News 2008


Election Tragedy

Daily Trust (Abuja)


11 February 2008

Okello Oculi

The horror pictures of electoral violence coming out of Kenya since the closing days of 2007 into 2008 have shocked the television-viewing world.

Commentators have presented it as marking an unfortunate shattering of the political record of an exemplary democracy that has over the turbulent decades of a mayhem-riddled sector of Africa been a shining example of peace and good governance. That picture is a world apart from memories of Kenyans who were of the age of recalled experience in 1991. Kenya held elections in 1992, 1997 and 2002. In the run-up to the 1992 elections, managers of former President Daniel arap Moi's electoral genius had subjected relevant sections of Kenyan society to impacts of technologies of violence almost identical to the 2007/2008 situation.

During the Cold War years, Kenya's geographical location of vital proximity to the entrance to the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf was a key diplomatic resource for buying support from the United States, Britain and France. These countries needed naval docking facilities for their military readiness for the defence of access to oil from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Emirate mini-states and Iran. Kenya is also close to Diego Garcia, an island base for submarines and other fighter aircraft facilities in the Indian Ocean, and within striking distance of Russia.

These NATO war countries were once alarmed by a pronouncement by Chou en Lai, China's Foreign Minister under Chairman Mao Zedung, to the effect that Kenya in 1964 was "ripe for revolution". Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (father of embattled Raila Odinga) was quickly tossed out of his position as Vice President to Jomo Kenyatta because he was suspected of having links with the two communist powers - China and the former Soviet Union. His departure and the consolidation of a British military base in Kenya left only Somalia and Ethiopia as possible anchor points for the Soviet Union. Later, turmoil in the two countries continued to raise the value of Kenya as a NATO military real estate available for rent on condition if a friendly regime was boss there.

With the end of the Cold War, the NATO countries remembered that democracy was once a vital part of their ancestral heritage and could now be dusted up from over seven decades of being trampled upon by their operatives and client rulers all across Africa. Former President Daniel arap Moi like his colleague Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now Congo DRC) was hit by the NATO democracy heat wave in the run-up to the 1992 elections. His former NATO friends now rudely insisted that the elections be contested for under a multi-party shade.

President Moi's election strategists hit on a rare campaign strategy. Like good historians, they remembered that President Jomo Kenyatta, whom Moi had succeeded, had once urged Kenyans who had fought the bitter Mau Mau war to forget about getting back the land that had been grabbed from them by European settlers with blood and death, and "suffer without bitterness". Land hunger remained a permanent feature of Moi's own home base: the Rift Valley province. The bitterness had not, however, gone away. It had merely acquired new levels and hues of toxicity after both Kenyatta and Moi governments offered loans for immigrants (mainly Kikuyu, Luo, Kissi and Luhya) from outside the Rift Valley Province to buy up land being vacated by departing European-settler farmers. White landowners like Lord Delamere and absentee British landowners remain unperturbed till today.

This situation was turned into windows for conducting electoral violence against members of those ethnic groups whose kith and kin were challenging Moi's hold on power by contesting elections under alternative political parties in the newly-favoured "multi-party democracy" electoral road to power. Thus, it came to pass that the run-up to the 1992, 1997 and 2002 elections experienced patterns of violence similar to what hit 2007/2008 Kenya.

In those times, civil society groups (with church leaders vigorously in line) protested against "ethnic cleansing" by Moi's regime. Their voices were effectively ignored by NATO governments and their media. Moi was, after all, an old ally. The visibility that the violence has now received may not be unconnected with growing irritation with President Mwai Kibaki's success in rehabilitating Kenya's economy with strong emphasis on resuscitating collapsed state-owned enterprises (such as Kenya Meat factory and Kenya Creameries) and using Equity Bank to give out small loans to thousands of small-scale enterprises.

The most irritating aspect of Mwai Kibaki's economic governance for NATO countries has been his refusal to sell off lucrative state-owned enterprises notably the Kenya Commercial Bank. A minister in Kibaki's cabinet once told me that the British High Commissioner, Mr Clay, had accused them of being so corrupt that they were "vomiting on his shoes" because of his vitriolic annoyance with Kibaki's statement that while he could see benefits that British business interest would derive from purchasing the Kenya Commercial Bank, he was yet to figure out how the sale would be of benefit to the Kenya economy. Kenya Commercial Bank is a vital window for lending vital capital to Kenya's emerging commercial and industrialising class.

The fact that merchants of election-associated violence are not new to their dastardly enterprise does not lessen its terrible impact in severely disrupting Kenya's drive for development and nation-building. What Moi's history of violence did was to turn into poison an otherwise healthy call for building democratic space in Kenya through the implementation of "majimboism". The concept is traceable to the late 1950s when European settler politicians urged leaders of smaller ethnic groups to team up with them to resist the radical Oginga Odinga-led alliance between the majority Luo and Kikuyu politicians in the run-up to Kenya's independence. "Majimbo" was a call for a federal Kenya.

Under Moi's bloody election campaign rituals, it became associated with burning down homes, looting properties, hacking down victims and terrorising immigrant groups so that they would flee from land they had bought and settled on and developed in the Rift Valley. When leaders of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, ODM, adopted the concept as a campaign slogan in the 2007 elections, they probably underplayed the lethal messages they were sending out to their supporters during the campaign for the December 27, 2007 elections.

What is the way out? It is simple but politically most hazardous. ODM must reject their current adoption of Moi's strategy of using sediment anger and hunger for ancestral land (by Nandi, Masai, Pokot, other Kalenjins) as stacked up barrels of petrol to be lit for burning down political opponents that one is fighting against along the corridors of power in Nairobi. This formula was used by Moi in 1992, 1997 and 2002.

It is a formula that the Party of National Unity's (PNU's) powerbrokers and their European-settler friends (and the BBC) are very comfortable with because it draws attention away from that which they dread most i.e. the Robert Mugabe Solution to getting back lands formerly grabbed from their original African owners. It enables the western media to present merely as yet another African war between primitive tribes. White settlers who own vast tracks of land remain hidden from public view and from critical interrogation.

ODM leaders have to make up their minds quickly before they get stuck in the blood-mud of being seen primarily as anti-Kikuyu tribalists. That is how Mzee Kenyatta solved what he saw as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga's terrible electoral virus. Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kagia, a radical Kikuyu politician, had formed the Kenya People's Union, KPU, to fight against Kenyatta's Kenya African National Union, KANU, on the platform of using the state to get back these lands and distribute them to the millions of the dispossessed and the new landless in Kenya. Certain that he would lose the 1969 elections, he turned to making thousands of Kikuyus take oaths to defend his power as a tribal heritage under devilish challenge by Oginga Odinga, a Luo.

ODM would have to change the language of discourse from 'votes stolen' into emphasising putrid and explosive land-based wounds into which Kenya's polity had sunk its pillars. That will make ODM to also become the voice of the Kikuyu poor and of those Kikuyu that are excluded from Kenyatta's nascent aristocracy. They must openly call out Kenya's white landowners in Kenya and abroad to become part of the solution through land redistribution.

Oculi is Executive Director, Africa Vision 525 Initiative