I want to offer some reflections on the situation in Kenya, partly as a way of shaping my own thinking. Please remember that I have been here a short time and do not claim expertise. Dave Zarembka has been writing some excellent daily reports from Western Kenya and background pieces which I highly recommend. E-mail dawn[at]aglionline and ask to receive Dave's updates.
I came to Kenya for two months starting in mid-December to visit an old college friend, see the country, and visit the Kenyan Quaker community. I played tourist in December, visited among Friends here in Nairobi and planned to visit Friends in Western Kenya in January. My old friend, Connie Freeman, is the regional director of the International Research Development Centre, a Canadian NGO based here in Nairobi. She has lived here a long time and has a wide circle of friends, so I have had a good window on the unfolding events around the elections.
In the conversations I heard leading up to the Kenyan national elections, it was clear this was a watershed event in the development of Kenyan political democracy. It was also clear the Presidential election would be very close, and charges of planned vote-rigging were credibly hurled by both of the two major contenders in the weeks leading to the voting. Great hope was placed in the ECK (Election Commission of Kenya) to see that the free and fair election promised would occur. There is no question that the ECK let the people of Kenya down. On election day there was a huge turnout of voters, standing peacefully in long lines. Counting was done at the local polling station and announced publicly in front of Kenyan and international observers. The polling station results were then sent to the next level for tabulation and it was here and at the ECK headquarters that the system broke down. Early results showed a big lead for the opposition and also that the voters were turning out the corrupt incumbent parliamentary leadership. At that point tabulation on the Presidential race suddenly slowed down. Tabulation officials in contentious districts disappeared with the results and couldn't be found. When the results began to reappear, the tabulation was strongly for the incumbent President Kibaki, in a way that was not credible. As the days passed and there were still no results, people grew restive and sporadic violence broke out. Then the ECK chairman announced and certified the election results, despite the discrepancies, and within ten minutes a stunned nation was watching the swearing in of the incumbent President Kibaki for another five years. Violence almost immediately erupted in the strongholds of the opposition ODM party, particularly the poorest slums of Nairobi and the western part of the country.
In the days that have followed, both leaders have resisted the negotiations and compromise that might have found a solution. Incumbent President Kibaki offered a coalition government but has named half of the cabinet with the strong departments (defense, internal security, justice, finance, foreign affairs, local government, and public works) in the hands of his party before negotiations start, presenting the opposition with another fait accompli. Opposition leader Odinga who has no reason to trust Kibaki was open to negotiation only if Kibaki first admitted he had really lost the election and stepped down. Also a non-starter. International mediation now seems the best hope. The president of the African Union is here today meeting together with both leaders. For the moment, the country seems calmer, but there is sporadic violence, many tens of thousands of displaced people, hundreds of dead. Unrest could return.
Some underlying factors:
- Kenya is emerging from decades of colonialism and dictatorship and the institutions of democracy are still fragile. Some constitutional issues are unresolved.
- Kenya's government structure is a weak Parliament with a strong President, rather than a Prime Minister. Thus, even though the opposition ODM has a near-majority in the new Parliament the President can be of a different party and has most of the power. The President appoints the cabinet without Parliamentary approval and also appoints the local provincial executives. There is little ODM can do despite its parliamentary victories without also gaining the Presidency. It takes 2/3rds vote of no confidence to bring new elections, which ODM could not muster.
- For a long time, Kenya had one-party rule. Kenyans united to throw out the Moi regime in 1992, but the political alliances from that effort have fractured. There were literally more than 200 parties on the recent ballot, and the principal coalitions split and fractured and realigned during the current election period. It is therefore not entirely clear how stable Kibaki's PNU and Odinga's ODM coalitions will remain over time.
- There is pressure from the western parts of the country and the Rift Valley for greater autonomy reflecting the different ethnicity or tribes, but a constitutional reform that would have moved in that direction was defeated in a 2002 referendum leaving the central government in control. Regional pressures therefore have no clear outlet.
- Corruption is endemic in the government, and those in power seem to have an attitude of entitlement to rule. There is little trust across the divisions in this fairly evenly divided electorate.
- Underlying the political divisions are the social and economic realities of a dynamically developing nation. Kenya's economy has been taking off, but the benefits of growth have often exacerbated the division between the poor and well-to-do. More Kenyans are benefiting from the growth but there is a huge number of landless, desperately poor people in the large slums of Nairobi and in the underdeveloped rural areas. Many youth are unemployed and have little hope.
The issues are formidable, but there are many signs of hope. Kenyans are a well-educated and basically optimistic people. Among younger people there is more of a sense of nationhood than of tribalism, although the current crisis may well have undermined that. Kenyans have seen themselves as different from the political chaos that has plagued other African countries and I encountered many people in Nairobi who were shocked by what they thought could not happen here, but did. There is hope that attention may be focused on the longer-term issues--but will the political leaders rise above themselves to do that?
I have been impressed by the local media, whose coverage has been quite good. The local media has been careful to avoid giving attention to hate media and hate speech, but unfortunately the international media has not been so careful. Control of hate media is a principle factor in controlling violence.
The government attempted to cut off independent broadcast news coverage and text messaging, but the companies involved soon refused to comply and resumed independent service. In an Internet world, control of media is simply too difficult to sustain over time.
There is a well developed NGO sector, and the faith based community has been very active in promoting peace and working to end violence. All of the churches sponsored a national day of prayer for peace last Sunday. Churches continue to provide sanctuary for refugees and families.
There is a great deal of international attention to the crisis in Kenya, offering mediation and urging the leaders to find a peaceful way out of the stalemate. Kenya is too important to the region to be left to slide into chaos.
Humanitarian aid is coming to the affected areas, although more is needed.
Business and economic leaders are pressing for a resolution of the crisis.
Is it enough? Time will tell. Personally, I am seeking out opportunities to connect with the local Quaker and peace communities and see if I can help. As I learn more about what Friends and others are doing for peace, I will share what I can.
Trust you are all safe. We can all at least, and at most, join our Kenyan brothers and sisters in prayers for peace in their beautiful country.