By Njoroge Wachai
The post-election mayhem that has rocked Kenya is horrifying – and embarrassing. Nearly every American I meet inquires about the plight of my extended family. My response is always that I am praying for politicians to come to their senses and talk to, not at, each other, for the sake of the country instead of for themselves.
It’s depressing to see a country slide into chaos when just a month ago it prided itself on its political and economic gains. Once known as a beacon of peace, Kenya now risks being branded unstable and dangerous to visit, tags that will scare away tourists. Economic gains already realized will fast evaporate into thin air.
The post-election violence has seen the wiping out of whole families by machete-wielding hoodlums, who ostensibly are protesting a rigged election. Why spill innocent blood for a political cause? Is the clamor of so-called justice worth the lives of the 500 innocent Kenyans now stacked in mortuaries across the country?
In 2000, former U.S. vice president Al Gore controversially lost a presidential contest to President Bush. Gore polled a million votes more than Bush, but fell short in the Electoral College count, which many believed wad fraught with fraud. Out of pragmatism, Gore, (unlike Raila Odinga) conceded defeat after the Supreme Court certified Bush to be the president.
Gore, just like Mr. Odinga, felt cheated by a system that was then tilted towards the Republican Party. The Supreme Court was stuffed with Bush Senior’s appointees; Florida’s Secretary of State was Republican Catherine Harris, whom Gore charged with personally orchestrating the “fraud.” What anger could be more intense than Al Gore’s? Yet he didn’t exhort his supporters to engage in violent acts the way Mr. Odinga has.
Mr. Odinga is vowing not to subject his grievances to the justice system on suspicion that the courts are heavily tilted towards President Kibaki. I see a lot of hypocrisy here. A year ago, the government threatened to investigate the circumstances under which the Raila family’s Spectre International, a cooking-gas manufacturing company based in the lakeside city of Kisumu, had acquired a piece of public land at a highly discounted price. Mr. Odinga swiftly rushed to court to seek an injunction. If, indeed, Mr. Odinga has no confidence in Kenya’s judicial system, he wouldn’t have gone there to seek reprieve.
As recently as December of last year, Mr. Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) appealed to the High Court to prevent the government from authorizing the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Safaricom, Kenya’s premier wireless company. That’s more evidence of doubletalk from opposition politicians. It seems the judiciary is only credible when serving its own interests.
But Kenya is bigger than individuals or political causes. As U.S. President George Bush said in a press statement Tuesday, Kenya doesn’t deserve what it’s undergoing. Kenya can’t afford to join the league of countries that are in perpetual state of political instability. There’s a lot at stake.
Kenya is a country at a crossroads, and the sooner politicians across the political divide acknowledge this, the better. Some, like Government Spokesman Dr. Alfred Mutua and Finance Minister Amos Kimunya, believe that the current crisis can just be wished away by flooding streets and public parks with security forces in Plexiglas, guns, teargas, water-canons in mounted trucks and truncheons. They’re wrong. Long-lasting peace will only be feasible if politicians behave responsibly, in words and deeds. They must go an extra step to bridge huge tribal divisions that last year’s election produced.
The opposition’s assertion that the government ought to be dealing with the root cause, and not the consequences, of the post-election violence smacks of arrogance and insensitivity. They’re mocking the families, friends and relatives of the more than 500 people who have died from this senseless violence. Their supporters might interpret this to mean engaging in more violence.
This is not the time for grandstanding either by the government or the opposition. Every Kenyan, irrespective of party affiliation, must put last year’s election behind him/her and engage in genuine national healing. We can’t afford to Balkanize Kenya along tribal lines, further exacerbating inter-tribal hatred. It would have cataclysmic consequences on national unity.
If there’s one thing this election succeeded in achieving, it was to significantly expand the ethnic crevasses that reach to every corner of the country. The violence being witnessed in Kenya, though it was sparked by the cliff-hanger win of President Kibaki, bears all the hallmarks of ethnicity. It’s about politicians taking advantage of our fragile ethnic divisions for their own ends. How can you explain a Luo killing a Kikuyu, and vice versa, without either bothering to ask each other who he/she voted for?
Surely, the opposition gained as many votes in Nairobi as President Kibaki. He can’t claim that all these votes came from members of his tribe – the Luos. Neither can Kibaki – a Kikuyu - deny that some Luos or Kalenjins voted for him. It’s the height of ludicrousness to watch gangs mutilate each other on account of tribe. They must have been doing so at the behest of politicians from their respective tribes.
Gullible politicians are inciting disheveled, poor tribesmen to engage in ethnic cleansing, while they themselves continue insist shamelessly that it’s all about fighting for justice and democracy. Tribal passions were apparent during campaigns, and so the presidential election results were just an excuse.
When the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) proclaimed Mwai Kibaki the winner, for instance, the ODM leader, Raila Odinga, dismissed him as a president who was elected by only two communities: Kikuyus and Merus. During and after the campaigns, some in the government publicly proclaimed that Kenya can’t be led by a Kihii (uncircumcised man). This was in reference to Mr. Odinga, whose community doesn’t practice male circumcision. We also watched ecstatic post-election celebrations by government supporters, in which they engaged in ethnic rhetoric, clearly tailored to demean other tribes.
Without seeming to justify electoral malpractices that touched off the violence, I must remind all and sundry that this isn’t the first time Kenya has witnessed electoral fraud – and it will not be the last. It’s inexcusable, however, for politicians in Kenya to continue exploiting tribal divisions to settle political scores.
Njoroge Wachai studies technical communication at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.