1-7 March 2013 #645

Can or cannot Kenya?

Kenya’s upcoming politically charged election campaign may hold lessons for Nepal
Juliet Torome In Nairobi,

As Kenya approaches its general election on 4 March, memories of the bloodshed that marred the controversial 2007 presidential election remain fresh. The vote ended in a standoff between the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, who declared himself the winner, and the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, who dismissed the vote as rigged. The ensuing ethnic clashes claimed more than 1,200 lives, and displaced another 250,000.

The violence ended only after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan helped to broker a power-sharing agreement in which Kibaki retained the presidency and Odinga became prime minister. When the agreement was signed, many Kenyans declared that such politically charged ethnic violence would ‘never again’ consume Kenya. But less than four days before the next election, few remain confident that such violence will not recur – especially given that Kenya’s government has taken no measures to prevent it.

This is not surprising, given the country’s poor record of prosecuting war crimes. In the run-up to Kenya’s first multi-party election in 1992, ethnic clashes caused hundreds of deaths, and displaced an estimated 300,000 people. Ethnic violence marred the 1997 election as well. Yet, while few dispute that politicians incited and even coordinated the violence, none was ever brought to justice. The 2007 violence was unique in the sense that it did not begin in smaller cities, towns, or rural areas, but in the capital, Nairobi, bringing Kenya to a standstill and turning it into a focus of international attention. But it is increasingly clear that Kenyans’ pronouncements of ‘never again’ were little more than an expression of relief. Now, action must be taken to avoid renewed violence; the politicians who incited and funded the bloodshed must be held accountable.

Despite its failure to investigate the conflict’s root causes, the International Criminal Court has charged four senior Kenyan officials with crimes against humanity: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, the former cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura, the former education minister William Ruto, and the radio executive Joshua arap Sang.

Charges against two other officials, former Police Commissioner Mohammed Hussein Ali, and Minister for Industrialisation Henry Kosgey were dropped with the remaining four to face trial beginning in April 2013. Until then, however, it is business as usual – which includes one of the accused, Kenyatta, vying for the presidency. Given that Kenya’s previous constitution was considered partly responsible for the violence, a new constitution was adopted in 2010, with the support of 67 per cent of the population. But an updated constitution cannot instantly transform a country’s politics or society.

More than two years since the new constitution was adopted, little has changed. The root causes of the 2007 violence – rampant poverty, significant income inequality, pervasive corruption, inadequate internal security, and an unemployment rate exceeding 40 per cent – remain.

Moreover, Kenyans have made little effort to mend relations between ethnic groups. Last year alone, ethnic clashes in the Tana River District killed more than 100 people. And the level and tone of political debate – for example, within Facebook groups created by presidential candidates or their supporters – are worrying. Many participants make simplistic, ethnocentric statements like, “Kikuyus should never rule Kenya again,” (the deputy prime minister is a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe).

The only part of the new constitution that Kenyans have been quick to implement directly pertains to elections. This year, in addition to electing a president and members of parliament, voters will elect senators, county governors, and other political leaders.

While such reforms – which give citizens more power by establishing semi-autonomous local governments – are crucial, the underlying motivation is the creation of more legislative positions. In Kenya, such offices translate into instant wealth for the winners. Indeed, given that lawmakers here are some of the world’s highest-paid politicians, earning many times the salary of counterparts in much wealthier countries, they are willing to do anything – even incite violence – to be elected.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done to appease the millions of poor Kenyans who are likely to heed a politician’s exhortation to kill. With Election Day less than a week away, citizens can only hope that the new constitution created enough electoral vacancies to satisfy their politicians’ bloody lust for power.


Juliet Torome is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker.

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