I was in the giant crowd in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi in the run-up to the 2007 election when the presidential candidate Raila Odinga told his supporters they were tiny but fiery safari ants, who were going to drive the snake that had invaded the bird’s nest out of the tree.
This analogy comes from African folklore. Mr. Odinga suggested that his supporters, by their sheer numbers, were capable of achieving what the other animals of the forest were afraid of doing. The reformers who supported his democratic movement, which stood in opposition to the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, embraced the label of safari ants.
Fast forward five years and a bit. On the morning of March 9, I was on Waiyaki Way, a major Nairobi thoroughfare, when I came upon a throng of supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta, who was declared the winner — by the narrowest of margins — of the presidential election held five days earlier. The demonstrators brought the traffic on that busy highway to a stop. At dawn, the same mob had awakened me, as hordes of young people paraded through residential suburbs in an anticipatory celebration for Mr. Kenyatta, a son of Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. Seated in a minibus immobilized by traffic, I got a close look at them. These were no urbanites. If you have lived in Nairobi for as long as I have, you are able to tell country folk who are new to town just by their looks. Someone had bused them in.
What shocked me, though, was not that they were snatching cellphones out of open car windows. It was the expletives they were shouting through those windows. A nation of Kikuyu — Kenya’s dominant ethnic group, of which the Kenyattas are members — had triumphed once again over the Luo, the minority to which Mr. Odinga belongs. The tribal invective was ugly. But the shocking bit was watching kids of around age 6 wallow in the rhetorical filth, egged on by people I assumed to be their parents. We were drawing from the basest of our primitive reserves in the name of celebrating a victory that had yet to be confirmed. (Mr. Odinga has refused to concede defeat, and is challenging the results in court.)
This depressing scenario doesn’t bode well for Kenyan democracy, a half-century after Kenya attained independence from Britain.
Back in 1963, the masses were made to believe that if the British colonialists were expelled, the land they had occupied would revert to the people of Kenya.
This never happened. Instead, the colonial old guard and their Kenyan collaborators came together and moved into the colonial farmhouses with their families. The Mau Mau freedom fighters, who had been instrumental in driving out the British, were warned by none other than President Kenyatta to end their insurgency. There was no land reform, no redistribution of wealth, no rethinking of the terms of colonial society.
The dispossessed Kikuyu were at the core of the land problems that persist to this day. Land motivated the “tribal clashes” that sporadically broke out during the presidencies of Mr. Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, who served from 1978 to 2002, and of the current president, Mr. Kibaki, who has served since 2002.
The fawning, shuka-clad Kenyan of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” has become wise to the world, and weary of its ways. She has discarded her wrapping skins and cloaks for tailored suits and attained a university degree that, unfortunately, cannot guarantee her a job. She is the emblem of Kenyan disillusionment. If Kenya’s forever squabbling political leaders haven’t learned anything from the French Revolution, or, more recently, the Arab Spring, then pretty soon she and other angry young women and men will become their nightmare.
Over the years, that malaise has festered into a ripe boil that requires nothing short of surgery. We came close to lancing it in 2002, when we threw out Mr. Moi and cronies from his Kalenjin ethnic community, who almost brought the economy to its knees. I was in Uhuru Park when Kenyans pelted the unpopular president’s motorcade with earthen clods. The demand for what Kenyans called “the second liberation” was universal. When Mr. Moi was defeated, it was the first time Kenyans had voted overwhelmingly against something, and at the time, there was unlimited optimism.
But Mr. Kibaki’s troubled term did not deliver this liberation. Instead what we witnessed was a sustained attempt by the political elite to slam the lid on the boiling pot of societal unrest. The dream soured when he surrounded himself with a kitchen cabinet made up of his Kikuyu tribesmen.
The fatal postelection violence of 2007-8 was the second chance we had to lance the boil. This time, sharpened machetes were unsheathed and terror such as had never been seen before visited the land. Any Kenyan of conscience agreed that the violence served nothing but to destroy.
This year, for the third time, we had an opportunity to bring about political change in a decent, legally acceptable manner, following the successful promulgation of a new Constitution that devolved power from Nairobi to local governments. But the razor-thin election results mean the future is cloudy.
As we await a Supreme Court ruling on Mr. Odinga’s petition disputing the vote tally, I have heard calls from Kenyans — mostly Kenyatta supporters — to accept the results of the election and move on. But welcome as peace is, especially for an economy not stable enough to withstand turbulence, I think it is the easy way out. We would be sweeping the dirt under the carpet and simply ignoring the problem. We must wait to see what the court decides. Without faith in democratic institutions, the tender boil will only fester. And then it will burst.
Stanley Gazemba is the author of the novel The Stone Hills of Maragoli.