27 March 2013

Kenya: Rethinking the Kenya Project


A couple of months ago I attended a meeting where a respected African former head of state articulated a cautionary aspiration in Kenya's regard that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. His point was simple: "You Kenyans have always impressed the rest of Africa with your industriousness, peace, economic development etc, despite whatever political challenges you have faced. You have done this without minerals; you have achieved all you have off the sweat of your own brows. We have admired you for this. So you have to make the March 4 election work. For if it doesn't, it will be said if this kind of democratic transition fails in Kenya then all of us are at risk of seeing the same happen in our countries. So I appeal to your sense of honour to succeed."

Astonishingly ECK better than IEBC

Well, Kenya held its great transition election. It went off relatively peacefully much to everyone's relief. It had been preceded by presidential aspirants' debates organised by the media that were beamed across the planet much to our pride. Unfortunately, the disastrous administration of this most complex of elections by the controversial Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission was also beamed to the planet, much to our dismay. It was far worse than that of the 2007 election, even though its results have not been followed by the violent meltdown that in 2008 brought Kenya to the very brink of civil war.

By my count, even though I am no mathematical expert, all combined - Biometric Voter Registration, the poll books, the digital transmission system and all accoutrements - cost us around US$140 million. Donors (those dangerous imperialists) are said to have spent a further US$100 million supporting the IEBC, civic education, providing expert advice, etc. The expensive and highly sophisticated digital system, rolled out in the country with arguably the most cutting-edge ICT sector on the continent, calamitously and humiliatingly collapsed on the first day of voting.

The shabbiness with which the IEBC answered questions about this as it unfolded was appalling. In the end we voted manually - a process fraught with risks identified concisely by the 2008 Kriegler inquiry into the IEBC's predecessor, the Electoral Commission of Kenya. The over US$240 million IEBC meltdown led the ostensible loser Raila Odinga of the Cord Alliance to immediately challenge Uhuru Kenyatta's Jubilee Alliance supposed first round victory by a margin which was at first announced to be around just over 4,000 votes, then later revised to 8,400 votes.

The last time things went wrong like this, mass action resulted. This time, the aggrieved parties - both the political players and civil society playing its watchdog role - took the dispute to the new Supreme Court. This, it must be acknowledged, is a major advance from the situation in 2007-08 when no one trusted the then judiciary to arbitrate the disputed result professionally and fairly. The mistrust derived from previous experience where petitions challenging the presidential result in Kenya's elections - Kenneth Matiba as well as John Harun Mwau in 1992; James Orengo in 1994; Mwai Kibaki in 1997 - had been summarily dismissed leaving Kenyans with the suspicion that the courts were merely going through the motions without any intent to deliver true justice.

It is therefore a huge step forward for Kenyan democracy that the dispute over the 2013 elections has again taken the legal route. It demonstrates faith in the Supreme Court - especially Chief Justice Willy Mutunga - of which we can all be justifiably proud.

Despite a largely non-violent election with an outcome, however contentious, celebrations by Kenyans were muted. The media showed some footage - mainly from the urban strongholds of Jubilee's Kenyatta and William Ruto - where supporters took to the streets and danced for joy. In most of the county, however, a mournful, profound and unsettling silence set in.

Deep existential silence

Cord's challenge of Jubilee's supposed victory, while thankfully playing out in the Supreme Court, has been accompanied by a powerful silence across entire swathes of the country. The March 4 general election carried with it multiple transitions: the end of Kibaki's term; the implementation of a devolved system of government; and, it was the first held under what is considered among the most progressive constitutions on the African continent. Kenya ought to have had multiple reasons to celebrate; yet in much of the country, particularly as the dispute over the presidential election unfolded and then proceeded to the courts, it is as if a climate of mourning - manifest in a powerful silence - has taken hold.

I have grappled with the reason for this silence because it is clearly more than simply because one candidate won, and another lost. After all, that is the nature of all elections. There is a more troubling reality that it makes manifest: the election's failure as a nation-building event. Indeed, it is clear - especially from the partisan and ethnic vitriol evident on social media - that Kenya emerged from this process far more polarised than ever before along tribal lines.

Unspoken publicly but articulated eventually by many Kenyans is an old narrative - Gikuyus and particularly their elite are Kenya's problem - that is consolidating with every passing day. It was best put to me by a multi-ethnic group of professionals I sat with last week. One explained, "We all want peace so no one wants to say it too loudly, but most of us believe this election was stolen. We believe the failure of IEBC's systems was deliberate to enable this. Then we are told of the 'tyranny of numbers' and it dawns on us that we non-Gikuyus are being told one of us shall never become president. We are being asked to swallow that and it's presented as a fait accompli that we're going to have to live with or else - tough!" Said another, "So in the silence you are talking about there is a sense that we are mourning the death of something, as if something very bad has happened or is about to happen. As if something has died... [T]he anger, humiliation and hurt are too difficult to even describe. That is the reason for your silence."

The Kenya project

While it is obvious that something went terribly wrong with the election, we wait to hear from our new Supreme Court how much damage this did to the outcome. Still, the unsettling silence that has followed points to a deeper existential fracture. At a book launch in April 2006, writes Parsalelo Kantai in his 2007 paper 'The Reddykulass Generation', one of Kenya's most esteemed historians, Bethuel A. Ogot, stood up and declared that Project Kenya was dead. The ideals that the nationalists had stood for were bankrupt. "Kenya," he said, "had never been more distant an idea than it was now at the beginning of the 21st century. Nationhood no longer existed. It had been replaced by sub-nationalism: the tribe, in effect, had eaten up the country."

This was a terrible indictment. Coming from a man who had devoted over 50 years of his life to writing Kenya into being, to defending - at a time when the study of African history was considered primarily to be the study of Europeans in Africa - the notion that the 43 African communities that fell within the colonial construction that was Kenya Colony were people, distinct nations. They had heritages and aspirations, traditions and worldviews. They were not savages.

In part the silence is also there because the Jubilee leaders, despite running probably the most efficient, well-resourced and focused campaigns Kenya has ever seen (itself an impressive achievement), are not in danger of being described as reformists by any stretch of the imagination. Even pretentions to this condition are hollow. Then there is also the widely accepted belief that their alliance was forged as a result of the ICC charges those on the presidential ticket both face for crimes against humanity.

Ironically these emanate out of their alleged conduct during the violence of 2008 when they were on opposing sides as their ethnic supporters chopped each other up with machetes. I have gone on record as confessing my scepticism of the ICC as an instrument to deal with Kenya's political contradictions and their results. However, as a Kenyan citizen, I accepted the general consensus I found in different parts of the country, affirmed by no less than our parliament, articulated thus by our elected leaders "Don't be vague, let's go to the Hague". So we are where we are because we brought ourselves here. Under our new constitution, the ICC is not a foreign court but our court, as the Rome Statute has been domesticated into our legislation. However, that leaves us with a major problem. What Kenya has essentially gone through is an 'ICC election' - it has left us more polarised along tribal lines and forced the most dramatic re-groupings of conservative forces in Kenyan politics since independence. The logical expectation then is that a Jubilee government would of necessity dismantle key sections of the constitution; roll back civil liberties and basic freedoms; and, generally push Kenya back decades in terms of democratic development.

A sign of the power of this nervousness came a couple of weeks ago, when a rumour spread that one of the newly elected governors had been killed. It was so pervasive that he was forced to come out and clarify that rumours of his demise had been exaggerated. Still, two days later I received a telephone call from a corporate captain who urgently asked me the same question. Again I confirmed it was not true. What was significant was that many Kenyans were willing to believe that in this new dispensation, despite the identification of security as a primary state concern, a governor could be murdered for what the rumours implied could only be political reasons.

It is clear that should the petition against the Jubilee coalition victory fail, or should Jubilee win a run-off if the adverse is the case, this is a coalition capable of mustering the financial and human resources to get a serious job done if so desired. The way it managed its election campaign demonstrates this.

After the criminal-judicial process of the ICC, real healing and reconciliation will have to emerge out of a political settlement at some point. For no matter how odious the protagonists in the current duel are, they all remain Kenyan at the end of the day. Everyone will have to be part of the solution, part of re-imagining Kenya. An important hopeful development is that devolution provides whichever party ascends to power the opportunity to correct some of the economic, political and social wrongs that underlie the seething anger and heartbreak that geographically characterises most of Kenya today. Secondly, to return a measure of faith in our election processes, we will have to both fix our broken-down election machinery and implement a proportional representation system that undoes the toxic false narrative of 'we have the numbers and the rest of you can go to hell'.

When I travelled to Uganda not long after the NRM government of President Museveni came to power, I was told of how in Central Buganda's Luwero region where Obote's troops had massacred civilians en masse, the birds had stopped singing. I was told the same in Kigali when I travelled to Rwanda not long after the genocide. In Kenya, after this election, the birds may still be singing, but Kenyans have stopped talking, especially across the ethnic divide. It is a screaming silence - save for the fight on social media platforms like Facebook that allow anonymisation where a younger generation we had thought less susceptible to the bigotry of their parents and elders is having it out with vicious toxicity. Our leaders can change this or in turn be changed by it.

We need to start re-imagining the Kenyan nation because for now, what we have is Brand Kenya instead of a Kenyan Nation; what unites us are transactions rather than shared beliefs and values; we have Vision 2030 instead of a common idea that is so profound it is implicit of who were are and where we want to go. As entire sections of the population opt out of political processes where fake tyrannies have apparently been brought to bear, we must lance the boil and be aggressively inclusive.

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