What a disaster. What a self-inflicted nightmare.
There's too much to say and too much backstory already for any sort of "commentary" here, now, but the former anti-corruption tsar, John Githongo, now based in Britain and apparently an angry and disgusted man, has written this succinct piece in this week's Time magazine. Who knew that Gordon Brown had been so active in helping to broker a compromise?
Photo: Mombasa highway, near Makindu
It's not the first time it's happened. Kenya has never been an "oasis of stability and peace" as the mainstream media kept reporting (there were few headlines when hundreds were killed by the police in a gang crackdown in Nairobi last summer). For forty years it's been a seething mess of contradictions, held together, and even made to prosper in parts, by some of the nicest, most forgiving, most patient people in the world. There was an explosion of ethnic tension in 1992 in the run-up to the first "democratic" elections, which Daniel Arap Moi managed to win. I remember driving one evening back across the Rift Valley, from Kakamega to Naivasha, and the fires of burning huts were clearly visible out on the plateau, especially south of Eldoret. I didn't feel personally threatened. There were no barricades - the violence was happening in the countryside, not in the towns. It's reckoned at least 3000 people were killed in ethnic clashes during the 1990s, and around 300,000 displaced. So the recent violence isn't quite so bad (though it happened very quickly, very brutally, and under a lot of media attention which wasn't there to the same degree in the 1990s), but the refugee problem is much greater this time – as many as half a million people – and the political/ethnic demarcations much more starkly mapped.
Meanwhile, although the country is suffering terribly because the tourist industry has collapsed, it's clear that tourists themselves are not in any danger, and I've not heard any reports of tourists physically harmed during the recent troubles. In fact, people who have been visiting, seem to report a better time than ever, with very quiet conditions. Have a look at this feedback from recent guests at one of my favourite camps, Kicheche in the Mara. If there was ever a time when a country needed you to visit on holiday, it's Kenya, in 2008. Now if the Foreign Office travel advisory would just catch up. . .
Photo: staff at Il Ngwesi lodge, Laikipia
If Time pull the article at some point, here's the text:
Kenya: From the Ground Up
March 17, 2008 By JOHN GITHONGO
The ethnic political violence that convulsed Kenya after disputed elections on Dec. 27 shattered the nation's image as an oasis of calm in a turbulent corner of Africa. Perhaps no one was more shocked — or had more to lose — than members of Kenya's middle class, who seemed comfortably ensconced in Westernized modernity after more than 40 years of economic growth without major political trauma. They watched as ethnic clashes left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, and as those decades of hard-earned economic progress threatened to unravel. The violence had assumed an unsettling ethnic character that saw neighbor turn against neighbor with machetes and other crude weapons. As militia mobilized on both sides, Kenyans began to self-segregate along ethnic lines.
It took an unprecedented concert of international diplomatic pressure, united behind former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to force Kenya back from the precipice. In a power-sharing deal, opposition leader Raila Odinga will now serve as Prime Minister while the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki will remain in that post. All of Africa and Kenya's friends abroad breathed a sigh of relief when the deal was signed.
If the peace is to hold, however, it is important to understand the forces underlying it — to recognize that Kenya's near-death experience was caused not by ethnicity alone, but by its toxic mix with politics. Because Kenya's constitution vests disproportionate powers in the presidency, the ethnic group to which a President belongs — in Kibaki's case, the Kikuyu — has typically been seen as the beneficiary of unequal access to justice and economic opportunity. Combine this with a corrupt political élite given to extravagant displays of consumption, and it is no wonder that powerful resentments have built up in Kenyan society, not least among the Luo who backed Odinga. In this environment, even Kenya's booming economy — with growth surpassing 6% in 2007 — adds fuel to the fire. Many Kenyans felt that this prosperity was passing them by while others were getting more than their fair share. Ethnic inequality is a dangerous and highly effective tool for politicians keen to whip up resentment.
Annan's mediation process did two critical things: it temporarily stopped the violence and it created an opportunity to resolve some of Kenya's fundamental problems. We now have a coalition government that was forced on the Kenyan political élite by the international community. Had it not been for the vigorous intervention of Kenya's neighbors, and of the wider world — particularly Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who worked the phones ceaselessly — the belligerents would not have set aside their differences. The upside of this is that the Kenyan crisis has empowered the region and the African Union to intervene robustly when things go badly wrong in an important member country. The downside is that the giant sucking sound when the Annan deal was signed was Kenya's sovereignty being flushed into the global diplomatic ether. As a Kenyan, I worry that it could take a long time for us to regain our confidence in our ability to manage our own affairs without robbing ourselves silly, turning on each other along ethnic lines, and practicing a politics of brinkmanship. For our leaders, we can only hope that the humbling experience of international intervention will prove instructive as well.
In order to work, the new arrangement first has to remain in place — no mean feat given the pressures it is meant to dispel. A critical test will be what the coalition government does to facilitate the speedy return home of more than 300,000 displaced Kenyans from all ethnic groups — women and children in particular. The title deeds they hold to land now occupied by others must be honored; if they are not, the viability of the Kenyan state and the rule of law itself will be called into question.
The new situation carries with it risk and opportunity. Cynics can argue that the coalition government has pooled all of Kenya's rotten political eggs into one noxious basket, and is therefore bound to fail. On the other hand, Kenya stared into the abyss and was finally pulled back. That presents a chance to refashion the Kenyan state itself and to address the systemic issues — inequality, land rights, corruption and the constitution — that gave rise to the crisis in the first place.
John Githongo is Kenya's former anticorruption chief and a fellow at Oxford University
© Time magazine