Kenya's motto, harambee, means "pull together." And indeed, since independence in 1963, many citizen-volunteers have helped build schools and health clinics. But especially now, as postelection violence splits the country, its political leaders need to catch the harambee spirit.
Considerable international pressure is bearing down on Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, and its opposition leader, Raila Odinga, to come together and negotiate after flawed elections last month. The official – and dubious – results, which returned Mr. Kibaki to the presidency, triggered tribe-based riots that has left at least 500 killed and driven at least 250,000 people from their homes.
Foreign powers, aghast that this longtime anchor of East Africa is now caught in ethnic turmoil, are pushing the two men to find a solution.
The United States, which sees Kenya as a critical partner in the fight against Islamist terrorism, dispatched an envoy to facilitate dialogue. This week, the president of Ghana, who leads the African Union, arrived in an attempt to mediate. Several former African heads of state are visiting a badly hit area. "It's like seeing a neighbor's house on fire," said Mozambique's Joachim Chissano.
As critical as outside pressure may be, it must be the political leaders themselves who smell the smoke, feel the heat, and reach for the hose to douse the flames. Other countries, especially major aid donors such as the US, can help them to this realization, but it is pressure from within Kenya that will have the most lasting effect, and restore the harambee spirit.
The future of Kenya's fledgling democracy and economy, which grew by 6 percent last year, is at stake. Big global firms have become interested in tourism and the information technology sector is taking off. Kenya is the largest economy in East Africa and is a hub for trade that serves the region.
But the postelection killings, riots, looting, and burning have put the economy in serious danger. Hotels say bookings are down by more than half, prices for food and goods have skyrocketed, and disrupted fuel transport has affected neighboring countries.
Kenya has been a refuge of stability for offices of United Nations agencies, multinational corporations, banks, and international organizations. If the turmoil continues, that's all at risk.
President Kibaki and Mr. Odinga must come together and pull their country together. One possibility is to form a unity government until clean, new elections can be carried out (a recount is impractical, as important documentation has apparently been doctored or has disappeared). Fraud (possibly on both sides) must be investigated, as well as the violence. Perpetrators must be brought to justice.
But beyond the mechanics of righting an electoral wrong, Kenya's political leaders must find a way to address underlying injustices exposed by the election – longstanding tribal favoritism, gross unevenness in the sharing of wealth, and corruption. Kibaki had made promises along these lines, but failed to deliver, instead protecting the spoils of power for his entrenched Kikuyu tribe.
Kenyans, who come from about 40 tribes, have pulled together in the past. They can again, but their leaders must set the example.