Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Quintessentially Kenyan

Last Thursday's presidential election results raise concerns that Kenya's politics will be increasingly unstable in 2008, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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A Kenyan store owner sits in Nairobi amid the burned-out remains of what used to be a second-hand clothes market that was destroyed by looting mobs in the wake of last Thursday's disputed presidential elections

What lies in store for Kenya after the unexpected drama of the country's knife-edge presidential poll? Kenya's political horizons are fast darkening. After the credibility of the tallying process came into doubt, the storms will rumble on in the weeks ahead. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the death toll stood at 300. Thousands were rendered homeless.

Pandemonium and political uncertainty now stalk the land. The election results may fuel concerns about the future of the democratic process in Kenya. The Kenyan National Electoral Commission announced that the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was the winner. Opposition leader, Ralia Odinga, 62, pronounced the election results fraudulent, null and void. Soon after the election results were announced, violence erupted in several cities across the country -- Bungoma, Busia, Eldoret, Kisumu and the national capital Nairobi and chaos ensued.

Indeed, Kenyan democracy is a matter, quite literally, of life and death. Rioters took to the streets looting shops and burning cars. In a country where poverty and unemployment are rife and rampant corruption is the order of the day, voters and politicians alike were preoccupied with these challenges in the run-up to the elections. Gross domestic product per capita is a mere $640, even though Kenya is the economic powerhouse of East Africa.

The 14 million voters of Kenya are divided along ethnic lines. President Kibaki garnered 4,584,721 votes, while Raila Odinga, the chief opposition figure, secured 4,352,993 votes.

Raw politics are likely to overwhelm Kibaki's second term in office. Worse, Kenya's economic upswing now looks doubtful. An outright recession is still unlikely, unless political unrest continues unabated. Kenya's poorer neighbours will also feel the pinch, which is why it is imperative that Kenya pulls itself together. If it fails to do so in the months ahead, it will pull the rest of East Africa down with it.

The sparring between Kibaki and Odinga made for an entertaining spectacle during the campaigning. Now that bloodshed tarnished the image of Kenyan democracy, the 76-year-old president would have to jockey among his numerous would-be-heirs for reinstating and rehabilitating the once vibrant and upbeat nature of Kenyan democracy. The more embattled Kibaki becomes, the less chances he will have to turn things around and advance the cause of Kenyan democracy, whose course will be determined during the coming months. Even with Kibaki at the helm, real change could be in the air.

Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement must also play a prominent role. The fact that Odinga rejected the results of the presidential poll, staged a rival swearing-in ceremony and called for a one-million protest in Nairobi, augurs ill.

Voter turnout was reported to be an improbable 115 per cent in one constituency. The politics of ethnicity ruined the course of Kenyan democracy. Kibaki is a Kikuyu from central Kenya. Odinga, on the other hand, is a Luo from western Kenya. The 210 constituencies represented different ethnic and tribal groups. There were reports of political violence in western parts of the country and in the capital Nairobi, which soon spread to the coastal areas and other parts of the country and exploded into widespread rioting.

Running neck-and-neck, Odinga was critical of the unpopular reforms enacted by the Kibaki government. After the results were announced by the Electoral Commission, Odinga was derided by his detractors for being a sore looser. Kibaki sounded more conciliatory. This was the "time for healing and reconciliation", said the Kenyan president soon after he was sworn in for a second term in office.

The ruling Party of National Unity has suffered in the past from divided leadership. When Kibaki won a landslide victory that landed him in office in 1992, there was unsurpassed and unprecedented optimism in the country. Kenyans were fed up with the then ruling Kenyan African National Union and the country's then president Daniel Arap Moi. The National Rainbow Coalition headed by Kibaki was swept to power.

Among Kibaki's close associates at the time was Odinga himself. The two men later fell out. A dramatic turn of events took place, and ethnic politics became all the rage. The drama featured hotly contested presidential and parliamentary elections. But, there was little ideological discourse. Indeed, both Odinga and Kibaki had very similar socio-economic platforms and agendas. Both vowed to stamp out corruption, fight unemployment and reduce poverty, but they were both vague as to exactly how they were to achieve their goals.

Odinga does not cling fiercely to the leftist policies of yesteryear. His father, the legendary Oginga Odinga, was a militant socialist who vehemently opposed the capitalist orientation of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Odinga, the son, however, is not as radically-inclined as his father. He runs the lucrative engineering firm, Spectra International, and is most definitely not a socialist.

Yet, the fact that the Americans immediately proclaimed that all Kenyans should accept the verdict of the people and support President Kibaki's triumph indicates that the United States was not entirely impartial in the poll.

In contrast stands a new, younger and more radical opposition, with its roots in the marginalised western extremities of the country. Kibaki scored well in the Kikuyu heartlands of central Kenya and in Nairobi, even though the opposition disputes that Nairobi fell to Kibaki's lot. Kibaki won in the provinces of Central Kenya, Nairobi, the Eastern Province and the ethnic Somali Northeastern Kenya. Oginga, on the other hand, won over the provinces of the Rift Valley, the Muslim-dominated Swahili Coast, as well as his ethnic Luo and other related kin in the western provinces of Nyanza and Western Kenya.

Last Thursday's closely-fought elections reveal the depth of the ethnic divide. The Kikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya, the Luo are the second largest. This, perhaps, explains the special status accorded President Kibaki. The Kikuyu, however, appeared to be fractured politically with some prominent Kikuyu being senior members of the opposition. Similarly, some non-Kikuyu hold prominent positions in government circles. This, however, does not hide the sad fact that Kenyan politics is animated by ethnic affiliation rather than by ideological orientation.

The economic hardships faced by most Kenyans also aroused fiery partisan passions during the election campaigns. Many Kenyans are suspicious of the market-based reforms of the Kibaki government. Still, the main parties all appear to favour unchecked powers for domestic corporations and multinationals. Adherence to the policy stipulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are likely to determine the nature and pace of economic progress, even though the people of Kenya are not particularly happy with the IMF policies.

To divert attention from such challenges, both leading presidential contenders toyed with the tribal card. This neat, if brazen, ploy turned out to have ugly results. Kenya's National Police Chief Major General Hussein Ali warned that no person would be permitted to "take the law into his or her own hands."

Kenya has long tried hard to court foreign investors. It is not particularly noted for the fabled mineral wealth of some other African nations, nor does it have oil. But this fuel-starved nation is blessed with rich agricultural land and unique tourist attractions. However, the country's 5.6 per cent economic growth rate cannot keep up with the employment demands of its swelling population. Political instability will inevitably render Kenya even more vulnerable to the global credit crunch.

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