News 2008


Defusing the ethnic time-bomb

International Herald Tribune


February 12, 2008


The way to permanently solve the crisis in Kenya is to end politics as usual.

This past December, President Mwai Kibaki declared victory over the challenger Raila Odinga despite every indication that the election process was unfree and unfair. Even though Kibaki appointed his government with indecent haste, Odinga did not accept defeat, and violence ratcheted up.

With more than 800 dead and more than a quarter million displaced, mainly Kikuyu (Kibaki's people) ejected from the opposition Luo and Kalenjin provinces in the west and north, the political stalemate threatens not only to permanently destabilize the uneasy tribal balance maintained since independence from Britain in 1963, but to irrevocably split the country.

Kenya's economy is reeling. If it goes on any longer the all-important bush-and-beach tourism industry - where a million fly-in visitors provide three-quarters of a billion dollars in earnings - may be irreparably tainted. Tea and horticulture, the largest Kenyan exports, together earning another billion dollars, have suffered as well, with their skilled workforces and transport routes to Nairobi disrupted.

The fiddling with the elections, the cleansing of the results and the hasty inauguration were the spark to today's conflagration. The fuel is a vicious cycle of ethnic polarization and demonization centering on:

Skewed power distribution. Kenyan political authority is centered on the president, who makes all senior appointments.

Patronage-driven politics. Whoever controls the politics distributes economic favors and bureaucratic jobs.

Unequal access to insufficient resources. Kenya's inability to deal with widespread poverty (more than half of the population of 33 million live below the poverty line; less than 15 percent have electricity) and provide jobs for most of the 440,000 annual school-leavers was a guarantee of a political explosion. About 1.5 million young men are unemployed.

Land distribution. Land reforms and distribution have been shaped by ethnicity, resulting, for example, in large numbers of Kikuyu settling in historically Kalinjen territory.

The combination of ethnicity and the nature of Kenyan politics made today's troubles less a question of "if" than of "when."

The country now faces three likely scenarios:

First, that mediation efforts fail and the Kibaki group sits tight; Kenyans go back to work amidst a heavy security presence and intimidation by pro-government militias. Given that the economy will be struggling and even if it does recover, cannot in its current political format provide equally for the needs of all Kenyans, the troubles will continue to fester.

A second, more hopeful scenario is a deal between Kibaki and Odinga, perhaps a coalition government or a new round of internationally supervised elections. This may make for a rapid return to political normalization, though the lag of economic recovery will make for a fragile state of affairs. But such a normalization does not necessarily deal with the core problems that led Kenya to its current state of ethnic bloodshed. It may be a only temporary mask.

The third possibility is an Ivory Coast-style split of the country, north-to-south along the Rift Valley. In this scenario, the president hangs on, hardening divisions. Violence spreads further and institutions implode in spite (and perhaps because) of the deployment of the army. Indeed, use of the army beyond securing transport routes may spark a wider conflagration given its own ethnic make-up.

Kenya is now a hot and high-profile destination for would-be saviors. The lobbies of Nairobi's luxury hotels, just a few months back filled with business people cutting deals, are now dominated by linen-suited diplomats, non-governmental conflict resolution experts, professional power-brokers and Kenyan politicians.

Stability will not come from a compromise to share the spoils, or through externally imposed mediation and timetables. It requires an internal realization that the political system must change. Without this, the volatile tribal power distribution and differences cannot be truly overcome.

But can today's Kenyan leaders deliver a nation-building solution, like the one President Paul Kagame is pursuing in nearby Rwanda, or F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela provided to defuse South Africa's racial time-bomb?

Failing that, Kenyan politics can only deliver more of what we now see.