Kenya's merit badge for citizenship

For all its flaws and risky outcome, Kenya's presidential election reveals a shift from tribal identities toward a better civic-mindedness. Voters did not want a repeat of the tribal violence after the 2007 election.

AP Photo
An artist paints a peace slogan March 9 on a road in Nairobi as the results of the presidential election were announced. Uhuru Kenyatta – the son of Kenya's founding father and a man accused by an international court of helping orchestrating violence that marred the nation's last vote – was certified as the winner.

Whenever people rise above a personal bond to tribe and see themselves as citizens of a democracy first, it is worth hailing. Kenya’s presidential election last week comes close to earning such praise.

While tribal politics played a big part in the whisker-thin victory for Uhuru Kenyatta, it was Kenyans themselves who displayed a difference, with an assist from former United Nations diplomat Kofi Annan. Two years ago, they endorsed a new constitution designed to dampen tribal affinities in hopes of preventing violence.

This improved civic identity was best seen in the election’s aftermath. The loser, Raila Odinga, didn’t take his complaints about the vote to the streets as he did in 2007 after losing. Those protests led to more than 1,000 people being killed in tribal revenge. Instead, he recognized that the judicial and political reforms that resulted from that tragedy allowed him to place his trust in the courts to deal with his current claims of electoral violations.

“Any violence now could destroy this nation forever; that would not serve anyone’s interests,” Mr. Odinga said.

The election saw a record voter turnout – 86 percent – similar to the turnout in 2010 for ratification of the new Constitution. That document wisely distributes power in a nation with more than 40 tribes often at odds over resources such as land, especially in the Rift Valley.

For one, the Constitution provides for a more fair selection of judges. And it reduces the power of the presidency with checks and balances. This has lessened the prospect of any one tribe or “big man” from dominating a nation pivotal to the economy and security of East Africa and one that is also an American ally in fighting terrorism.

The new civic dynamics should help push Mr. Kenyatta toward uniting the country. He’ll need to do that anyway because he won only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote.

“We dutifully turned out. We voted in peace. We upheld order,” said the president-elect, a graduate of Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. “That, ladies and gentleman is the real victory.”

Still, there is a big wrench in this better-oiled machine. Both Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, face charges at the International Criminal Court arising from the post-election violence in 2007-08. The two victors are accused of backing street gangs to take revenge. So far, they are cooperating with the court for a trial in coming months. But they and the Western nations that back the ICC will need to come to terms if the two men are found guilty.

Having seen firsthand the disaster of clinging to tribal identities to the point of mass violence, Kenya’s 41 million people seek a healthier democracy. Much of their new civic identity comes from the country’s rising, optimistic middle class and a popular desire for peace. With stability, Kenya can remain one of Africa’s best forces for good. That’s a better hat to wear than any tribal headgear.

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