Friday, 8 March 2013

Kenya: a test for African democracy

When I lived for a time in east Africa, two names dominated the politics of Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first post-independence president, and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was vice-president and then leader of the opposition.

That was nearly 50 years ago, but if those names seem familiar to you, it's because their sons, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, still dominate the Kenyan political scene, and were the leading candidates in this week's hotly-contested presidential election.

(Mind you, there's nothing particularly African about dynastic politics -- look, for example, at the Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Bush families in the US, or the Astor, Benn, Churchill, Foot, and Hogg families in the UK.)

Democracy is a tricky business at the best of times, and for the people of Kenya, this weekend is likely to be particularly tense. British readers may remember the strange sense of dislocation we felt after the inconclusive election results in 2010; US readers will recall the ghastly Florida hanging chads fiasco of the 2000 election.

For Kenyans, as they wait for the results of the elections to be announced, it's much, much worse. The last time they went to the polls to choose a president, more than 1,000 people died and 600,000 had to flee from their homes in an explosion of post-election violence. No wonder people are nervous amid reports of major problems with the electronic vote-counting systems and claims of result rigging from the camp of Raila Odinga.

It is in the nature of elections that they divide people. They force us to make choices, and in fragile societies with divided communities, those divisions can be dangerous, which is why so often elections can lead to violence.

Whether it's Kenya, Egypt, Afghanistan or Iraq, we know only too well what the cost of elections can be in lives lost. Yet you have only to look at the endless lines of voters outside polling stations to see why they matter. An election says to each voter: You have a voice, and you can make your voice heard. Whether it's a cross or an inky finger print on a ballot paper, or a tick on a computer screen, your opinion will count.

I have lost count of how many polling stations I have stood outside, in many different countries, talking to voters as they cast their ballots. Nearly all of them say the same thing: we vote in a spirit of hope -- hope for a better future, hope for a better country.

Yes, of course, they are realists. They know that an election is not a magic wand. As a Ugandan MP once told me: "An election doesn't guarantee a functioning democracy, any more than a wedding guarantees a functioning marriage."

The picture is unusually complex in Kenya, where both Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are facing charges at the International Criminal Court related to allegations that they were partly responsible for organising the violence after the 2007 elections. Mr Odinga claimed he was robbed of victory then, but he did eventually agree to serve as prime minister in a power-sharing deal brokered by the former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

But let's be honest here: underlying many of the problems in Kenya, as in several other African countries, is the continued influence of traditional tribal loyalties. True, over the past 20-30 years, democracy has marched impressively across the African continent, and most of the most notorious and brutal dictators -- like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean B├ędel Bokassa of Central African Republic --  have now gone.

But tribalism hasn't gone. As the respected Kenyan academic Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard university wrote late last year: "The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics ...

"Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multi-party politics. But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition."

And that's why I think what's happening in Kenya this weekend is so important. Kenyatta and Odinga still owe much of their support to tribal loyalties, even though the electoral rules aim to ensure that no candidate can win office only with the support of their own tribal group. (Any winning candidate must get more than 50 per cent of total votes cast and at least 25 per cent of votes in half of the country's 47 counties.)

The news from much of Africa over the past decade has been more positive than ever before. Economies are growing, wealth is being created, schools have been built and health care vastly improved.

Kenya should be -- and could be -- in the vanguard of African nations charting a path towards a more stable future. Its many friends, both in Africa and beyond, will be hoping that it can get through this fraught post-election period without any more bloodshed.


Gaye Berry said...

Tribalism, or…greed for power, money; greed to be the govt & control govt resources. Tribalism is used to boost politicians into power. Recent polls show Tribal difference is no concern to Kenyans. Polls show Kenyans are desperate for employment. It is really about selfishness of the greedy politicians, who manipulate their tribes to fight other tribes. Kenyans generally live with people from other tribes - peacefully. They even marry from other tribes, and lend assistance regardless of tribes.
Kenyans are not tribal - except during elections. Why during elections? Because tribalism is the divisive vehicle used by politicians to disrupt peace. Politicians bribe for votes, gives personal promises (tribal promises), appeals to divisive greed. When Kenyans let politicians respond to greed, corruption, unemployment, insecurity * worse will surely follow.
It is hard for a Kenyan to close his palm against greed, but one a Kenyan changes motives from true democracy to greed, the politicians take control. Bible: "For the LOVE of money is the root of all evil".

Once in power, politicians increase govt salaries without any concern to for the little Kenyan who accepted a bribe. Political greed will cause the politician to bow to stronger (usually foreign) politicians - even though it means clashes along tribal lines. Greed divides along tribal lines. All it takes is uncontrolled greed, ambition, a total lack of morality to manipulate. Politicians sell agendas based on tribe. e.g. “Elect me; I will ensure employment of all people from this tribe”.

The mark of the wrong politicians: Any agenda that seeks the interests of one tribe over other tribes bears the mark of Cain. A good leader for Kenya is no more tribal than Kenya's People.

quietoaktree said...

"But let's be honest here: underlying many of the problems in Kenya, as in several other African countries, is the continued influence of traditional tribal loyalties."

-- True, but one can hardly expect that hatreds are not passed from Father (or Mother) to sons or daughters --from those still alive.

The Wiki article on the Mau Mau does a good job explaining why ´Tribalism´is alive and well in some Kenyan quarters.

--and of course Britain´s role in attempting to re-write the worlds African history should never be forgotten.

´1953: Seven years' hard labour for Kenyatta`

Still this is not to deny the scourge of ´Tribalism´.

Witness this within Britain and Greece regarding the EU.