10 January 2008

Kenya: Citizens Wanted Change But Were Short-Changed


Scenes of razed villages, burnt churches and government offices; hundreds of Kibera residents camping out in the nearby Jamhuri Park; thousands sheltering in the Eldoret Catholic Cathedral; at least 250,000 displaced, hungry people, including over 5,000 in Uganda!

Well over 400 people killed; once they search deep inside the slums more bodies will be found. Former neighbours who have lived peacefully for years have turned on each other, as happened in Rwanda. Vehicles traveling the main roads do so only in convoy, to avoid being stopped by impromptu road-blocks, each manned by hundreds of youths, demanding money and food. The Kikuyu and Kamba retreat further inside their home areas; elsewhere they are hunted down. This is the Kenyan scenario.

President Kibaki says he is ready to form a government of national unity "to help in the healing and reconciliation process". The government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, says the government would accept a re-run of the election if the court ordered it. Few people take them seriously; everyone is baying for the blood of the Electoral Commission chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, for yielding to pressure to announce the results which sparked off the conflagration.

Credible voices are saying that the logical thing is for the president and government to resign. The stand of Raila's ODM is that there should be a presidential re-run, within three months, with international mediation. Failing that they have no faith any agreement would be taken seriously. Even Kibaki's fellow Kikuyu are split. The Kikuyu dot.com business generation says he has forced Kenya into an ethnic war, with them bearing the brunt.

Briefly, Kenya has a president with a minority vote, with his unpopular former ministers still in power, while the opposition, which won the presidency, and more than half of the parliamentary seats, and the majority of voters are waiting for the president, whom they no longer trust, to make the next move, a move they will approve of.

Neither side trusts the other. The lines are drawn, and each party digs further in each day, attitudes hardening. Kenya has been a low-trust society for long: ethnic groups are polarised. The rich fear and despise the poor; the poor cower before the rich, feeling humiliated.

Well-intended mediators fly in briefly to intervene, without adequately understanding the situation on the ground, and the history of the events that have led up to the crisis. They may not achieve much. Kenya has reached a critical moment, 2008 is its Orange Revolution.

Fr. Daniele Moschetti, parish priest of Korogocho, a tough slum where Kikuyus and Luos have been battling it out, called it "the war of the poor".

Except for providing humanitarian supplies, Kenyans have to sort out the mess themselves, and it may take time. Incidentally, couldn't Uganda have sent in food supplies by now?

Has Kenya gone backwards in the past few days? Many think it has. I think the country is facing a crisis that has been brewing for some time, and has at last unmasked the hypocrisy many of its leaders have been living since independence. This has been a moment of truth.

Democracy is a fragile plant. It means that men and women of differing backgrounds take the risk of being governed by someone they instinctively suspect or are apprehensive about, at least.

Five years ago, Kenyans wanted a change. The change was an acceptable one: a Kikuyu president, a Luhya vice-president (Kijana Wamalwa, who died), and the promise of a Luo Prime Minister, Raila, which did not materialise. This time too they wanted a change; instead they were short-changed. They protest as they know best: the educated clamour for constitutional, legal rectification of the crisis; the uneducated and unemployed use force, since a hungry man is an angry man.

The fragile plant has been trampled on brutally, but some roots remain. It is for Kibaki to take the initiative to solve the impasse, and quell the fires and set aside the machetes that have taken innocent lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Kenya's case is a lesson for its neighbours, where ethnic and cultural differences are a daily reality and sometimes a source of friction, misunderstanding and tension. The theft pulled off by the Kibaki government should send out warning signals of disastrous political and social consequences.

And the rich-poor divide grows daily in our market economies: in Nairobi the most expensive neighbourhood, Muthaiga, is just across the Thika Road dual-carriage-way from the descent into the stinking inferno of Mathare Valley. Kampala's socio-economic landscape is changing too.

As the Kisenyi's and Katanga's expand, and the hungry mouths increase, so will the thefts and general discontent. Positive solutions should be found for the problems and disparities caused by urban migration. We should learn from Kenya's lesson.

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