Kenya's politics-Still too tribal
Kenyans have the jitters as they start gearing up for next year's elections
Jun 9th 2012 | NAIROBI | from the print edition
WHEN a group of idealists calling themselves "patriots" and "nationalists"
tried to hold a political rally in Limuru, half an hour's drive north of
Nairobi, Kenya's capital, they ended up being chased into the forest by
police firing live rounds and tear gas. The police labelled them "dangerous"
and "criminal". The organisers' grave error was to tell the crowd that they
were not obliged to vote for someone from their own ethnic group.
Among the speakers was Ngunjiri Wambugu, a businessman involved in politics
for the first time because he reckoned that Kenya's business climate has
been soured by tribal squabbles. It was time, he said, to nudge people along
the road from "tribe thinking to Kenya thinking".
If only. The last time Kenyans went to the polls to elect a president, the
ensuing dispute left 1,500 people dead and 300,000 displaced. The chaos,
much of it orchestrated by leading politicians, tore the seams of Kenya's
patchwork of more than 40 tribes, with violence erupting largely along
tribal lines. Tribalism, plainly, was still the bane of Kenyan politics.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague wants to try the alleged
ringleaders for crimes against humanity. A trial date is expected to be set
on June 12th. The coming presidential election, due in March next year, may
well clash with it. Two of Kenya's leading candidates may find themselves in
a Dutch dock just when they would rather be on Kenya's hustings.
The most prominent is Uhuru Kenyatta, a son of the country's founding
president. Many think he is also the country's richest man. The ICC has
recently jailed a former head of state, Liberia's Charles Taylor, and in
2008 indicted Sudan's incumbent, Omar al-Bashir. Kenyans could set an
unfortunate precedent by electing a head of state while he is actually on
trial at the ICC.
Nairobi's political elite reckons it has learned the "Bashir lesson": the
African Union, it seems, will defend one of its own if he is still in
office. Witness the fate of Jean-Pierre Bemba: once he had lost the
presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, he ended
up at the ICC. The fear is that Mr Kenyatta will see the coming election as
his get-out-of-jail card and play it for all it is worth. President Mwai
Kibaki, who is to stand down after two terms in office, may be persuaded to
withdraw co-operation from the ICC to protect Mr Kenyatta if it insists on
summoning him; they are both members of the Kikuyu tribe, the largest and
richest in Kenya. But if that happened, it could lead to turmoil at home,
international sanctions imposed from abroad, and a loss of confidence in
Kenya is governed by a ramshackle coalition that includes prominent people
from every main tribe, with power determined by complex alliances of the
main groups, most of them rent by internal rivalries. Most political parties
still act as vehicles for tribal champions. "Tribal politics is alive and
well," said Murithi Mutiga, a commentator. "It's a numbers game which makes
elections more like a census."
Mr Kenyatta's new grouping, the National Alliance, is energetically shoring
up support in Central Province, heartland of the Kikuyu and the closely
related Meru and Embu, most of whom tend to vote in a block. Some of his
supporters gave a taste of the coming campaign when they told voters they
should "elect a dog" as long as it was wearing the new party's colours.
Mr Kenyatta has teamed up with another tribal champion, William Ruto, a
Kalenjin, who is also facing trial at the ICC. They have formed an alliance
known as the G7, which embraces seven supposed champions, whose main aim, it
seems, is to stop the prime minister, Raila Odinga, from becoming president.
In case Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto are both prevented from running by the ICC,
they have poached Musalia Mudavadi, a lesser light in Mr Odinga's party, to
lead their alliance instead.
Most observers think Mr Odinga narrowly won the last presidential contest
but had to settle for the lesser job of prime minister in a coalition
following the disputed election. He has tried hardest to build a coalition
across the tribal spectrum. But his base is the Luo people of western Kenya,
who have long felt done down by the Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Though his
performance as prime minister is widely regarded as chaotic, he broadly
retains Western governments' backing, which he may use in an effort to
persuade the UN Security Council to defer his rivals' ICC trial until after
the election. That would rob Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto of one of their main
Kenya's messy politics has hurt its economy. A recent Harvard study
suggested it should be growing at 7% rather than 4%, the latest figure. The
government is belatedly trying to improve the country's shoddy
infrastructure, for instance by building a series of multi-lane roads around
Nairobi. But the political instability still puts off investors and
corruption remains rife. The finance ministry's top civil servant recently
told Parliament that as much as a third of the budget was lost to graft.
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Received on Sat Jun 09 2012 - 17:57:20 EDT