Posted by: michaeldavidpower | October 3, 2010

Kenya – two years on, after the disputed election of 2008

I wrote the following article over two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Kenyan General Elections when sadly there was a spate of post-election violence and predictably a bout of Western hand-wringing as “Africa’s Great Black Hope” seemed to be (in Western eyes) “doing a Zimbabwe”. I felt the events, sad as they were, were actually “good news” for Kenya, constituting as they did a necessary rite of passage which Kenya had to endure and which many African nations would still have to face. So subsequent events have proved – a new constitution has been written and approved by the electorate. The country seems to be making genuine political progress though it is far from moving up a level to the next stage of democracy. Even its economy has rebounded strongly. The East African Community has been reformed and the region as a whole will likely grow over 6% in 2010, with kenya falling only a littlre short of that number.

Life goes on. Kenya is muddling through. More good is happening than bad. By far. Africa as a whole is making progress, politically and economically – with the latter helping secure the former, and vice versa.


The World’s Press – mainly the Western World’s press – has made Kenya front page news in 2008. And, let there be no mistake, given the atrocities that have occurred in the aftermath of Kenya’s parliamentary and presidential elections, there is absolute justification for this spotlight. Sometimes, just sometimes, the glare of publicity can shame the seemingly shameless into thinking twice about repeating their atrocities.

But sadly and predictably, Western reportage has focussed more on the ‘what has happened’ than the ‘why’. Perhaps this is the pre-ordained format of ambulance chasing journalism.

Except for isolated smatterings of true insight, the resulting coverage has been that, whilst the gruesome detail is new, the story’s form is depressingly old. Most Western commentators have discovered – Eureka! – another snake in this African Garden of Eden, a venomous species called “Tribalism”. Profiling this primeval reptile provides slam-dunk headlines and easy analysis. Perhaps when your paper or TV has helicoptered you into hell, why try to get to the bottom of a story when a shallowly researched pop story will get your name in the by-line anyway?

Deciding how to approach today’s Kenyan tragedy deserves a far more sober and sombre analysis than the ambulance chasers – predictably now including a host of foreign diplomats – appear willing to contemplate. Within the tortured evolution of the Kenyan body politic and as hard and callous as it is to say, ‘why what happened’ is far more important than ‘what happened’.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is immediately relevant: any ‘solution’ emerging in coming days and weeks must address that ‘why’ to stand any chance of sticking. A rapprochement that merely papers over the cracks – cracks which, within the increasingly fluid socio-economic miasma of modern Kenya, are so much more complex than the merely tribal – will not only not last but ultimately may end up doing more harm than good.

The second is that the ‘why’ of Kenya is echoed across much of modern Africa. A not dissimilar chorus was heard at the African National Congress gathering in Polokwane just before Christmas. Consequently addressing the deeper issues underlying the Kenyan crisis might yet become a test case for other African countries. As painful and as tragic as some of the consequences already are and still yet might be, there are boils suppurating in parts of post-colonial Africa that must eventually be lanced. The hardest choice facing all those now asking the Kenyan Question is whether now is the time and Nairobi the place to start this painful exorcism.

My greatest fear is that the all-too-predictable approach of most well-meaning foreign mediators, from Archbishop Tutu to Jendayi Fraser, appears to be evolving into some sort of restoration of the status quo ante after which liberal amounts of soothing balm will be applied to the now open wounds: the current favourite ‘solution’ appears to be to form a Government of National Unity. Maybe, just maybe, on this occasion, this type of approach is the one that will no longer stick.

So what is the ‘why’ behind what has happened in Kenya? This easy answer is that there is no easy answer. But let me try. New winds of change are blowing across much of the African Continent, a region which is grappling with not just the post ‘post-colonial’ stage of its socio-economic development but which, like many now industrialized nations before it, is trying to cope with the myriad pressures of rampant urbanization.

To many Kenyans, this has necessarily meant the loosening of ties – tribal and even family – that accompany this rural uprooting and urban migration. Meanwhile a newer combination of disparate factors – the advent of cheap and easy communications, the liberalization of markets, the ravages of AIDS and malaria, the shifting of the economic centre of gravity from West to East… in short all the modern manifestations of ‘globalization’ – are eroding older, cosier, more predictable practices and replacing them with the unfamiliar and constantly changing. Whilst the visual wrapping may remain exotic, the deeper substance of modern Africa is actually becoming far more mainstream.

The uncomfortable result for the ambulance chasers is that accurate analysis precludes using the hackneyed metaphors. The reality of modern day Kenya – indeed much of modern day urban Africa – is far closer to the back-street grittiness of the Kibera slum as portrayed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles in his film the Constant Gardner than the stale lyricism of the Ngong-facing verandah as imagined in Pollack’s Out of Africa.

This means that the real and urgent story of Kenyan politics is far less about stubborn tribalism and far more about how a more educated, younger if still poor urban majority is chafing at the bit still being pulled by a richer, aging, less technocratic, frequently corrupt minority. And when apologists for the status quo retort with a “be that as it may, we must oppose those favouring change because they are socialist in their policies”, increasingly such apologists are precisely wrong. Most Kenyan reformers are far more market-minded than their kleptocratic leaders. And most oppose the very visible and very dead hand of corruption far preferring to try their luck with the invisible hand of the market.

That a good part of Kenya’s ruling elite is largely composed of Kikuyus, the centrally located, most populous ethnic group best positioned to take up the reins of power when the British left in 1963, is largely an accident of history. To Kenya’s poor and numerous, virtually whoever might be in their petrified political elite and from whatever group they might come would classify them as a “them”. This fact was made vividly clear in the recent parliamentary election results where many regional leaders who had been co-opted into the Nairobi establishment were roundly beaten on their home turf by political nobodies. Even in an election that the incumbent regime tried hard to rig, those favouring the promotion of a morally as well as a materially better life expelled Kibaki’s Vice President and over 20 of his ministers from Parliament.

As Kibaki’s now exiled anti-corruption czar, John Githongo (incidentally a Kikuyu), put it: “There are truly only two tribes in Kenya – the very small tribe of rich people and the giant tribe of poor people. When things get difficult, the small tribe gets together in board meetings, nyama choma (a Kenyan meat-braai) and at golf clubs, to agree on how to sustain the oppression of the poor.”

Recent events in Kenya are not uniquely Kenyan. Much of Africa faces similar hurdles though a number of countries – think Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia – may have already navigated this rite of passage thereby taming their – to use Patrick Marnham’s phrase – “vampire elites”. (Why, other than land-locked-by-Kenya Uganda, has no other African state endorsed Kibaki’s win? Because New Africa is an increasingly democratic Africa and is appalled by the Kenyan incumbent’s anti-democratic behaviour.)

As seemingly bizarre as it might seem, especially amidst Kenya’s rarely-seen-before refugee camps and the charred remains of its shanty town shacks, one can be optimistic about events in Kenya. If the independence era of the 1960s was that of the African Magna Carta – when the colonial ‘king’ was contained by Africa’s Bwana Mkubwas, its Big Men – perhaps we now witnessing a Second Uhuru where the people at large will taste a wider and more liberating freedom. If the modern Philippines began with ‘People Power’ in 1986, perhaps modern Kenya will be dated from ‘Wananchi Power’ in 2008.

As a Kenyan friend told me: “Rites of passage are nearly always painful and good education is hardly ever free”. Thus one must ask of those well-meaning peace-makers jetting into Nairobi: please think twice before you try to rebuild the humpty dumpty that was old Kenya. Maybe this egg was so rotten, it should stay scrambled; perhaps your time would be better spent trying to help incubate a new one. For surely Kenya’s ultimate tragedy would be that if, at the end of this terrible ordeal, nothing really changed.



  1. Brilliant words!

    • Good survey in FT on Kenya – look for: Overview: A fragile state is put to the test

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