Out of Kenya's violence, rebirth

Forget tribal tags. This fight is about economic disparity. And it's a crucial catharsis.

Kenya has been sitting on a bomb for 40 years. That bomb exploded only recently, triggered by a fiercely contested and now bitterly disputed December presidential election that has left this once proud nation counting its dead, cleaning debris, and seething with rage.

On the other hand, the month-long chaos could be a necessary catharsis and an ironic opportunity for the East African nation's rebirth – not a downhill tumble to a Rwanda-like genocide.

For starters, a huge relief came Friday when President Mwai Kibaki's besieged government and Raila Odinga's opposition party eased earlier rigid claims to have won. And on Monday, a government negotiator said the president's party was considering sharing power with the opposition, the Associated Press reported.

But a month into the conflict, too much of the foreign reporting is superficial and sensational, littered with epithets of "machete-wielding youths," "bows and arrows," or "this tribe or that."

As a result, the world is reading, without a peep at history, that the bloodshed blamed for more than 1,000 lives and some 300,000 displaced people is orchestrated by issues between Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and Odinga's Luo tribe.

Wrong. The crisis in this nation of almost 37 million is fundamentally about four things: a chauvinistic concept of power, skewed economics, weak institutions, and failed politics.

The genesis goes back to the early independence years.

Kenya's founding father and president from 1964 to 1978 was Jomo Kenyatta. He was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyu. In 1966, the Luo, then the second-largest tribe, began to complain that Kikuyu were getting all the best jobs.

The vice president, Oginga Odinga, father of current opposition leader Raila, was a Luo. Oginga said the government was becoming corrupt. He tried to start the first opposition party, but was placed under house arrest and labeled a Communist. Another popular Luo leader, Tom Mboya, was killed by a Kikuyu gunman. Luos protested in the streets. The government cracked down. People got killed. And the seeds of tribal suspicion were planted.

The ruling Kikuyu elite had vowed that power would never leave their tribe. Some of these hard-liners hold fervent beliefs about the superiority of the Kikuyus and their inherent right to govern – one that springs from their leading role in ending British colonial rule. "The other 42 ethnic groups are welcome to live in Kenya," a former cabinet minister recently told the Guardian, "but only we can rule."

Much of the postelection violence looks like tribal warfare, but it is really a mass revolt against this chauvinism. Kenya's postindependence generation cares little for tribal tags. Their quarrel is about decades of economic disparity.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's rapid diplomacy in Nairobi has established that Kenya's long-term solution lies in resolving disparities in which resources went only to select regions, perceived economic growth seldom trickled down to the working class, and the youth remain disenfranchised.

Parties at the negotiating table now concur that a constitution that prescribes a winner-takes-all government in this historically polarized nation does not work. But a premium is placed on bringing a swift end to the spiraling violence that threatens to turn Kenya into Rwanda.

Kenya's crisis won't degenerate into genocide. First, Kenya has long been called the island of peace. To the northwest is Sudan, with troubling Darfur. To the east is Somalia, believed to harbor radical Islamists. The world won't tolerate the threat of Al Qaeda spilling into an unstable Kenya.

Second, with a Gross Domestic Product of $58 billion, Kenya is the region's economic engine. A crumbling Kenyan infrastructure will badly affect its mostly landlocked neighbors, giving the whole region a huge incentive to promote peaceful resolution.

Third, unlike Rwanda, Kenya's ethnic fabric is not woven by only two major tribes. It's a complex mosaic of 42 tribes with multiple subtribes, dialects, and customs.

Fourth, since the beginning of multiparty politics in the early 1990s, Kenya has fostered a robust independent press. It will be hard to stifle this freedom so fiercely guarded by largely Western trained editors.

Fifth, Nairobi is the home of dozens of multinationals, as well as the headquarters of the UN Environment Program. They have a big stake in securing Nairobi.

But Kenya will not extricate itself from this hole. The international community must help – with more sticks than carrots if necessary. The refusal by the United States and the European Union to do business as usual with Nairobi, for instance, appears to have softened the government's stand.

Kenya boasts the region's best-trained manpower, abundant resources, and a resilient people. But for 40 years, Kenyan politicians have failed to fundamentally change wobbling systems and institutions that bind the country in a crippling grip. A 15-year haggle over constitutional review ended in a stalemate just two years ago. And the disputed December elections finally drove the country into violent gridlock.

One day, however, historians may say that this gridlock sparked a necessary catharsis.

Mr. Annan said Friday that only a political solution could save Kenya. That's diplomatic speak for a coalition government with a specific short-term mandate and an impending constitutional overhaul. Both the government and opposition are confident that a deal will be signed this week.

That would make a fresh start – and give political rivals the opportunity to share credit for finally disarming the bomb that's threatened Kenya for 40 years.

Kodi Barth is a Kenyan journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.