Lessons from Kenya

2008-01-21 00:00

A democratic and prosperous country laid low by tribalism. This has been the misleading subtext to some of the reporting on Kenya’s post-election violence. But its society is riven by extreme poverty, for a decade it was officially a one-party state and for years it was ruled by the autocratic Daniel arap Moi.

There is no doubt the election was rigged. Faulty registers, unbelievably high turnout in key areas and, crucially, a huge discrepancy in presidential and parliamentary voting all point to this conclusion. But the resultant violence that has left hundreds of people dead and a quarter of a million displaced has its real roots in socio-economic factors, not ethnicity.

Corruption and patronage mean that Kenyans have been denied the full fruits of democracy and live with acute inequality. Nairobi contains some of the wealthiest suburbs and worst slums in Africa. High hopes were hanging on these elections, now seen as an irrelevant farce. It is but a short step from extreme poverty and frustrated politics to ethnic vengeance let loose on those seen as representing privileged manipulators. As always, it is the poor who suffer.

Kenya’s best known writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, accuses the political elite of indifference to ordinary people. Indeed, he goes further, seeing in the Eldoret church massacre the seeds of genocide orchestrated by hidden hands and reminiscent of Rwanda. He has called for a United Nations investigation. Whether or not he is correct about ethnic cleansing, the threat to Kenya and the region is clear.

Neither President Mwai Kibaki nor his main challenger, Raila Odinga, has behaved in a statesmanlike manner. Kibaki seems happy to benefit from electoral fraud, oblivious to the carnage around him. Odinga has been provocative, threatening to assume the presidency and condoning potentially violent protest before exhausting legal process.

Both Kenya and the African continent have a surfeit of politicians, but a notable shortage of leaders. This can be fatal to countries with shaky democratic foundations, a lesson important to South Africa. Yet another is the fact that in countries with a highly inequitable distribution of resources, democracy must be seen to work for everyone.

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