On Thursday December 27th 2007, shortly after polling stations were closed, Kenya was hailed as having fulfilled an African dream – to have a free and fair closely contested democratic election. But less than 48 hours later it was clear that the dream of democracy could become a nightmare of ethnic violence. Most of the casualties so far have been the poor and the marginalized – and if things continue as they are, a bitter civil war fought along ethnic lines is certain. To say that what is at stake is the very future of Kenya is not an overstatement.
To answer the question of how the promise became a nightmare one must begin with very nature of democracy and how it has been functioning in Africa.
The first element to consider is that in the absence of strong democratic institutions (the three pillars of legislature, executive and judiciary), democracies in Africa are relying more and more on the goodwill of politicians: in this case, a nation is only as democratic as its politicians.
Added to this, African democracy is in real terms an expression of ethnic tensions. Instead of rolling back tribalism (I use the derisive term deliberately), African democracy serves it. One could say that all democracies have an element of this: in the West it generally goes under the euphemism of voter demographics. When Hilary Clinton is courting the white, black or Latino vote, she is in fact practicing what might, in other circumstances, be called tribal politics.
In the Kenyan presidential election, ethnic politics were a key factor in the close election results: the incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, received very few votes in the Luo areas, while his Luo opponent, Raila Odinga, received only a very small percentage of the Kikuyu vote. In this bitterly contested election where ethnicity was the deciding factor, victory from either side was bound to spill into violence.
As a direct result of the above, questions of what true justice means and about the growing divide between haves and have-nots become lost to ethnicity. Raila is a flamboyant millionaire while Kibaki is as elite as you can get in Kenya. Lost in the fires of ethnicity is the simple fact that Kibaki and Raila have much more in common with each other than with their supporters. In this sense those engaged in the violence are, to put it bluntly, proxies in a war between two elite leaders.
Another element to consider is the extent to which the landscape of African politics has changed. We need to stop blanket condemnations of African leadership, and acknowledge that it varies and some leaders are better or worse than others. Kibaki, while not a Mandela is not a Moi or a Mobutu, or a Bokassa or an Idi Amin. By the same token the nature of opposition has changed. Since independence and the struggles against neo-colonial governments, opposition has been automatically understood as the legitimate voice of the people. But opposition no longer means the good guys. In many instances the opposition and the sitting government are practically the same as is indeed the case in Kenya. So while Raila is accusing Kibaki of vote-rigging, it could just as easily be Raila trying to rig and short-circuit the democratic process to favor himself. In other words we have no reason to take either of their claims to be true at face-value. In this impasse of two leaders intent on seizing power, respect for the democratic process couldn’t be more important.
Toward a solution, Kenyans should realize that something beautiful did happen during this election. Most of the big men of Kenyan politics were voted out of Parliament and hence out of office. Even the sons of former dictator Moi did not win seats in Parliament. There seemed to be a belief that voting was a way of talking back the Kenyan political elite, and that democracy could be made to work for the majority poor. This is the flame that we must not let die.
To nurture this flame, a recount of the votes in a transparent manner is necessary. This, no matter what one thinks of Raila or Kibaki, or whether one thinks the elections were fair or not, should be the meeting ground of all those concerned about the future, immediate and long term, of Kenya.
If the votes can be recounted in full transparency, this election will not then become the death of Kenyan democracy but rather a test along the way to a democracy with real content – the content of security, equality and justice for Kenya’s majority poor.
*Mukoma Wa Ngugi is co-editor of Pambazuka News. A version of this article first appeared at