Why Kenya is burning
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
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
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