Comment

The roots of Kenya’s crisis

by Mildred Ngesa

Opinion

A woman helps an injured man on the fringes of an opposition rally in Kisumu

A woman helps an injured man on the fringes of an opposition rally in Kisumu

The “democracy prescription” for Kenya is not working. There is a need for a fresh diagnosis to the country’s ailment of leadership and governance. The people deserve a lasting remedy. [ By Mildred Ngesa ]

Kenya went to the polls on December 27th, but, in all likeliness, the elections were flawed, a fact that has since been confirmed by the Election Commission of Kenya Chairman himself as well as both local and international observers including those from the European Union Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was assured a second term from the outset, something the electorate was not aware of. No doubt, the authorities under-estimated the explosiveness of the situation. Now Kenya is experiencing sporadic battles, bloodshed and defiant anxiety.

It was clear, however, that there would be an explosion at some point. That it came so soon, was terrible. After all, democratic Kenya was supposed to be rising like the phoenix from Africa’s charred debris of civil wars, corrupt governance and endless tyrannical regimes. For this country, everything was looking up before December 27th. The economy was booming, and so was the stock market. Democracy was supposed to breed truth, justice, transparency and accountability – but it now looks like splintered china on the rocks of ethnicity and power greed.

The fairy-tale nose-dived. By mid-January, six hundred Kenyans lay dead in an unprecedented orgy of post-election violence. More than 250,000 people were internally displaced, made refugees in their own country.

The international media looks at this crisis through the lenses of ethnic cleansing and a fight for tribal supremacy between the Luo and the Kikuyu. But matters are complex, the seeds were sowed long ago. In “A British Gulag”, historian Caroline Elkins offers insights into how the colonial system of divide and rule worked, engraining animosity and tribalism, sowing discord and mistrust, and diverting attention from common interests of the people.

In 1963, Kenya claimed independence from British colonial rule. There and then, the causes of the disease the country is suffering from should have been dealt with. Instead, cultural, social, political and economic discrepancies kept growing. We have seen the terrible consequences after December 27th, four decades after Britain quit Kenya. It was the colonial power that initially pitted Luos against Kikuyus, and the sense of fierce tribal competition has never subsided since.

There are more than two tribes in Kenya. The country of 34 million people is made up of a total of 43 tribes. A handful of them (namely the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Luhyia, the Kamba, the Kalenjin and a number of coastal tribes) take the lion share of the population. All of them feel the problems Kenya – like all sub-Saharan countries is grappling with: poverty, HIV/AIDS and security concerns. There were devastating terrorist attacks in 1998 and 2002, and refugees have been fleeing to Kenya from Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda.

Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. Unemployment is escalating among the urban poor, while a small clique of wealthy people keeps getting richer – with the benefit of kinmanship, no doubt.

Democracy is a young plant in Kenya. In the late 1980s, opposition voices began to challenge then President Daniel arap Moi’s iron-fisted one-party tyranny. There were beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions. Only in 1992 was multi-party competition introduced. From then on, agitation for better governance was sustained, and Kibaki’s election victory in 2002 marked what many felt was a second liberation.

Today, we see that such hopes were mistaken. The chronology of ills that should have been purged after independence has resulted in a precarious situation, spinning out of control. The sudden violence shows that very many people feel they have been bypassed by development, denied ancestral lands and traditional ways of life as well as new opportunities and alternative livelihoods.

Too many feel they have nothing left to lose, and the deprived are once again pitted against one another along tribal lines. It is the poor Kenyans who suffer most from death and destruction – and they are also the majority of those who are easily swayed into engaging in violent mass action act violently.

The Kenyan scenario provokes debate. If democracy is to solve Africa’s problems, many historical, socio-political, cultural and economic woes must be dealt with. If they remain untackled, electoral democracy will remain a fantasy. Historical wrongs, societal injustices and poor governance must be corrected, otherwise deep wounds cannot heal.