Kenya: Commentary on underlying conflicts

Written by  //  January 10, 2008  //  Africa, Geopolitics, Philip Osano  //  No comments

January 10, 2008
We are extremely grateful to our friend Philip Osano for his lucid and detailed personal observations on the background to the situation in Kenya and the outlook for the future. The media seems to be catching up with some of his points, but does not generally supply the public with adequate historical background. Philip sent this to us after we had forwarded Kenya: roots of crisis by Gérard Prunier which had been recommended by David Kilgour. Please also see Kenya with updates on the situation.

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The article is very interesting and very informative and I like very much the author’s interpretation of events. However, there are a few issues and facts that I would like to point out regarding the Kenyan situation. Like any young Kenyan of my generation, I remain completely hopeful for my country. I have watched in utter dismay as people lose their lives in senseless and useless murders. My family has been marooned inside the house for much of the past two weeks. In short, it has been a very very sad time to watch the events unfolding as they have been in Kenya.
In any case, I am actually much more optimistic than what I write here (which may seem rather pessimistic).
However, the future of Kenya lies in whether the current President Kibaki, his flawed election notwithstanding, chooses to be a statesman or a tribal king. In the words of Prof. Rotberg “African needs leaders who serve nations, not tribes”. There are three options without which stability (or peace) in Kenya may not hold for long: (a) Kibaki should step down and the country conducts a re-run of presidential poll marshaled by a credible institution such as the United Nations; (b) Kibaki and Odinga should arrive at a sincere power-sharing arrangement that is mediated by [the] international community and is based on mutually agreed and binding principles of governance; (c) Kibaki and Odinga can retain their positions as President and Leader of Opposition respectively, but they agree to work on jointly building the credibility of Kenyan institutions such as Judiciary, Electoral Commission, Parliament, etc. to fairly reflect a Kenyan image.
Regarding the debate, it is important to note the following:
1.) Kibaki’s action is part of an old African story – good leaders getting fixated with power and deciding to stay at all costs. Very few have managed to avoid this “African crisis”. In my opinion, this is a generational problem that Africa should be able to overcome when we have younger leaders (This is just my own observation)
2.) The main point of disagreement between Kibaki and Odinga prior to the election was the system of government in Kenya. Kibaki campaigned on the platform of maintaining and strengthening a top-heavy centralised government (that was used very badly by both Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta – a Kikuyu, and his successor Daniel arap Moi – a Kalenjin). Odinga on the other hand, has been in favour of – and campaigned on the platform of – a devolved government (something akin to federalism in Canada). Odinga’s position is that an imperial presidency system in Kenya is the source of much of tribal conflicts because the President can “punish” tribes that do not support him, and at the same time, can “pour” too much resources in their regions without accountability. In fact, the difference on whether to retain a centralised government with an imperial presidency or to have a less powerful president (as head of state), an executive prime minister (head of government) and elected regional leaders (sort of equivalent to Premiers’ positions in Canada) was the bone of contention between the Odinga and Kibaki during the constitutional referendum in 2005. Of course, a majority of Kenyans voted out the draft constitution that was presented by Kibaki (it was a yes or no vote on a single constitutional document that favoured Kibaki’s position) because they were tired of an imperial presidency.
Initially, as leader of the opposition (before his election as President in 2002), Kibaki – like Raila – favoured the former position, but as soon as he got elected to office, he not only reneged on the agreement with Odinga on accommodating him (Odinga) as the prime minister (an act that required a constitutional amendment), but he switched his position on the constitutional model for Kenya to favour a centralised system of governance. A close group of powerful Kikuyu cronies of Kibaki in government frustrated the efforts of a neutral, brilliant Kenyan lawyer of Indian extraction – Prof Yash Pal Ghai: (now UN
Secretary General’s human rights special rep to Cambodia) and forced him out of Kenya before he could craft a constitution that a majority of Kenyans wanted (and which Odinga supported).
3.) It is true that the animosity of between the Luo and the Kikuyu has been at the core of Kenyan politics since independence, but this time, the international media has missed the ethnic dimension of the conflict and violence completely. For one, apart from the Luo
tribe, Odinga recieved overwhelming support from the Luhya tribe (Kenya’s second largest tribe), and Kalenjin (Kenya’s third largest tribe) as well as many other minor tribal groups (such as the arab coastal region). Thus (and sadly), the violence directed against Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe is not just by Luo’s alone, but is even much more by the Luhya’s (in
Western Kenya),and the Kalenjin (in Rift Valley region). It is like pitting other Kenyan tribes against the Kikuyu and the closely related tribes centered in Central Kenya. For example, the article below points out that the burning of the church in Eldoret where over 50 people were killed was done by members of the Luo tribe. This is unlikely to be true,
and is a complete misrepresentation of the picture on the ground. Eldoret – the scene of the incident – and which has witnessed a lot of violence lately is largely dominated by the Kalenjin tribe. This is where the whole story gets completely mixed up; the Kalenjin is
the tribe of Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second President. Arap Moi was in power for 24 years during which he not only developed much of the Kalenjin area, but he appointed so many of his kinsmen to influential political and government position. When Kibaki assumed presidency in 2002 (riding on a wave of goodwill from Kenyans of all tribes), the heaviest casualties of his Presidency were the Kalenjins who owed their positions to ex-president Moi. Kibaki had to dismiss most of the Kalenjins from government to create room for members of his Kikuyu tribe. The Kalenjins felt aggrieved and as a result, they voted overwhelmingly for Odinga in the December 2007 polls. Just to demonstrate the
extent of Kalenjin hatred for the Kibaki government, consider that in one of the most surprising political events in Kenya, members of Moi’s Kalenjin tribe went to the extent of voting out three of Arap Moi’s sons who were vying for Parliamnetary seats because he
(Arap Moi) campaigned for Kibaki, largely against the wishes of members of his tribe
Another factor that the commentry (and the international media) has ignored is that much of the ethnic tensions in Kenya is between the Kikuyu tribe and the Kalenjin tribe perhaps more than between the Luo and the Kikuyu. Between 1992 – 1996, there were serious ethnic clashes over land between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes living in the Rift Valley. The reason behind the clashes lie in the fact that soon after Kenya’s independence in 2003, the founding President Jomo Kenyatta unfairly dished out huge chunks of traditionally ancestral land of the Kalenjin and Maasai (which had been appropriated from the Kalenjin by the British settlers) to members of his Kikuyu tribe. The Kalenjin and the Maasai felt
severely aggrieved. It has therefore been theorised the government of Arap Moi instigated the Kalenjin – Kikuyu tribal wars in order to find a reason to involuntarily unsettle the Kikuyu from the ancestral land of the Kalenjin and Maasai ( I am not sure about this theory). Thus the current violence in the Rift Valley region (especially Eldoret
area) must be seen against this background.
4.) The tensions between the Luo and the Kikuyu tribe has never been at such a high level as we are currently witnessing. However, this must be understood in an historical context too. Since independence in 1963, members of the Luo community have been some of
the most vocal critics of the excesses of the successive governments. As a result, the Luo region was largely marginalised by the regimes of Kenyatta
(Kikuyu), Arap Moi (Kalenjin) and now Kibaki (Kikuyu). In 1966, the father of Raila Odinga was sacked as Kenya’s Vice-President by Kenyatta and kept under
house arrest until 1982 when he was pardoned by Arap Moi. In fact, Odinga senior had a public confrontation with then President Kenyatta in the largely Luo stronghold of Kisumu in 1969 which led to the deaths of perhaps hundreds of innocent Luos shot by Kenyatta’s security forces. In 1969, a member of Kikuyu tribe assassinated the brilliant and fast rising
Luo politican, Thomas Mboya who was undoubtedly destined to succeed Kenyatta as the President of Kenya. Mboya was a close friend of JF Kennedy and he used that connection to airlift (literally) thousands of Kenyans (of all tribes including Kikuyu) to study in
the US. Two prominent beneficiaries of his scheme were Barrack Obama Senior and Prof Wangari Maathai, (A good account of Mboya’s life and assassination is “Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget” by Prof David Goldsworthy)
In 1982, members of the Luo community in the armed forces were suspected to have masterminded an attempted coup on Daniel Arap Moi before fleeing to Tanzania where President Nyerere returned them to Kenya to face a court-martial and subsequent
execution. That same year (1982), Raila Odinga was detained without trial by the Moi government. He was released from detention in 1990 after being held for 9 years without trial. The culmination of these tensions was in 1990, when (again), the then Foreign
Minister, Dr Robert Ouko (Luo) – widely tipped as a potential successor to Moi – was assassinated by people thought to be close the Moi regime. As you can see, there are so many historical (and very complex) issues behind Kenya’s current state of affairs.
Despite all these, Raila Odinga supported President Kibaki in 2002 as a way to finally bury the “enemity” between the Luos and Kikuyus. In return, Kibaki was expected to honour a pre-election agreement which he failed to do, and this leads to my biggest fear for Kenya. Consider this:
5.) It is unlikely that Odinga will accept to be part of a government of national unity (given the past experience). Odinga is aware that Kibaki’s re-election was done largely through a flawed process witnessed by the international
community. At the same time, Odinga has a large following not only from his Luo tribe, but also most non-kikuyu tribes – who now view the Kikuyu as being extremely power hungry. Even some of the younger generation of the Kikuyu tribe do not support Kibaki , so Odinga is likely to stay put.
On the other hand, Kibaki has been sworn as the President of Kenya, and he is also not ready to accept that he was rigged in, and to cede ground to Odinga. In fact, he has avoided meeting Odinga under the mediation of the international community (however, we wait to see what the African Union Chairman President Kuffour of Ghana will achieve). If the situation remains as it is, there is a very high chance that the inter-ethnic violence could flare up, and Kibaki’s rule may not be accepted by most Kenyans outside his Kikuyu tribe (with perhaps the exception of Kenyan middle and upper class). Kibaki’s only
recourse to contain the violence will be to continue using the police and (perhaps – God forbid), the armed forces and herein lies the spark that could lead to a potentially dangerous full scale civil conflict; we are not sure the extent to which the military can
enforce Kibaki’s orders. Kenya’s military has kept off politics much of the time. However, their role in the whole process, especially, in the event of civil unrest is a debate that everyone has avoided (for obvious reasons) – and I point it out here – more as
an intellectual exercise (hopefully) than a real possibility. An article in the East African Magazine puts it this way:
“..And, so long as Kenyan politics remains a winner-take-all game where the victors control both power and wealth and the losers have neither, the chances for a deal remain slim indeed. Just how prepared are the Kenyan security forces to apply muscle to restore peace in the country and to contain a protracted stand-off? In the middle and the lower ranks of the disciplined forces, the structure left behind by the regime of former president Daniel arap Moi is still in place. These ranks continue to be dominated by the Moi regime’s appointees. The fear is that as the conflict intensifies, and if the stalemate drags for too long, the ethnic polarisation being witnessed in society at large may start taking a toll on the motivation of the disciplined forces to crush the demonstrations.
Retired president Moi created overlapping and competing security forces. Today, these various security forces and the cliques that further sub-divide them counteract each other.
As long as the political stalemate endures and the conflict continues to be interpreted in ethnic terms, getting the disciplined forces to do the dirty work for the politicians may prove to be a major challenge.”

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