A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil

Peter Kimani
2 January 2008

The New Year could be the start of a long annus horribilis for Kenya, which faces its most uncertain days in a generation. Already last week’s General Election, which saw President Mwai Kibaki officially re-elected as the head of the PNU (Party of National Unity), has triggered violence across the country that has claimed over 200 lives.

Among the casualties are 35 women and children burnt in a church in Eldoret, about four hours northwest of Nairobi, where they had sought refuge to escape election violence. Others who escaped the inferno were bludgeoned to death by warriors from the Kalenjin tribe.

William Ruto, a key figure in the Opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) is a Kalenjin. The victims of violence were ethnic Kikuyus – President Kibaki’s tribe and the largest in Kenya. Raila Odinga, the leader of the ODM who is now contesting Kibaki’s re-election, is a Luo whose tribesmen are accused of killing ethnic Kikuyus in Nairobi’s slum of Kibera which forms part of his Langata constituency.

Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes and are now camped in churches and police stations across the country. The head of Kenya's Red Cross Society, Abbas Gulled, has said warriors blocked roads tothe areas affected by conflict, frustrating the delivery of humanitarian aid. Police have also clashed with ODM supporters caught pillaging in Kisumu, some four hours west of Nairobi, and the coastal city of Mombasa and Kakamega in western Kenya.

Winding queues have become a common feature in the country’s capital city of Nairobi and other major urban centres as acute shortage of consumer goods and fuel are reported. Violence has disrupted public transport and its ramifications are being felt beyond the Kenyan borders, which serves as the gateway to commerce for land-locked East and Central African countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Vice-President Moody Awori says Kenya’s national economy is losing over 15 million pounds daily.

The American ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger, hailed the Kenya General Election (in which the incumbent Kibaki claims a 200,000 majority over his rival’s 4,300,000 votes) as “a model for world democracies,” while the European Union Observer Mission called for an independent audit of the poll, after the opposition claimed massive rigging. At the same time the PNU has raised claims of vote rigging against the opposition. Government officials maintain that Kibaki was re-elected fairly and advised anyone with evidence to the contrary to petition the election through the courts.

This is a route Odinga is not willing to take, announcing he will mobilise one million supporters to endorse him as “the people’s president.” This sounds like a script straight from the Filipino 2001 Second People Power Revolution when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn in as president at a public square before driving Joseph Estrada out of office after the police and the army withdrew their support.

Rumours were rife in Kenya this week alleging that the Police Commissioner Maj Gen Hussein Ali and Army head Joseph Kianga had resigned to protest the poll outcome. This prompted the Government Spokesman Alfred Mutua to state that the two were behind the President. The Attorney General Amos Wako has called for an independent inquiry into the vote.

As the militant African-American activist Malcolm X would have put it, power “by any means necessary” is a mantra that perfectly fits Odinga, who was detained for six years for his role in the abortive 1982 coup in Kenya.

Not spontaneous anarchy

What is unfolding in Kenya may be anarchy but it has also been choreographed long before the first ballot was cast. Beyond picking its name from the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution movement, the ODM election strategy was overseen by Dick Morris, the disgraced political strategist once investigated for tax evasion in the US, and who was alleged to have been instrumental in fomenting revolution in Ukraine and Mexico.

Presenting Morris in Nairobi late last year, Odinga announced that the American would serve as his chief campaign strategist. He had to beat a retreat after local media exposed Morris as the Republican who moonlighted for the Bill Clinton campaign before being fired for allowing a prostitute to eavesdrop on his conversation with the former American president. That was the last that was heard publicly of Morris, although he is listed to have donated 165,000 Kenyan pounds to the ODM campaign kitty in pro-bono services.

The birth of ODM is rooted in another revolt that commenced in earnest in 2005. It set the stage for the anarchy now being played out. In 2002, Kibaki had joined a short-lived political formation, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that brought together his then Democratic Party with Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party and Charity Ngilu’s Social Democratic Party - while former Foreign minister Kalonzo Musyoka defected from the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) which had taken power from Britain in 1963.

This formidable force, with Kibaki as the compromise candidate, romped to victory in the December 2002 election. Grumbling started soon after over a mysterious Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that was allegedly signed between Kibaki and Odinga. Incensed by the constant bickering about the MoU, Kibaki fired Odinga from cabinet alongside his lieutenants such as Peter Anyang Nyong’o and Kalonzo Musyoka. This was after they campaigned against the draft Constitution during the 2005 Constitutional referendum: their “No” orange symbol clashing with the government’s “Yes” symbol of a banana.

Those fired from the cabinet congregated under the banner of ODM and were joined by Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding President Jomo Kenyatta, with the subtle nudging from retired President Daniel arap Moi. Their vacant cabinet positions were filled with opposition MPs from Kanu other parties. After the fall-out with Kibaki in 2005, Odinga then broadened his political net by enlisting the support of William Ruto from the former white settlements of Rift Valley, and former Vice President Musalia Mudavadi, who is from the populous Western province, two of the provinces that provided the bulk of Odinga’s presidential votes, and which PNU claims were inflated in favour ofthe ODM presidential candidate.

William Ruto rose to national fame in 1992 as the head of Kanu’s youth lobby group that gobbled up millions of shillings printed to fund the Moi re-election campaign. This triggered unprecedented national inflation that took a decade to mop up, and he now faces several graft cases in court, blemishing Odinga’s anti-corruption election pledge.

Odinga’s running mate, Mudavadi, served as Finance minister in the early 1990s when the monumental financial scam known as the Goldenberg took place, in which over 5 million pounds was looted from the public coffers. This involved compensation for fictitious gold exports by the government.

The appointment of former Kibaki allies in the Democratic Party elicited grumbling that the president was solidifying his Kikuyu support basewith cronies from his Kikuyu tribe who ODM bigwigs would derisively label the “Mount Kenya Mafia.”

Soon, “Mt Kenya Mafia” became a euphemism for ethnic Kikuyus, who mainly live in the Central part of the country, shadowed by Mt Kenya’s towering peak, the second highest in Africa. “Mt Kenya Mafia” became a rallying call in ODM’s referendum campaigns, implying the need to overthrow Kikuyu hegemony and their domination the economy and public service, as the country’s only salvation.

The founding president Kenyatta was Kikuyu, and the Central province, the country’s breadbasket, has better infrastructure that most regions in the country. Quite unsurprisingly, Majimbo (federalism) came to the fore during the referendum and subsequent election campaigns, as the best arrangement to even the country’seconomic disparities.

It was rooted in earlier conflicts of the Moi era (1978 – 2002). Moi was from a minority tribe in the Rift Valley. This became an epicentre of politically instigated so-called “ethnic clashes" directed at migrant communities of Kikuyus and Luhyas, who were perceived as opposition supporters. The Moi regime orchestrated seasons of blood that recurred in election years between 1992 and 2002, pogroms that succeeded in scuttling the Kikuyu and Luhya vote as they were displaced during election time, while making a score for Majimbo proponents who believed (and possibly still do) its implementation includes expelling “foreign” tribes in their midst.

The 2005 constitutional review, which had been in abeyance for over a decade, provided a dress rehearsal for an ODM “people power” revolution. Its “Mt Kenya Mafia” sentiments were seen as a rebuttal against the conservative Kikuyu elite who had kept the country pretty much under their control. The ODM bigwigs followed a revolution manual where ethnicity was at the core of its propaganda machine. They were gearing up for the second phase of their propaganda war. This included whipping up ethnic animosities in which the Kikuyu were demonised, hiring pollsters to claim massive leads so as to demoralise and scuttle the rival vote while making constant claims of rigging to prepare the ground for rejecting the poll results if defeated.

Even in the referendum Odinga claimed a verdict in favour of the government would mean the contest had been rigged. In the event, the ODM won it resoundingly so claims of rigging did not arise. It was also seen as a vote-of-no confidence against the government, with Odinga temporarily asserting pressure on Kibaki to resign.

The rest of the script was played out after last week’s General Election. Rigging claims were used to the hilt by the ODM to plant seeds of doubt in their supporters to prepare them to reject an unfavourable outcome and foment unrest that would set in motion a “people power” revolution.

ODM supporters dramatised the rigging claims, killing three policemen deployed to administer the polls in Eldoret on the eve of Election Day. They were lynched by youths who claimed they had been sent by the government to prepare ground for rigging, as a vehicle belonging to the Electoral Commission of Kenya was torched.

Odinga himself would march to a city hotel on the same night to make similar claims of poll rigging accompanied by a partisan local media that must share the blame for the social conflagration that threatens the very future of their country.

Odinga supporters rejected the poll outcome even before it was announced, with Kibera residents, one of Africa’s largest slums and the stronghold of the opposition chief, going on the rampage, looting and killing those perceived to be supporters of Kibaki’s, who were seen as conspirators “stealing the election.”

Odinga has vowed to get sworn in separately (as in the Ukraine and the Philippines) citing the flawed polls as evidence while mobilising supporters to demonstrate in major urban centres to paralyse the economy to make the country ungovernable.

Andeven further back

Today’s raging ethnic tensions echo a dispute that started much earlier, just after the birth of the East African nation. The year was 1969 and Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta was settling in office, with Odinga’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as his vice-prsident.

Western powers were digging in to secure a strategic foothold in the region at the height of the Cold War. Kenyatta turned West, to its former colonial master Britain, and the US; Odinga looked East to China and Russia. The ideological bubble exploded in July 1969, precipitated by the assassination of populist politician Tom Mboya, another leading Luo politician and Kenyatta ally. That an ethnic Kikuyu, Nahashon Njenga Njoroge, was convicted and hanged for Mboya’s murder did not help matters at all.

The presidential motorcade was pelted with stones in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city and Odinga’s homeland where Luos live byfishing and subsistence farming. Kenyatta never returned to the region for the next decade, and this marginalisation would last through Moi’s long rule of 24 years.

Nowaged 62, Odinga appreciates that time is not on his side and his prospects for winning power are dimming with the passage of time. On the other hand, Kibaki, 76, recognises this will be his last term in office so has nothing to lose, giving credence to the Kenyan proverb that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets injured.

But if all the grass is destroyed, the sage should have added, there will be no grass left for the elephants to feed on.

In the meantime, the South African Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu has arrived, and is reported as saying: "This is a country that has been held up as a model of stability. This picture has been shattered." His aim is to engineer dialogue between Odinga and Kibaki, as the United Nations and the African Union make a similar push for peace, to get back to that treasured stability. It remains to be seen if a political settlement is possible to defuse the social implosion, although that may not bring about the much-needed resolution of ethnic tensions that politicians have fanned over the past few years.

Peter Kimani is a Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi and author of a political novel, Before The Rooster Crows


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