Over the past weeks the world has watched in open-mouthed horror as scenes of violence and anarchy have been played out on the once tranquil streets of Kenya. A country regarded as peaceable and stable by African standards, synonymous with balmy beach holidays and breathtaking wildlife safaris, has given way to a chaos more grimly familiar to its woeful near neighbours Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.
At the end of December, the country held its first presidential elections since 2002. The incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, battled for votes against opponent, Raila Odinga, in what was set to be the country’s tightest ever race. Preliminary results indicated that the government would suffer a crushing defeat. Those who saw the ballot box as the one way to make their lives better began to rejoice.
But after days of delayed counts and vehement allegations of vote rigging, President Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in for a second term on 3 January. Despite indications to the contrary and EU observers expressing concern over polling conduct, Kenya’s electoral commission declared that Kibaki had defeated Odinga with 4.6 million votes to the latter’s 4.4 million.
The slums in Nairobi exploded in outrage and thousands of Kenyans took to the streets to voice their protest at the blatant corruption. Soon television crews were beaming to us pictures of state oppression – police shooting demonstrators, enforcement of a three day curfew, soldiers setting up road blocks – and clashes between supporters of the different candidates turned into wholesale bloodletting.
One month on and the British Red Cross believes that over 1000 Kenyans have now died, with a further 250 000 displaced.
Looking at the media coverage of this dreadful crisis, it would be easy to assume that this is a battle between a downtrodden people and a head of state desperate to hang on to power at all costs. For sure, President Kibaki has acted in an appalling way and has jeopardised the progress Kenya has made since multi-party politics was introduced in 1997. But unfortunately the picture is rather murkier than Mr Odinga’s apologists would have us believe.
The real battle in Kenya has been played out along rigidly ethnic lines. Tribal affiliation still comes first, before feelings of nationhood. Corruption and patronage remain intrinsic to Kenyan politics. Indeed Mr Odinga’s political supporters had pinned their hopes on plundering the prosperity that would have been bestowed on them once their tribesman had come to power. The most macabre examples of violence, therefore, have been carried out by Odinga’s supporters towards the Kikuyu, President Kibaki’s tribesmen, who make up the majority of Kenyans and who have traditionally held political and economic power.
Odinga has capitalised on ethnic tensions and the desire to remove the Kikuyu from power both in his election campaign and in the violent aftermath. He also has a well orchestrated international media campaign. With an eye on the presidency, he fashioned an unholy alliance which brought together his own Luo tribe with other minorities such as Kenya’s Muslim population. Indeed before the elections, there was outrage when it was reported that Odinga had signed a Memorandum of Understanding that essentially offered to Islamise Kenya in return for the Muslim vote. This would have included introducing sharia courts, strict dress codes for women and a ban on pork and alcohol. Odinga denied the reports but he had nevertheless agreed to a deal which would have addressed some of the Muslim population’s grievances in return for their support.,
Furthermore, accusations of vote-fixing do not just fall at Kikuyu’s door. There is evidence to suggest that Odinga’s party also rigged the election results in his own strongholds.
I am sure many British people following the situation in Kenya will sympathise with the situation but feel it lacks relevance to our own lives. This is not the case. Kenya is significant to both Britain and the world as the best developed, most important nation in East Africa. It has been a key Western ally in the war on terror and stands as a democratic example to its shadier neighbours, most notably Somalia, where it is known that Al Qaeda is fast regrouping.
Kenya serves as a hub for many aid agencies and international organisations working to implement development work and provide humanitarian support to those most in need. An unstable Kenya could jeopardise our efforts to deal with problems on the African continent such as AIDS and famine, and make humanitarian crises harder to tackle. It also puts at risk the economic health of landlocked countries such as Uganda, which rely on trade routes through Kenya to the sea. As a key tourism area, Kenya plays an important role in attracting much-needed investment to the region and volatility will only deter both businesses and visitors from spending their money in East Africa.
Previously a people apparently at ease with one another, the Kenyans’ rapid descent from political protest to large-scale ethnic conflict has brought back uncomfortable memories of other African conflicts such as that which occurred in Rwanda in 1994. We can only hope that Kenya’s democracy is mature enough to prevent the country spiralling further into a violent quagmire of ethnically-motivated bloodshed. The signs so far have not been promising but hope can be found in the Kenyan media which has bravely resisted suppression by the government as well as the peace talks currently being brokered by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, which could lead to a breakthrough. A solution must be found soon, however, before Kenya is blacklisted by financiers the world over as a poor investment. If that fate befalls this once much admired example of African stability, it will be another disaster for that lost continent’s international image.