News 2008


Why shouldnt Kenya Army save lives?

By Christopher Kayumba

Researcher, Media and Governance


Since the end of December 2007 General Election in Kenya and the contested declaration of President Kibaki as winner, anarchy and disorder have descended on this country, once an oasis of peace in a region beset with state-and-politician orchestrated violence.

About 1,000 innocent lives have been lost so far and there is no end yet despite efforts from regional and international mediators.

Appalled by the slaughter and cognisant of its implications as a good student of history, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame offered a non-orthodox solution. In an interview with Reuters on January 21, he reportedly called on the Kenyan military to intervene to stop the killings and mayhem engulfing the once refugee home to state-traumatized citizens of neighbouring countries.

Fundamentally, this is not the kind of solution one would ordinarily expect from a serving Head of State; most develop cold-feet at such an approach as, in more ways than one, it may threaten their own power. Not being your ordinary president, to save life and for regional stability, he offered it anyway. Knowingly, he reportedly said, “I know that it is not fashionable and right for the armies to get involved in such a political situation. But in situations where institutions have lost control, I wouldn’t mind such a solution” (Daily Monitor, Thursday January 31, 2008).

The proposal, as it sure would, has enlisted controversy with sections of the media and commentators calling it a ‘Bismarkian blood and iron’ approach to problems. Undeterred and expressing his belief in the sanctity of life and order, in a monthly Press conference in Kigali on February 5, 2008, President Kagame repeated his stand, telling journalists that when he made the proposal, he knew it would be controversial; but he was less interested in niceties or political correctness; but saving lives and ensuring order.

The problem with the Kagame proposal is that, based on the empirical knowledge of the world, critics see and interpret it in black and white. That is, they interpret it as a call for the military to stage a coup. As such, critics pose certain fundamental questions. For instance, in an editorial recently, the ‘Daily Monitor’ of Uganda asked, ‘once the military is out, what’s the guarantee that it will go back to the barracks’? Secondly, ‘what’s the guarantee that the military will stop the killings or that it will not cause more deaths and suffering’. Thirdly, ‘would we rather have politicians squabbling endlessly or generals squabbling endlessly’? (Daily Monitor, February 2, 2008).

Indeed, these are critical questions. Based on what we have known about military intervention, glowingly, in Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, Pakistan, Burma, Burundi, et cetera, the Kagame proposal can be dismissed as recipe for prolonged suffering.

Indeed, considering the suffering citizens of several countries have endured under military dictatorships, it might be appealing to dismiss the proposal. However, while Kagame did not succinctly call for a military coup, but for the army to intervene to ‘stop the killings’, I find it pertinent to note that critics seem not to see a difference between a military coup staged by greedy army officers and the army intervening, or working along other security agencies to stop killings without necessarily overthrowing the civilian order.

As such, if things were not to be seen in black and white, the Kagame proposal is simple, humanistic and cost-effective. As he noted in the aforementioned Press conference, let political questions be resolved through a process of talking (aka peace talks!) as is happening under Kofi Annan; but, besides, let the whole state machinery, including the army, come out and stop the killings.

In other words, politicians can continue talking, drinking tea, coffee and good wine in nice hotels in Nairobi; but it is immoral, even inhuman, to continue to do so when innocent people in villages, churches, markets, schools, et cetera continue to die with impunity.

More fundamentally, however, the Kagame proposal is in the long term critical for it touches on the problematic question of national security. That is, by referring to the army, which is a specialised institution imagined and established for the purpose of securing and maintaining state sovereignty and national security. In the 21st century however, this conception of security also raises the fundamental problem of what is to be secured. As noted, traditionally, the army has been charged with maintaining national security and state sovereignty. In this sense then, the state has been the referent and that which is supposed to be secured by the army-against an enemy who has traditionally been defined and assumed to be from outside. The assumption here is, as in Kenya, that the army’s role is to secure it from external aggression, and once this is done, all is well and citizens secured too.

However, as is clear, neither the state nor citizens, by what is happening, is secure. Unless critics make the point that the role of the army is to secure greedy and thieving politicians. The behaviour of Kenyan politicians, by rendering the entire Kenyan citizenry insecure, and the region unstable, that very state - which is actually abstract except with a people, can’t be said to be secure. So, why shouldn’t the army intervene? Or put differently, why should politicians be allowed to make Kenya a ‘failed state’, say like Somalia?

Stated thus then, the traditional conception of security and the role of the army is misleading. For Kenya to be secure from external enemy or indeed any other country, as experience has shown, does not mean it is actually secure. Modern threats to state security in developing countries especially since the end of the Cold-War have been internal rather than external. In fact, in much of Africa, politicians have become the main threat to the health of their own states supposed to be secured by the army. Thus, the basic threat to national security and political order in Kenya now is not external, it’s internal; basically, politicians.

Rationally then, if politicians have become a threat to national security rather than engineers of political order and development, why should the army remain in the barracks? The army, constitutionally, should only remain in the barracks if the politicians respect the rule of law - where people are sovereign and the only originators of power as stated in the Kenyan constitution. But as we know, the Kenyan election was allegedly stolen; a kind of coup against peoples’ right to choose their leaders. And this is what sparked the mayhem. As a Ugandan politician recently rhetorically asked me in reference to the state of affairs in her own country but in reference to the Kenyan situation, “If politicians think they can beat the electorate into electing them or that they can steal voters’ will with impunity, doesn’t that defeat the purpose in whose interest the army is supposed to remain in the barracks”?

Argued this way then, the Kagame proposal is appealing on two grounds: the first is humanitarian: stop the killings-which I think it what he meant. But the second, if you will, actually democratic: that is, if politicians treat citizens with contempt, if they can’t respect their collective will on which democracy is built and based, why should the army remain in the barracks?

Again, on the humanitarian front, it’s important to note that there is good reason why, up to now, the Kenyan army has not yet intervened. One of the explanations is that it’s also divided along the same ethno-tribal line that is tearing the country apart. So intervening would make it even worse. Indeed, it would be illusory to think otherwise considering that individuals peopling the Kenyan army cannot have been drawn from elsewhere; but from the same communities.

Nonetheless, we also have to understand that while tribalism is lethal; to use it as explanation for the Kenyan condition is overly simplistic and incapable of, for instance, explaining why the army has remained one and in the barracks. The tribal explanation also hides racist theologies about Africans as a people destined to kill each other because it is in their nature. But as we now know, the Kenyan problem is more political than tribal; just as was the case in Rwanda prior to the genocide.

Having stated thus, suffice to say that to that extent, and while the Kenyan army is peopled by the same communities now tearing each other apart in what is called tribal, we have not heard any infighting within the military. Is it because they do not have guns? Or are they less tribal? Or is it due to the institutional discipline and comradeship? The latter, I believe.

Then, as President Kagame noted, it is probably because the “…Kenyan army is professional and has been stable” that it is, in fact, probably the best placed to stop the killings - for it has shown it is above ethnicity; otherwise it would have collapsed under the weight of political irresponsibility.

Ironically, part of the reason the army is still in the barracks is basically because of leadership. But the same leadership is presided over, at least theoretically, by President Kibaki as the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenyan armed forces. So if the police have failed or is overwhelmed, and this leadership is interested in saving lives and ensuring order, why shouldn’t the same leadership call in the army to work along other security agencies? Or, could it be the case that they are not interested in stopping the killings?

Despite the traditional role of the army, I tend to believe, with good reason that the role of the army is changing. Taking Rwanda as an example, a few days ago, the earthquake struck in the North-west of the country leaving over 30 people dead and hundreds injured. In ordinary situations, medics and the police would have been expected to intervene. However, because the earthquake is not ordinary, and since we are talking about human life, the army put aside its traditional roles, to help the police, local leaders and medics. The same thing happened when a bus from Kampala to Kigali had a terrible accident near Kabale. We see similar interventions in emergency situations even in developed countries - for instance, after the attack on the twin-towers in New York on 9/11. I have also seen soldiers building bridges, roads et cetera.

So while it would understandably be illogical to see a coup as a solution, which President Kagame didn’t succinctly say, why shouldn’t the military work alongside the police and other security agencies to stop the killings?

Some of the other grounds the Kagame proposal is dismissed is also faulty. In the Reuters’ story (Daily Monitor, January, 31, 2008), the agency tries to dismiss it on the grounds that the Kenyan problem is different from the Rwandan one in 1994. They write, “Unrest in Kenya since President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election last month has killed about 850. Though Kenyans are horrified by the brutal events in their usually peaceful nation, the situation is far from the ethnic slaughter that killed 800,000 people in Rwanda in a three-month killing spree that shocked the world in 1994”. The meaning from this passage is that the two tragedies are not comparable and therefore the army can’t intervene to stop the killings as the RPF/A did to stop the genocide.

Indeed, not yet; the two situations are not comparable. In Rwanda, it was a well prepared, organized, directed and executed genocide whose aim was the total extermination of the Tutsis and building a new country exclusively for Hutus.

However, it would be ahistorical to think that the genocide in Rwanda was an event of 1994. It was a process whose root is not only in rituals of name-calling, ethnicized national IDs starting in 1933; but also in ‘small’ ethnic killings of 1959, 1961, 1967, and 1973 and the impunity that followed and glorification thereof. Suffice to say that it would have been inadmissible to call the killings of Tutsis in 1959 genocide. The numbers were certainly small, but what about the motive? It’s the toleration of such ‘small’ killings that ‘big’ ones are possible.

So, while what is happening in Kenya is not comparable to what happened in Rwanda in 1994, one reads certain motives with a capacity to grow if unchecked - considering what the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights has been saying regarding the nature and type of killings; including ones committed by bands of militias that seem organised and targeting certain ethnic groups. So, if one might ask, where is this leading to and when should it be stopped and by who, since the police is unable and politicians are freely taking tea?