Social tensions run deep

“The real tragedy of Kenya is that the political conflict is not about alternative political programmes that could address … landlessness, low wages, unemployment, lack of shelter, inadequate incomes, homelessness, … [instead] it boils down to a fight over who has access to the honey pot that is the state. …[citizens] are reduced to being just being fodder for the pigs fighting over the trough.” Pambazuka News

Nairobi Contrast
Joseph Karoki posted this photo of Nairobi online which shows how the city is polarized along lines of class. In the shiny part of Nairobi, home to 1 million middle and upper-class Kenyans, comprised mainly of Kikuyus and Luos, life still goes on and the beer still flows

Certainly, Kenya may be burning, on the brink of ethnic warfare and total breakdown, and yet the middle and upper classes carry on as before in the cloistered confines of secure estates, private clubs, gated compounds, razor wire and electric fencing.

However, it is Kenya’s middle-class which has been increasingly critical of government corruption. Collectively, Luos and Kikuyus have pushed for political reforms as this, rather than ethnic conflict, best suits their interests.

“The Kikuyus and the Luos are most involved in the market economy, and they were at the forefront of the struggle for independence, as well as in the move toward democracy. They understand that the problem is one of bad government and corrupt economics, not bad tribes. Once you conceptualize the problem as dealing with bad governance, then you know the solution lies in good government, human rights, and sound economic management, not tribal warfare.”‘ Gibson Kamau Kuria, Kikuyu lawyer and human rights leader

It is this cohesiveness among the upper and middle-classes that has prevented the country from spiraling into civil war so far.

In the slums of the city where 2 million people reside this election unleashed expectations of change that have now been smashed. There is a war going on in which the poor kill, rob, rape and raze each others homes to the ground while the political elite stand by and watch from afar.

Kenya’s political elite has remained resolutely unresponsive to the plight of these people for so long. The elite calculate that it is possible to ring-fence Kibera off from the rest of the city for a time but then what? Cracking down in an authoritarian manner only breeds more bitterness and resentment. The underlying problems that give rise to a rapidly growing population of urban poor need to be addressed quickly. But even before that the miscalculations made by Kivuite in declaring Kibaki president when he now says he is not even sure who won the election must first be resolved. Otherwise there will be no country to rule over.

Not only are the poor in Kibera reacting to what is perceived as “a stolen election” but the ethnic violence taking place in the rural areas is inevitably linked up with deeply held resentments over the distribution of land and resources, resentments which have been instigated by political actors who have the most to gain from ethnic violence. As in 1992, it seems that certain actors who fear political liberalization are behind the troubles.

In an essay on why collective violence erupts in the world’s undemocratic regimes, Charles Tilly lists three causes :

First, they have vulnerable governments that nonetheless yield power and profit to the groups that control them. Second, external advantages are available to rulers in the forms of revenue from valuable commodities and/or of international recognition for local dominance by their ethnic or religious faction. Third, specialists in coercion such as militias and mercenaries can operate more or less autonomously within their territories. With high-value targets that are relatively weak and relatively easy to organize against, the predictable result is widespread collective violence and civil war.

It is the Kikuyu who are taking the brunt of this (update 18.01.08 Luos are being targetedtoo by the GSU in Kisumu and Nairobi’s slums). It is perhaps too much to expect Western journalists to get inside this story so instead we are fed vague analyses which center around “tribal” conflicts between the Luos and Kikuyus.

While they continue to describe the situation in Kenya as arising from long-held hostilities between the Kikuyu and Luo, Kikuyu are being killed by Kalenjin.

What has been consistently overlooked in the Kenyan and international press is the links to government patronage enjoyed by the Kalenjin thanks to over 20 years of rule under Daniel Arap Moi (who I hear is back in the role of peacemaker, after sojourning in Germany for the past 9 days or so).

These links of patronage should be examined to see who is behind the ethnic violence and mass land clearances of Kikuyu in the Rift Valley. The massacres taking place here, like the 1992 massacres, are meant to send strong signals to those in government about how far the instigators are prepared to go to hold onto their privileges. This needs to be investigated now and the guilty parties brought to the International Criminal Court to face trial for crimes against humanity.

In the meantime there are fears that the situation could spiral into a civil war. There’s talk of revolution and counter-revolution in the air. As Horace Campbell points out, this is a revolutionary situation that lacks revolutionary leaders and which is also bereft of revolutionary ideas.

Kibaki is a weak and bankrupt leader. Odinga has really overstretched himself and made terrible mis-calculations. For what?! Must people die because of their ambitions?

Addendum: On reflection it seems to me that Kibaki has benefited from the ethnic cleansing taking place in the Rift Valley. This is not to accuse Kibaki of the crimes being perpetrated in the region but an attempt to explain not only his inaction but the terrible miscalculation made by Odinga when he sided with Ruto.

Following the political and social breakdown and ensuing disorientation that occurred due to the wrong person being sworn in as president it would have been nigh on impossible to use state violence to prevent insurrections from breaking out in the provinces. The reason being, Kibaki would have feared sending in his own army to suppress any likely unrest because of divisions exisiting within state troops. This was evident in Kisumu where Kibaki held back sending in Kenyan troops, instead relying on Museveni’s troops to quell the uprising there.

Militias murdering, attacking and driving the Kikuyu from their burnt homes have created a situation of terror which has left one region of the country completely terrorized. There is not likely to be a revolt against the state when the population is cowed. Insurrections in the Rift Valley, had they happened, would have helped to drive Odinga into State House.

However, the government did not need to use coercion to intimidate the people and prevent widespread anarchy and revolt because other state actors were doing the job for them. Because of the actions of these militias the status quo has been maintained.

Further, Kibaki’s regime is strengthened through the displacement of 250,000 people who now homeless and desperate have to rely on the state for food and security.

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