However, the disputed elections are an excuse to vent the anger and frustration developed over years.

Pre-election Kenya was not the stable country the international media would have the world believe. Tribal rivalries, violent crime and fear have been part of Kenyan life for many years, and it is overly simplistic to attribute the current situation solely to the Kikuyu-Luo tribal rivalry.

These seeds of mistrust were sown soon after 1963, when Kenya became an independent democratic state led by president Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and his vice president Oginga Odinga, a Luo. These men represented the two largest tribes in the country. By 1970, Kenyatta fell out with Odinga and dealt with him, and subsequently any other opposition, through detention and repression. He thus pushed aside the representation of the country’s second largest tribe and created the first fissure in Kenyan society.

Kenyatta perpetuated his rule by taking advantage of domestic and international opportunities. He initiated land reform, with much of the distribution favouring the Kikuyu. His programme of ‘Africanisation’ to provide indigenous Kenyans economic opportunity was seen to benefit the Kikuyu more than others, although in fairness the Kikuyu were historically the most entrepreneurial of the African tribes.

Additionally, Kenyatta ruled by terror, systematically stifling dissent: curbs on the press, detention without trial, mysterious car accidents and midnight disappearances were common. He declared himself president for life and Kenya effectively became a one-party state. An atmosphere of fear prevailed in the country and widened the chasm between the people and their government.

These were the days of the Cold War, when the superpowers preferred dictators, and Kenya became an important US ally against Soviet influence in the region. The northern border was a gateway to Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, making it a suitable command centre for insurgents in those countries. Mombasa became a port of call for the US Rapid Deployment Force which kept an eye on the Middle East and the vital Red Sea shipping route. Britain also continued its close relationship with Kenyatta, helping quell an insurgency and a mutiny by deploying British troops from a training facility permanently based in Kenya. The western world turned a blind eye to what was happening in the country.

But there was discontent under the surface. Corruption was endemic. Infrastructure development was not in step with population growth and social needs. Rural-urban migration increased, as did unemployment and the growth of slums in the cities. The country was beginning to fragment economically. However, foreign aid continued to prop up the system.

Kenyatta died in 1978 and was succeeded by vice president Daniel Arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin tribe. Initial support for his regime quickly waned and following an abortive coup in 1982, he became dictatorial. He legislated Kenya as a one-party state where queuing behind election candidates replaced the secret ballot. The government became associated with secret police, torture cells and unprecedented corruption.

But when the Cold War ended, foreign aid started to dry up. The economy depended on coffee and tea exports, the prices of which stagnated, while oil became more expensive, reducing much-needed earnings. Crime spiralled and tourism, the third largest revenue source, declined. The world changed and the international community began pressing for economic and political reforms.

Kenya had become a pariah and was overlooked in favour of its neighbours: Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni was now a regional heavyweight, economic reform in Tanzania provided investment opportunities and South Africa was the new economic centre for sub-Saharan Africa. Moi, forced to initiate reform, allowed the establishment of political parties in the country. Elections held in 1992 and 1997 were won by his party primarily because the opposition was fragmented along tribal lines. However, in 2002, a united opposition came into power, and Mwai Kibaki, once part of the Moi cabinet, became president.

After 1997, Kenya entered a new democratic era. But corruption, violent crime and poverty continued to plague the country. The infrastructure was a shambles: most of the 31 million population lacked access to basic necessities such as water, power, education and healthcare. The gap between rich and poor widened, exacerbated by droughts that reduced agricultural productivity and increased migration to urban centres.

This is the atmosphere in which the December 2007 elections were held, and although people voted on tribal lines, they did so in the hope that their candidate would work to improve their lives.

Kofi Annan is spearheading an international effort to get President Mwai Kibaki and Opposition leader Raila Odinga to resolve their differences so that the situation is contained and Kenya returns to its old, peaceful self. But how will this happen?

If Kofi Annan successfully brokers a power sharing agreement between Kibaki and Odinga, there may be an opportunity for Kenya’s leaders to take responsibility for dousing the flames that are rapidly engulfing the country. On a positive note, Kenyan civil society has been active in calling for peace and uniting to hold both Odinga and Kibaki responsible and answerable to the nation.

Furthermore, Kenyans are wary of calling in the army for fear that they might never return to the barracks. The solution for Kenya lies in an inclusive government of national unity comprising Kenyans who care for their country and who are willing to be held accountable for their actions. Besides much needed national reconciliation, they must adhere to a programme to reduce government waste and focus on economic and social development. These are no doubt difficult tasks, but not doing so will cause Kenya to slide into anarchy. Kenyans are headed to a trial by fire, and how they choose to emerge from it will decide the fate of their country.