Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Thoughts on the situation in Kenya

As Kenya continues to convulse with violence in the wake of last Sunday's election results, there seems to be a lot of surprise registering on the parts of observers that this East African nation and its people could descend into anarchy so quickly. A common thread in the commentary of journalists and experts is that Kenya has been a model of stability and democracy within the continent, unlike its neighbours such as Uganda, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, to say nothing of Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola...and, well, a long list of other African countries.

And while it is true that Kenya has managed to avoid the internecine, tribal, ethnic and political clashes that have devastated other parts of Africa, it should be remembered that this is a nation that has had very little in the way of truly transparent democracy since it achieved independence from the United Kingdom in late 1963, and has been wracked by political violence and enduring charges of corruption for decades.

There have only been three presidents in the country's 44-year history - Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arop Moi and the current incumbent, Mwai Kibaki. (Canada has had nine prime ministers in the same time, while the United States has had eight presidents.) As the CIA World Factbook puts it, "The country was a de facto one-party state from 1969 until 1982 when the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) made itself the sole legal party in Kenya." In 1992 and 1997, election-related violence killed perhaps thousands of Kenyans, as charges of irregularities and fraud were leveled by opposition groups, not unlike this week's events.

As anyone who knows Kenya well can attest, corruption is endemic there. A Kenyan colleague of mine explained things to me by simply stating, "This is a place all about bribes: You pay money to get your son into university; you bribe to get your brother into the police; you bribe to get a business license. This is just the way things are."

But this is not how it should be. I know there are many who will talk of the effect of colonialism on Kenya, and many other parts of Africa, but after almost a half century of independence there comes a time when one can no longer blame the British for everything. Power corrupts and near absolute power corrupts near absolutely.

Kenya has managed to appear stable only in comparison to its more anarchic neighbours, which is a slightly sad way to look at things. Some in the media have wondered if civil war is about to break out or whether there's "another Rwanda" about to occur. But Kenya is not Rwanda, nor Yugoslavia for that matter. It is not in the interests of any of the political groups vying for power to see their nation ripped apart in those ways, and you can be certain they are well aware of how internal fighting has reduced Somalia to failed-state status.

One can only hope that Kenyans will look at how situations evolved in places like Ukraine or Georgia, where the will of the people was guided by leaders astute enough to know the limits of protest against seemingly intractable governments. Indeed, perhaps Kenya will find itself at the forefront of introducing peaceful change to the continent, formulating an East African velvet revolution that can bring true democracy to one of the few countries able to accept such a thing. Because if they can achieve such an event, it could become a catalyst for the entire region, a far more promising prospect than the machinations of narrow-minded politicians.

Fort Jesus, Mombasa

(Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese on the shores of the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa in the late-sixteenth century, an early example of European attempts on colonizing Africa.)

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