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Disputed results from last week’s elections have left Kenya in deep political crisis. The opposition has refused to accept the results which have been questioned by local and international observers. Three days of violent protests have left more than 120 people dead. The battles are concentrated in opposition strongholds and shanty neighborhoods in the major cities from the coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi the capital to Kisumu the western port city on the banks of Lake Victoria where a curfew has been imposed. Live television and radio broadcasts have been banned. While there is relief and even celebration among some supporters of the ‘victorious’ President Kibaki, the frustration and fear gripping the country is almost unprecedented in forty four years of independence. A proud country that likes to see itself as an oasis of stability in a volatile region is being held hostage by a bankrupt political class. Many Kenyans are filled with a sense of shame and anguish, as well as fortitude to salvage their country’s fortunes and future.

Lost in the electoral shenanigans and post-election turmoil has been a historic opportunity to consolidate the country’s newly minted democracy, to confirm its democratic credentials in the region and on the continent. Instead Kenya now faces a prolonged period of political uncertainty that will play itself out in unpredictable ways from the streets to parliament, severely testing the fragile fabric of public order, social cohesion, and inter-group relations, especially those structured around the complex inscriptions of ethnicity, class, gender, and generation. Some worry that Kenya might turn into East Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire, a once stable and relatively prosperous postcolony in West Africa that descended into chaos and civil war because of its failure to manage the combustible politics of democratic transition.

The opinion polls pointed to a close election. They were proved right. But only one out of 50 polls conducted in the lead up to the elections, showed President Kibaki in the lead; the rest pointed to a possible narrow win by the opposition candidate, Mr. Raila Odinga. The latter maintained his lead during the early counts of the presidential vote, but when the final results were announced by the Electoral Commission of Kenya, he trailed by 231,728 votes. President Kibaki was declared duly elected with 4,584,721 votes against Mr. Odinga’s 4,352,993 votes. Election observers expressed surprise, the opposition cried foul, riots erupted, and the country teetered on the brink of an unprecedented crisis.

What a difference five years makes. In 2002 President Kibaki was inaugurated in broad daylight before an ecstatic crowd of a million people in Jamhuri Park in Nairobi; this time he was hurriedly inaugurated in the evening less than an hour after being declared winner before a small and dour crowd of officials. The intoxicating euphoria of 2002 has given way to widespread anger and anxiety. In 2002 the masses brutalized by decades of one-party rule rediscovered their voices and will; the nation was united in its hopes for the future, believed fervently in the possibilities of productive change. Now, many feel betrayed and disempowered, robbed of their votes and voices.

Whatever the future holds for Kenya and its tortured journey from dictatorship to democracy, underdevelopment to development, the present crisis has a complicated history rooted in the political economies of colonialism, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism that have characterized Kenya over the last century. This is to suggest that the present moment, the current political crisis, is rooted in complex historical forces that go beyond the ubiquitous ‘tribalism’ beloved by the western media in discussing African politics or explaining its proverbial crises, or the excessive obsession with personalities often found in the African media itself. This is of course not to dismiss the role of ethnicity or particular leaders, it is merely to point out the need to put both in the context of broader historical forces that have propelled Kenya to this moment and might impel it out of it.

The recent Kenyan elections promised to achieve an extraordinary development: unseating an incumbent president through the ballot box after only five years in power. This would have been unprecedented in Kenyan history, and is rare in Africa where incumbents typically serve the constitutional two terms and some even try to rig their way into illicit third terms. Nicéphore Soglo of Benin is one of the rare presidents to suffer such a fate; elected in 1996 he lost the 2001 elections to the former dictator, Mathieu Kérékou. This is a tribute to the power of incumbency to win or rig elections, the inordinate advantages enjoyed by ruling parties to use the sanctions and seductions of state power.

The manipulation of electoral processes and results by ruling parties is of course not confined to Africa: remember the U.S. elections of 2000, and President Putin’s recent attempts to prolong his rule? It is not uncommon for ruling parties in many so-called mature democracies to call elections opportunistically, redraw electoral districts in their favor, or ‘bribe’ the electorate with contrived economic goodies. However, it can be argued the national costs of electoral malpractices are much higher for African (and other countries in the global South) that are struggling against the challenges of internal underdevelopment and political and cultural subordination than for the more globally hegemonic western countries.

Save for the disputed victory for the president himself, the government suffered a political tsunami as a score of cabinet ministers and the Vice-President lost their parliamentary seats. Altogether, the Party of National Unity (PNU), cobbled together only last September, under which President Kibaki run, won only 37 seats, the victorious opposition party, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by Mr. Raila Odinga took 100 seats, and the rest (parliament has 210 directly elected members) went to the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya (ODM-K), the party of the third major presidential candidate, Mr. Kalonzo Musyoka, and other smaller parties.

Swept away also were power brokers of the former dictator, President Daniel arap Moi including the once feared Mr. Nicholas Biwott and the tycoon Mr. Kamlesh Pattini an infamous architect of one of Kenya’s largest corruption scandals, as well as Mr. Moi’s own ambitious three sons. In a sense, the election signified a rejection of leading politicians associated with Presidents Moi and Kibaki. While the two represent different presidential administrations, one dictatorial and the other democratic, they are associated in the popular imagination, and were painted by the opposition, as old men leading corrupt regimes. Remarkably, Mr. Moi campaigned indefatigably for his successor, to the obvious glee of the opposition.

Thus the contest between the octogerian Mr. Kibaki and the flamboyant Mr. Odinga pitted a generational struggle for power. It is one of the ironies of contemporary Africa that countries that have enjoyed political stability since independence such as Kenya, Malawi, and Senegal, are still ruled by the nationalist generation that brought independence, while the countries with more turbulent histories have long made the generational transition. In this sense, the Kenyan election was a referendum between the older and the younger generations, between the Kibaki generation in power since independence and the Odinga generation that came off age after independence.

The first Kibaki government was elected in 2002 on a strong anti-corruption platform. Impoverished and exhausted from 24 years of authoritarian and corrupt rule by the Moi administration, the country was hungry for a clean government that would bring to justice corrupt former officials and lead a transparent and accountable government capable of reviving the economy and pursuing development. The drive against Moi-era corruption scandals not only stalled, but new corruption scandals sprang up, and the new administration’s anti-corruption credentials were irreparably damaged when the government’s own anti-corruption czar, Mr. John Githongo fled to exile in the United Kingdom in 2005.

But the Kibaki administration delivered on the economy. The country’s economic growth rate jumped from 0.6% in 2002 to 6.1% in 2006. Buoyed by this robust growth, the government unveiled its ambitious Kenya Vision 2030, a development blueprint to turn Kenya into a newly industrializing “middle income country providing high quality of life for all its citizens by the year 2030." President Kibaki and his PNU run on this economic record, while the opposition claimed it could achieve even faster growth unadulterated by corruption. One sought continuity, the other promised change. In reality, there was little difference in the programs of the PNU and ODM and their contending presidential candidates.

As is often the case in such contexts, the absence of policy differences was more than made up by the personality and symbolic differences of populism in which Mr. Odinga bested the president. Mr. Odinga a millionaire businessman, who had once been a political prisoner, and most importantly, was the son of the nationalist icon and former vice-president, Mr. Oginga Odinga, campaigned vigorously in his red hammer to achieve what had eluded his father. He appealed to the youth and people from disaffected regions, while assiduously assuring domestic and foreign business interests who preferred the wealthy, elderly and gentlemanly President Kibaki that he had long shed the socialist inclinations and firebrand reputation of his younger days.

The contestation between continuity and change in the electoral contest partly reflected the glaring mismatch between growth and development, both socially and spatially, and tapped into deep yearnings for a new socioeconomic dispensation, a restless hunger for broad-based development frustrated by neo-liberal growth. Kenya’s economic recovery and growth from 2002 largely benefited the middle classes rather than the workers and peasants, the bulk of the population. Even among the middle classes, the benefits flowed unequally between those in the rapidly expanding private service sectors rather than in the retrenched and decapitalized public sectors, which has been under assault since the days of structural adjustment in the 1980s.

For many Kenyans, therefore, the economy may be doing well, but they are not. As dependency theory used to postulate in the radical 1960s and 1970s, growth is not synonymous with development; neo-liberal growth is even less likely to lead to broad-based development because people are secondary to profits, public to private good. In Kenya, as in much of Africa and indeed the wider world since the onset of neo-liberalism the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, the sense of economic insecurity has increased among large numbers of people even as their countries’ economies grow. This partly helps explain the tightness of the vote and the prospect of a government losing elections in times of rapid economic growth.

If the economic growth of recent years in Kenya stoked expectations of development, the unequal distribution of wealth thwarted those expectations and engendered popular frustration, while democracy gave a new vent to express the frustrations. Anti-corruption discourse, the widespread popular distaste against corruption was both real and rhetorical in so far it reflected disgust at actual corruption scandals and invoked deep disaffection among many Kenyans who felt left out of the rapidly growing economy, a critique of rising economic class inequalities. In the authoritarian past there was no political alternative to the one-party state, now the discontented electorate could transfer its hopes for development to the opposition, even if the investment in the opposition did not promise to yield different dividends.

But class is not a reliable predictor of political loyalties and voting behavior even in the so-called developed countries. Often far more powerful are the constructed identities of ethnicity or race. In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, ethnic identities have greater political salience than racial identities. This is not simply because politicians mobilize ethnicity for electoral purposes, which they do and Kenyan politicians are notoriously adept at playing the ethnic card. Rather, elections for members of parliament are local or regional political events, latched on to the national presidential election; they are spatialized performances in which both the candidates and voters are located in particular constituencies and tend to share some common identity, ethnic or otherwise.

As we await a fuller breakdown of the elections results, it is clear that many members of parliament lost elections in their constituencies to competitors from their own ethnic groups. In such cases, party allegiance, record of the incumbent, and personalities all played a role. It is mostly in the large cities with their ethnically diverse populations where ethnic consciousness could be mobilized and the ethnic card played. In such contexts party allegiance loomed exceptionally large as a proxy for ethnicity. Only the president is subject to both local and national constituencies, and hence the enhanced ethnicization of the presidential election.

The complex interplay of local, regional, and national elections is of course not confined to Kenya or Africa for that matter. Look at voting patterns across Europe and North America and the different regional strategies political parties tend to employ to appeal to voters in various regions, not to mention the use of race. Nor is the ethnicization of electoral politics a peculiar African predilection. In no major western country has a black person ever been elected president or prime minister. In the United States, few blacks win state wide offices. Currently, there is only one black governor out of 50, and one black senator out of 100—the charismatic Barack Obama, the half-Kenyan and half-Luo 2008 U.S. presidential candidate. Yet, nobody labels electoral contests and results in western Europe and North America as ‘racial’, let alone ‘tribal’; they are given more dignified names.

Media reports on the Kenyan elections and especially reports of the protests following the inauguration of President Kibaki almost invariably include the word ‘tribal’; the reference is to ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’ as primordial identities untouched by history, as ancient hatreds immune to modernity, as pathological conditions peculiar to Africa. Forgotten is the simple fact that both Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga could not win the elections based on voting from their so-called ‘tribes’; two ethnic groups out of the country’s many ethnicities. While the presidential candidates received overwhelming electoral support in their home provinces, to win the presidency ethnic coalition building is essential, for the president has to win at least 25 of the vote in at least five of Kenya’s eight provinces.

The enthnicization of politics in Kenya is not a reflection of some atavistic reflex, or simply the result of elite political manipulations or primordial cultural affectations among the masses, even if the elites do indeed use ethnicity and the masses are mobilized by it. It is salutary to remember that some of Kenya’s ethnic groups only emerged or developed their current identities under British colonial rule. Few can trace themselves to the remote past notwithstanding the work of some historians to distinguish their ethnic communities with long and pristine pedigrees. Imagined ethnic and national histories are of course not about the past, but the present; they are part of the discursive and political arsenal for claim making in the present and for the future.

As we have learned from African studies, we need to distinguish between ‘moral ethnicity’, that is, ethnicity as a complex web of social obligations and belonging, and ‘political ethnicity’, that is, the competitive confrontation of ‘ethnic contenders’ for state power and national resources. Both are socially constructed, but one as an identity, the other as an ideology. Ethnicity may serve as a cultural public for the masses estranged from the civic public of the elites, a sanctuary that extends its comforts and protective tentacles to the victims of political disenfranchisement, economic impoverishment, state terror and group rivalry. In other words, it is not the existence of ethnic groups (or racial groups) that is a problem in itself, a predictor of social conviviality or conflict, but their political mobilization.

Ethnicity in Kenya is tied in complex and contradictory ways to the enduring legacies of uneven regional development. During colonial rule Central Kenya, the homeland of the Kikuyu, became the heartland of the settler economy, while Nyanza, the Luo homeland, languished as a labor reserve that furnished both unskilled and educated labor to the centers of colonial capitalism. Not surprisingly, the Kikuyu bore the brunt of colonial capitalist dispossession and socialization, and were in the vanguard of the nationalist struggles that led to decolonization and they came to dominate the postcolonial state and economy. Capitalist development and centralization of power reinforced domination of the Kenyan economy by the Central Province and the Kikuyu, a process that withstood the twenty-four year reign of President Moi, a Kalenjin from the Rift Valley, and was reinvigorated under President Kibaki’s administration.

Central Province and Kikuyu dominance of Kenya’s political economy bred resentment from other regions and ethnic groups. It fed into constitutional debates about presidential and political centralization of power, and the regional redistribution of resources that dominated Kenyan politics until 2005 when the draft constitution supported by the President and Parliament was rejected in a referendum. The ODM was born in the highly politicized maelstrom of the run up to the referendum.

This narrative tends to ignore an important qualifying fact, that not all Kikuyus are dominant and not all Luos are disempowered. Colonial, neo-colonial and neo-liberal capitalisms have bred class differentiations within communities as much as they have led to uneven development among regions. In other words, Kikuyu and Luo elites have much more in common with each other than they do with their co-ethnics among peasants and workers who also have more in common with each other across ethnic boundaries than with their respective elites. This is a reality that both the elites and the masses strategically ignore during competitive national elections, because the former need to mobilize and manipulate their ethnic constituencies in intra-elite struggles for power, and the latter because elections offer one of the few moments to shake the elites for the crumbs of development for themselves and their areas.

Kenyan politics exhibits familiar African trends. The country started its independence with a hurriedly negotiated multi-party system between the nationalists and the departing imperial power that could not withstand the homogenizing imperatives of nationalism and the intoxicating and intolerant demands of uhuru: nation-building, development, and democratization. Before long, Kenya joined the African bandwagon towards the one-party state. It became a de facto one-party state as the pre-independence opposition party KADU folded voluntarily into the ruling KANU in 1964, while the post-independence radical Kenya People’s Union formed in 1966 by former vice-president Oginga Odinga, the father of the ODM leader, was violently suppressed.

Kenya became a de jure one-party state under President Moi, who took power in 1978 following the death of the founding President Jomo Kenyatta, and was confronted by on the one hand the political tensions engendered by the attempted coup of 1982, and on the other a slowing economy that stagnated under the onerous weight of structural adjustment programs imposed with market fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions—the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—and western governments. By the end of the 1980s, it was clear that while the country remained relatively stable in a tumultuous region its early promise had been squandered under a reign of authoritarianism, corruption, and structural maladjustment.

As in much of Africa, from the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the unproductive power of one-party rule faced growing popular opposition. The struggles for the “second independence” by the restive masses and organized civil society scored limited victories in the 1992 and 1997 elections, and finally seized the prize in the elections of December 2002 when the ruling party, KANU, lost to the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). It was a new day: democracy expanded as political and civil freedoms spread, so did the economy as the stagnation of the Moi years receded, but the social and structural deformities of the postcolony remained as entrenched as ever. It is in this context that the current crisis can best be understood.

The last five years have seen the growth of both democracy and the economy, but the marriage between democracy and development remains unfilled. The economic growth rates under President Kibaki resemble those in the early post-independence years under President Kenyatta. The difference is not only that neo-colonial capitalism of the Kenyatta era, which had a nationalist face, has given way to contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, which has a neo-colonial soul, democracy has reconfigured old challenges and brought new ones that the society and state have yet to manage satisfactorily as the results of these elections amply demonstrate.

Examples abound that as the suffocating lid of state tyranny is lifted during moments of democratic transition the suppressed voices and expectations of civil society surge, but the stresses and strains arising from the competitive grind of democracy often find articulation in the entrenched identities, idioms, and institutions of ethnic solidarity. The challenge in Kenya, as in other divided multicultural societies, is the need to balance group and national interests through further democratization, devolution of power, and power sharing. In so far as ethnic interests and cleavages are only one set among many other possible bases of political contestation—class, religion, region, and gender that often mediate and reinforce ethnic identities and antagonisms—there is need to think about group interests beyond ethnicity.

The current trials and tribulations facing Kenya will not be resolved without the emergence of a leadership that is truly up to the challenge, a leadership that pursue a national project of profound social transformation, that eschews narrow and shortsighted exclusionary politics and neo-liberal economic growth. Kenya, and Africa as a whole, have no historic alternative from building truly democratic developmental states if they are to chart the twentieth century more prepared and empowered than they did the disastrous twentieth century marked by colonialism and neo-colonialism and their depredations that were simultaneously economic and existential, cultural and cognitive, political and paradigmatic.

The current leadership, both the ‘victors’ and ‘losers’, seem keen to retain or gain power at all costs. The power struggle is as sinister as the differences among the leaders are small. But often it is the very narcissism of minor differences that breeds gratuitous violence and viciousness as histories of genocide demonstrate. The leading politicians engaged in combat whose followers are tearing their lovely country apart are members of the same recycled political class committed to neo-liberal growth that offer no real solutions to Kenya’s enduring challenges of growth and development, choiceless democracy and transformative democracy.

Most of the major figures in the three leading parties, PNU, ODM, ODM-K, served in the Moi and Kibaki administrations at one time or another. Their politics do not differ in any significant ways. Indeed, it is a mark of the promiscuity of the political class that the three parties were formed quite recently, and politicians shop for parties with the consumer ease of well-heeled customers. In a sense, then, their collective interests of the politicians and national interests of the population are not coterminous, although converges do exist and are invoked at certain moments. The political animus between the Kibaki and Odinga camps is rooted in the now infamous secretive Memorundum of Understanding on the distribution of cabinet positions and power drawn up among the opposition parties that hurriedly formed NARC to fight the ruling party KANU in the 2002 elections. NARC was a marriage of convenience for a splintered opposition determined to win that failed to survive squabbles over the spoils of victory. Before long, Mr. Odinga and his followers began complaining that Mr. Kibaki had reneged on the MOU and thus began the slide to the current political impasse and crisis.

President Kibaki’s contested ‘victory’ has deprived the country of the opportunity to see that the opposition offers little more than a recycling of the same policies and politicians as has been witnessed in other African countries that are now into their third or fourth cycle of competitive multiparty elections. As this has become evident the lure of elections as engines of fundamental socioeconomic transformation has dimmed in many countries and the search for new forms of politics is underway. In Kenya the disputed results of this election may have done the same. Only time will tell, perhaps long after the violence has subsided. What can be predicted is that the Kibaki government will be paralyzed in the new parliament, where it controls less than a fifth of the seats, and might even be brought down by a vote of no confidence, although the power of the government to secure or ‘buy’ support from self-serving parliamentarians cannot be ruled out, as has happened in Malawi and other countries where the President’s party is in the minority. And a popular uprising, or even an 'orange revolution', can never be ruled out.

Kenya’s current political tragedy is part of a much larger story. The absence of articulated and organized institutional and ideological alternatives under neoliberalism is at the heart of the political crisis facing contemporary Africa and much of the world. It has led, thus far, to the ossification of politics, and in some countries, the premature abortion or aging of elections as instruments of transformative change. The specter of choiceless democracies is not confined to countries in the global South, for in many parts of the global North including the United States the ideological divide between the major parties is often indecipherable, the result of which is political apathy as nearly half the population has exited the electoral process. For more fragile societies, the danger is not apathy, but anarchy. As a keen observer of Kenya, a country where I spent many fruitful years studying and teaching in the late 1970s and 1980s, I hope the country can avoid such a fate. Perhaps the ferocity of the reaction to the botched elections will serve as a wakeup call to the political class and the troubled citizenry to chart a more productive future for their beloved country. A good beginning would be for the contending parties to agree to a binding independent and internationally monitored investigation of the election results.

* Paul T Zeleza is editor of The Zeleza Post. This article was first published at First Written December 31, 2007

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