Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 January 2008
Issue No. 879
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Kenya in flux

Gamal Nkrumah looks ahead at the uncertain future of Kenyan politics

It is easy to be mesmerised by Kenya. It is an enchanting country as the 1980s Hollywood box office hit Out of Africa so abundantly demonstrated. As news that the Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga called off a public protest rally on Tuesday filtered through, it became crystal clear that opposition parties in Kenya must actively win elections rather than rely on the government of President Mwai Kibaki to lose them.

Odinga argues that his Orange Democratic Movement has already done so. The opposition needs a filibuster-proof majority in fresh elections. That they cannot secure. The fact is that Odinga was running neck and neck with Kibaki and there is no absolute proof of vote-rigging.

On the bright side, Kenya's presidential election, for all its drama and violence, will usher in a period of pragmatic caution in the country's politics rather than instability and more violence.

Odinga could create a credible government-in-waiting. What will his agenda be? That is the pressing question. This is a defining moment for the Kenyan democratic experiment. Indeed, 2008 may be a year in which Kenyan politics becomes more compelling than it has been since former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi lost power in 2002.

But the sun will not be shining on everyone if the carnage continues unabated. Western donors will be stingier with credit. Kenya, a promising emerging market that has been buzzing for a decade, is in turmoil.

The spat over the disputed presidential election results must be ironed out. Kibaki and Odinga must resolve to settle the matter. Since both believe they have too much at stake to risk showing weakness, neither will swerve on its own. The irony, however, is that a collision between Kibaki and Odinga can be prevented only if both decide to swerve out of the way.

Throughout the crisis, Kibaki had exhibited a shrewd pragmatism. Odinga, on the other hand, comes across as more bellicose and less willing to compromise. If, however, violence continues, then even the more pragmatic Kibaki will be unwilling to back down.

Ethnicity and tribalism emerged as the most emotive issues in contemporary Kenyan politics, five decades after independence from Britain in 1964. Whoever rules Kenya in the next decade will inherit the challenge of detribalising Kenya.

Ethnicity will overhang all other areas of domestic political concerns. It remains quite plausible that Kenya will continue to be incapable of coping with the tribal factor, which would set back its relations with not only its African neighbours, but with Western powers as well. However, there are sanguine signals from the main parties concerned.

The rivals have signalled their willingness to talk. "We are assured the mediation process is about to start," Odinga told reporters after meeting with the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer in Nairobi on Monday. The US is obviously keen to resolve the Kenyan political crisis, the country being a key ally in the war against terrorism.

Be that as it may, Kibaki's offer to form a government of national unity was flatly rejected by Odinga. Ghana's President John Kufuor, the current chairman of the African Union, also flew to Nairobi to resolve the political impasse. It is hoped that this flurry of diplomatic activity will yield positive results.

The signs are that Kenyan politicians are unlikely to devote more than token energy towards trying to resolve ethnic conflict. Many Kenyan politicians, both government and opposition, have a vested interest in keeping ethnic tension simmering, without it reaching boiling point.

Political stability in Kenya has a long way to go, and the search for peace will undoubtedly cause widespread hand- wringing. Even though Kibaki on Monday invited Odinga to face-to-face talks, the latter publicly wants the Kenyan president to stand down. Indeed, the tribal posturing of the opposition augurs ill. The ethnic conflict has subsided somewhat in recent days, but there is much antagonism between the different ethnic groups. There is even talk of ethnic cleansing and of kicking the Kikuyu out of government. Such offensive rowdiness is disturbing to say the least. Repairing President Kibaki and his Kikuyu people's fraught relations with the rest of the country's ethnic groups is of paramount importance. It is hoped that over the coming year this sorry state of affairs will not get worse.

Anyone who expects a dramatic lurch to reason might be sorely disappointed. The opposition, too, must not be seen as anti-Kikuyu. Odinga's right hand man, Musalia Mudavadi, is an ethnic Luhyah, the country's third largest ethnic group. The Luhyahs and Luo people of Odinga (Kenya's second largest ethnic group) are geographically concentrated in the western part of the country around Lake Victoria. While the Luhyahs predominate in Western Province, the Luo are dominant in neighbouring Nyanza Province. It is an interesting coincidence that the father of US Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama was an ethnic Luo. The senator paid a visit to his grandmother in Kenya last year. The fates of America and Kenya might be inextricably intertwined, after all.

Currently, the humanitarian crisis facing Kenya is the key concern. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have been rendered homeless, and the displaced people lack food and medical care. Food, medical and other relief supplies have been shipped to Mombasa and are on their way to the hardest hit areas of the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Kenya. The alleviation of the humanitarian suffering will only be contained when the violence subsides.

If Kibaki and Odinga did sit down to talk, they would inevitably bump into prickly issues. At least with the help of foreign mediators they have agreed to negotiate. Yet the process is in danger of stalling.

The White House is doing its best to engage in the Kenyan democratisation process. The rich world has to help Kenya move in that direction. Familiar vested interests are invariably at work. Kenya is the economic powerhouse of East Africa. Mombasa, the second busiest port in Africa, serves the entire eastern region of the continent -- Burundi, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, southern Sudan, Uganda and northern Tanzania.

The economic well-being of Kenya is paramount. And, it is based on the political stability of the country. The Kenyan shilling fell seven per cent against the US dollar since the results of the 27 December elections were announced. Mombasa's tea auction, the world's largest, was also postponed. The Kenyan economy relies on agriculture, manufacturing and tourism for growth. It is the communications, financial and service industry hub of East Africa.

The ideological shine has gone, too. Kenya used to be the model capitalist country in East Africa. Tanzania under its first president Julius Nyerere, on the other hand, espoused African Socialism. Both arguments are misplaced. Kenyan capitalism produced unacceptably high income differentials and the rampant poverty especially in rural areas. Poverty is widely seen as the real cause of the political violence in the country.

Business-like pragmatism has become synonymous with corruption. There is no doubt that a sizeable section of the Kenyan population is convinced that their country is heading in the wrong direction. There is also unanimity that Kenya should abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The West has made it abundantly clear that, for all its friendly intentions towards Kenya, full acceptance will not come until Kenya takes human rights seriously. The United States did not hesitate to press Kenya over human rights.

The judicial system is a travesty. This is one reason why the opposition declined to resort to the judiciary. The hitch is that the most promising aspect of the current Kenyan political crisis is that Kenyan political stability has become dependent on mediation efforts by outsiders. In the short term this might prove of vital necessity. However, in the long-run it might look increasingly counterproductive. The onus ought to be on the Kenyans themselves to remedy the situation.

Other factors will add to the uncertainty. The atavistic strain of Kikuyu-bashing rhetoric by opposition forces must be contained, or more to the point stopped altogether. Kenyan politicians must restrain themselves from playing the tribal card. The current situation is untenable. It couldn't last.

Indeed, in spite of the carnage, the most likely scenario is that Kenya will pull through in the weeks ahead.

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