A bitter new chapter for Kenya

By Richard Dowden (THE TIMES, 01/01/08):

Shocked by pictures of death and mayhem on the streets of Kenyan towns, a Kenyan friend in Britain called me to express her shock. “But these things don't happen in Kenya!” she exclaimed, as if Kenya - or Keenya as she pronounced it - was immune from the political ills that have plagued Africa in the past 50 years.

She is wrong. Kenya has been a catastrophe waiting to happen. Every election since multiparty politics was reintroduced in 1991 has involved rigging. So far the margin of victory has always been so great that Western diplomats - keen to maintain “stability” - could claim that the cheating would not have made a difference to the result. “Voting broadly reflected the will of the people” was their duplicitous phrase that allowed the ruling elite to play their quinquennial charade.

Now the margin of victory is too thin. The cheating did make a difference and Raila Odinga, the leader of the main opposition party that has won the largest number of seats in parliament and six out of eight provinces, is not going to accept defeat.

Kenya is not just another African country. Suffering only one - failed - coup attempt in 45 years of independence, its stability makes Nairobi, the capital, the base for transnational corporations, the United Nations and scores of NGOs for East and Central Africa. It is also a beautiful country with well-run game parks for tourists, mountains, lakes and gorgeous Indian Ocean beaches. Unlike many African countries, Kenya's strong professional class has never fled and have driven economic growth at about 5 per cent in the past four years. Kenyans are lucky. The country has no single natural resource, such as oil, to enrich the elite and impoverish everyone else. Kenyans have to work for their money and recently they have done well.

Yet in 2005 a poll found that more than half of Kenyans thought the economy was doing badly. According to Afrobarometer, a continent-wide research project, the most important issue for most Kenyans was equality, both of opportunity and availability of resources. That was an indirect way of saying that the Kikuyu, the ethnic group of President Mwai Kibaki and Kenya's largest, was getting everything to the exclusion of everyone else. Mr Kibaki came in on an anti-corruption ticket but approval of the Government's anti-corruption programme fell in his first three years from 85 per cent to 40 per cent. The reason was simple. Intense internal and international pressure forced Mr Kibaki to appoint John Githongo, a former journalist and corruption campaigner, as anti-corruption czar.

He also commissioned a public inquiry into the Goldenberg scam, through which some $600 million was stolen from the Treasury in the 1990s. Thousands of Kenyans attended the hearings, sitting quietly but bug-eyed as they heard an extraordinary tale of theft and deceit. Meanwhile, Mr Githongo commissioned Kroll, a private security firm, to trace, freeze and return the money lodged in accounts all over the world.

Kroll reported that much of the money was in accounts owned by sons of President Moi, but once these details became available to senior figures in Kibaki's Government, the second and third stages of the process, freezing and recovery, were abandoned. A deal was done. Shortly afterwards Mr Githongo fled for his life and, even in a British haven, was given an armed bodyguard. With good reason. The Kenyan elite have a history of killing people who ask questions about corruption.

Kenyan politics are more than a lucrative game of musical chairs for the elite. They are the most vicious and tribalised on the continent. Politicians often address their own people in coded language. “It is our turn to eat!” is a phrase they often use. It means that it is the turn of our ethnic group to rule — and loot as much as we can.

In 2002 Mr Odinga left Moi's Government and delivered his Luo ethnic group to Mr Kibaki's newly formed Rainbow Alliance. The agreement — in writing — was that Mr Kibaki would change the constitution, create a powerful post of prime minister and appoint Mr Odinga. Once in power Mr Kibaki changed his mind. He presented a new constitution that retained a powerful presidency. Mr Odinga, given the minor transport ministry, left the government in disgust. A brilliant orator and campaigner, he whipped up opposition to Mr Kibaki's new constitution and defeated it in a referendum.

The voting figures showed just how ethnically divided the country had become. The Kikuyu voted for it. Most of the rest against.

Riding the wave, Mr Odinga forged the Orange coalition for this election that brought together four other leading politicians and their communities. Only the Kikuyu were missing. They were convinced they would win. Now aged 62, Raila (his name means stinging nettle) Odinga has been in opposition politics most of his life. He is not a man to throw in the towel. The gang around Mr Kibaki have too much to lose if Mr Odinga comes to power. The scene is set for all-out war between the Kikuyu and the rest, a war that kicked off on Sunday afternoon as Luo and Kikuyu attacked each other in towns in Nairobi and elsewhere.

Are Kenya's institutions strong enough to withstand this near civil war? The police will do the President's bidding but there are doubts about the Army, one of the most professional in Africa. Many of its senior officers are reported to be unhappy about soldiers shooting down demonstrators on behalf of a politician who may not be around for long.

America has accepted the result; European election observers said the process was not convincing. With South Africa's leadership in turmoil and Nigeria also suffering from a failed election earlier this year, it is hard to see who in Africa could bring both sides together. Without concerted international diplomatic intervention, Kenyans may be left to fight it out.