Kenya's power-sharing report card: 'unsatisfactory'

One year after ethnic violence tore the African nation apart, the coalition government is moving slowly – or not at all – to address the problems.

By , Staff writer

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    ELDORET CAMPER: Rosana Kathure, a widow displaced by Kenya's fighting last year, burns pieces of her tent to cook her food.
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When Kenya's grand coalition government formed last year – a kind of forced marriage of bitter political enemies – Kenyan voters had high hopes for what their new government had vowed to achieve: rewrite the country's constitution, begin land reform, arrest perpetrators of postelection violence, and reconcile ethnic groups who seemed close to a tribal war.

But after a year, the Kenyan government has little to show for itself.

Kenya's top politicians are mired in scandal. Starvation looms for millions of Kenyans after government officials sold off the country's food reserves for a profit to Southern Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have been forced out of relief camps to return home, without any attempt to ensure that mutually suspicious communities don't fight again.

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Rather than pursue fellow politicians who may have instigated violence after the Dec. 27, 2007, elections, parliament has passed a new media law that muzzles critical news reports. And a new constitution remains a promise unfulfilled.

Even members of government are unhappy.

"In my view, we have basically failed," says Jakoyo Midiwo, chief parliamentary whip for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), one of the two main parties in the coalition government. "We may have achieved a certain level of peace in the country, but underneath that, there is nothing."

This is not a good time for failure. Kenya was becoming one of those countries that other African nations model themselves after – with stable governance, decent courts, high levels of education, and robust independent watchdog activist groups – when postelection violence set rival parties on a dangerous path in December 2007.

Painstaking negotiations, led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, brought Kenya back from the brink. But the resulting coalition government seems unable to pass even the most basic of reforms. Ordinary Kenyans and experts alike say that if this opportunity is wasted, Kenyans will suffer, and violence will erupt once more.

"Kofi Annan has bought us three years of surface stability, without putting in structures for implementation," says François Grignon. "There were achievements. The violence stopped. The government was formed. You have a prime minister and the setup is working, and although sometimes painful to watch, you see a willingness to make it work. But the politicians, they need to show that they are making progress."

If the government does nothing to resolve issues of land ownership and the reintegration of communities torn apart by violence, observers say that these issues will re-erupt at the next electoral cycle of 2011. "You will be creating an even bigger problem for 2011," says Mr. Grignon.

The National Unity Government that formed after Mr. Annan's mediation had a set agenda for its first years in power. While some of these goals were achieved immediately – including stopping the violence, restoring basic political rights, and meeting the humanitarian needs of those displaced – others have been put on a much slower track.

Despite a year's worth of meetings by key political leaders, Kenya is far from having a new constitution. Perhaps more dangerous, Kenyan politicians have done little to address the highly charged issues of land ownership, poverty, and inequality, which fueled the postelection violence to such high levels.

C is for corruption

Instead of its legislative successes, the joint government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga has become better known for its scandals. Some 10 million Kenyans are at risk of starvation because government officials ignored warnings of a looming food shortage, and in fact sold some of Kenya's food stocks to neighboring Sudan. The problem has been exacerbated by a poor harvest and a man-made disaster as hundreds of thousands of Kenyan farmers fled their homes during the violence of early 2008, during the key planting season.

Other scandals, including the sale of government-owned properties to cronies, are not unusual. But the cumulative effect of these scandals is rising cynicism. Many Kenyans thought that multiparty democracy would be the cure for corruption under the one-party dictatorship of President Daniel Arap Moi. Then they thought that a coalition government would force rival politicians to stay honest.

"Instead of being a check on each other, you see them give a blind eye to each other's actions," says Florence Simbiri-Jaoko, head of the Kenyan National Commission for Human Rights in Nairobi.

Kenyan multiparty democracy began in 2002, and Kenyans demonstrated the power of their vote by tossing out 70 percent of the old parliamentarians in the December 2007 elections. She still puts her hope in the intelligence and persistence of Kenyan voters. "It's a difficult situation, but I'm a strong believer in Kenyans' ability to survive this thing. We have that advantage" over other African countries, says Ms. Simbiri-Jaoko. "We have a powerful civil society, which can be a watchdog over the grand coalition. If we have elected bad parliamentarians, let's be sure they will be accountable for their actions."

No reconciliation plan

The government's failure to reconcile its warring ethnic communities in the past year is mystifying, since it was the horrifying levels of ethnic violence – with 1,500 killed and up to 600,000 displaced – that forced Kenya's two main parties into negotiation in the first place. But since the power-sharing deal was signed in April 2008, Kenyan political leaders have simply told displaced people to go home, and set a timeline to shut down camps for those who were displaced.

There was a problem with this strategy. Many Kenyans lost their homes to fire or theft, and had nowhere to return to. Others were afraid of lingering animosity from their neighbors. According to the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Monitoring Report, only 40 percent of the displaced have returned home.

Thousands of farmers now return to their lands to cultivate by day, only to return to the camps at night. The government has resettled many of these people in transit camps, set up next to newly built police stations. But tens of thousands of others still have no land to return to; no resources to rebuild their lives.

The fertile Rift Valley town of Eldoret, ground zero of the most vicious ethnic violence, was once home to tens of thousands of displaced Kikuyus. Now the camp here is all but shut down. Those who remain are businesspeople, like Rosana Kathure, who have lost their shops and are unable to start afresh with the 10,000 shillings ($125) in restitution given them by the government. Cut off from food aid and having no money for firewood, Ms. Kathure now tears off pieces of her plastic tent to burn as a toxic fuel to cook one daily meal for herself and her four children.

Grignon says that Kenyan politicians risk disaster in next election if they don't start to reconcile communities of the Rift Valley and elsewhere.

"Kenya's elite has to be careful," he warns. "If the Kikuyu displaced people don't have the support from government, they'll turn to the Mungiki (a violent Kikuyu militia) and take their land back. The Kalenjins will respond. Last time they used bows and arrows. Next time they will use guns."

No constitution, yet

One step that would create more trust in the Kenyan government – and perhaps lead Kenyans to resolve their disputes in court rather than in the streets – would be a new constitution. Kenya's current Constitution has the imprint of the strong-arm governmental style of independence leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, who often used land and access to government resources to reward their cronies and constituents, and the use of police force to punish critics.

While progress has been slow, several top parliamentarians say that they will have a new constitution by the end of the year. Among the key issues to be addressed is the process for selecting judges. Under the current Constitution, Kenya's judges are hand picked by the president without vetting by parliament. This can become a problem when there are legal disputes between the president and other political leaders, such as last year's flawed election. Mr. Odinga's ODM refused to take their complaints to court, because a judicial panel selected by the president might reasonably be considered as a tool of the president.

But will the new constitution improve things? Njeri Kabeberi, head of the Center for Multiparty Democracy, worries about the proposed "media act," that would have added new layers of censorship.

"Our freedom of expression is no longer guaranteed. People are beaten, tear-gassed, I think the way the police interpret our freedom of expression, they've criminalized those freedoms instead," she says.

But government officials say that Kenyans will receive their new constitution on schedule, and it will strengthen all the freedoms that Kenyans have fought for over the years.

"We know that in the next six months, contrary to what people think, we will have a new constitution," says Alfred Khangtal, the assistant minister to Prime Minister Odinga. "The prime minister and the president work very harmoniously. When a bill goes before the government, like the constitution or any other bill, all that is required is for Kibaki and Raila to talk to their people, and they will agree to it. In the past, the strong opposition would fight against a bill because it was sponsored by the government. Nothing got done."

George Thuo, a top parliamentarian from Kibaki's Party of National Unity, agrees that "we definitely have a road map to attain a constitution, and it's been 20 years that we've attempted to do it."

But given the many fractures within the government, the large number of scandals, and the possibility of leading politicians facing criminal charges last year's political violence, Mr. Thuo cannot guarantee that the constitution will be written by the end of the year. "Are we going to be able to deliver a new constitution?" He shrugs. "Honestly, it's going to be close."

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