the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Mar 9, 2008
The following article first appeared in issue number 77 of the British journal Class Struggle, published by Workers’ Fight, a revolutionary Trotskyist group in Great Britain. Since it was written, there has been new violence in Kenya, most recently on the day after the installation of the coalition cabinet called for in the February 29th agreement.
On February 29th, after two months of violence which left 1,500 people dead, thousands mutilated and hundreds of thousands homeless, Kenya’s politicians finally struck a deal over the disputed December 2007 presidential election.
A two-party system is to be set up with the office of prime minister having executive powers. Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition who claims that the presidency was stolen from him by the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, will share power with him, as prime minister. Cabinet posts will be divided between Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) on the basis of respective forces in the National Assembly.
Will the violence now stop? That is an open question. In the short period since December 30th , when the announcement of the election results seemed to be the signal for a wave of unprecedented killing and maiming to begin between tribal groups – mainly Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin – such a river of blood has been built up that it will be difficult to bridge.
As is always the case with Africa, the Western media has been quick to blame ethnic tensions, as such, as if they are some kind of ancestral malediction hanging over the heads of African people. But the truth is somewhat more complicated and a lot less comfortable for the rich countries.
These tensions actually feed on very “modern” factors, including the chronic and worsening poverty imposed on the population by the imperialist multinational companies’ looting of the African continent and their deliberate corruption of local intermediaries. In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, ethnic tensions are also fed by the demagogy of local politicians, who more often than not happen also to be agents of one or another imperialist country or company.
In this combination of factors, reproduced again and again over the decades, starting under the rule of the British colonizers and carrying on after independence, can be found the causes of the recent confrontations.
Kenya is a geographically diverse and spectacular country, straddling the equator. It is more than double the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of 37 million, comprised of diverse ethnic groups. Among them, the Kikuyu, from the center of the country, form 22% of the population. The Luhya comprise 14%, the Luo from around Lake Victoria 13%, the Kalenjin (an umbrella name for several tribes) from the Rift Valley 11%, and the Kisii from the south-west, 6%. Smaller groups include the Embu and Meru peoples from the area adjacent to Mount Kenya, who also speak Kikuyu, and the Masaai, as well as several hundred thousand each of Asians, Europeans and Arabs.
The Central Highlands used to be called the “White Highlands” because white settlers – mainly from Britain – occupied these areas after Britain declared Kenya its colony in 1888. They also occupied parts of the Rift Valley, one of the most fertile in the whole of Africa. It is the location of most of today’s farms, both large and small.
Many Western firms acquired large holdings in the Rift Valley’s high-yielding agriculture – Brooke Bond, Unilever, George Williamson Tea, James Finlay, particularly in the Kericho area where there are huge tea growing estates. Tea is now Kenya’s second biggest export earner.
Most of Kenya’s population is in fact concentrated in the fertile Central and Western provinces and to a much lesser extent in coastal areas like Kenya’s main port city, Mombasa.
Infrastructure is generally very poor, except for the fact that, unlike a lot of African railways, the one in Kenya still works. It was completed by 1902 and runs between Mombasa via Nairobi and the Rift Valley up to Kampala in Uganda, providing Uganda and Rwanda/Burundi rail access to the sea. A lot of Kenya’s towns and villages are grouped along this railway, and the main trunk road follows a similar path through Central and Western Provinces.
While the Kenyan economy has never really been developed more than to produce basic agricultural products for export (mainly pyrethrum, flowers, coffee, tea) or minimal food processing, Kenya is the regional hub for East Africa’s trade and finance. Surprisingly perhaps, in the last year, GDP growth was reported as 6.3%, which may seem a significant improvement over the declining economy before Kibaki came to power five years ago. However, observers point out that there has been no reduction in the population’s poverty. Instead, the rich have gotten richer under Kibaki.
There may be a busy stock exchange, plenty of fast food joints on Nairobi’s streets, thriving casinos, lovely golf courses and glossy safari holidays available. But the real face of Kenya has nothing to do with dramatic wildlife scenes nor happily jumping Masaai warriors.
Two-thirds of Nairobi’s residents are crowded into only 8% of the capital city’s land, living in so-called “informal settlements” – a hypocritical way of saying they are living in tin and cardboard shacks they had to make themselves. These slums lack amenities like clean water, drains, sewers, let alone “bathrooms” or “kitchens.” And two out of every three Kenyans has to try to survive on under a dollar a day. Landless and jobless laborers continue to pour into the slums of Nairobi, because in the rural areas the situation is even worse.
Before the 2007 elections, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission reported that the Kenya police were implicated in the “extra-judicial killing” of close to 500 young men in 2006 and 2007, all from the poverty stricken slums of Kibera and Mathare. This is a shoot-to-kill policy against the poor. It was in Kibera and Mathare that shacks were burnt down in the recent post-election carnage. Then again, many said that the police were in the forefront of some of the so-called “ethnic violence” after the election.
As for happy jumping Masaai, the famous tourist attraction, Kibaki showed how much he cared about them by denying them a hearing in 2004 over their petition to regain their lands in the Rift Valley. These lands had been leased by the British in 1904 for 100 years, a lease that had just lapsed.
From the point of view of the West, Kenya has some strategic importance, not due to its natural resources (it does not have any), but for political reasons. Unlike many of its African neighbors, the Kenyan regimes always stood squarely in the Cold War’s anti-communist camp while proving relatively stable. Lately, Kenya has acted as a mediator in the Sudan conflict, a conflict that the imperialist powers would like to end because it threatens the stability of the Horn of Africa as a whole. Meanwhile Sudan acts as a safe haven for those fleeing Uganda’s civil war. Bush has been said to regard Kenya as a key African ally in the so-called “War on Terror.” (Kenya was one of the first victims of an “al Qaeda” bomb attack in 1998, when the U.S. embassy in Nairobi was targeted.)
All this may explain why there was such a procession of world leaders, former and present secretary-generals of the U.N. and prominent Africans, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the presidents of Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, all arriving in Nairobi to try to get Odinga and Kibaki to compromise. They hoped to end the terrifying and escalating inter-ethnic conflict unleashed by their rivalry.
The media reported how the Kikuyu were the first to be targeted in the post election riots and burnings, by people accusing them of having voted for Kibaki who is Kikuyu or because they were seen as “favored” by the government.
It is true that in the run-up to the election, opposition politicians accused the government of fostering a “Kikuyu hegemony” over the country. But if these politicians could get away with playing this ethnic card, it is because the political scene has indeed tended to be dominated by Kikuyu politicians. Kikuyu dominate thanks not only to their relative numbers among the population, but to a geographic and historical accident, which was not of the Kikuyus’ own making.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Kikuyu people bore the brunt of the British colonial invasion when white settlements were set up mainly in the Central Highlands, on traditional Kikuyu land. Of course, once the white settlers had arrived, there was not enough land to go around, since the whites occupied 4,200 square kilometers. By 1948 there were only 5,000 white farmers in Kenya, whereas less than 1,000 square kilometers was left for one million Kikuyu!
Landless Kikuyu were employed as laborers on the white farms and/or allowed to reside on this land as “squatters.” Since most of the whites’ farmland was not cultivated or even used, tens of thousands of “squatters” were able to obtain a form of tenancy, which was, however, only temporary and subject to the whims of the white farmers. Their treatment was harsh and their situation became more and more precarious as time passed.
It was therefore Kikuyus who found themselves in direct confrontation with the British, and who then developed their own organizations to protest and resist. The Kikuyu people never chose the role of leading the political and armed struggle for independence, which they did do, but had this role thrust upon them by force of circumstance.
Things came to a head toward the end of the 1940s, with the formation of the so-called Mau Mau – the army of the landless, of the Nairobi working class and the poor. The Mau Mau pledged to fight for their own independence (which they called “Uhuru”), for their land and their freedom. Much was made of the secret “oathing” ceremonies and the terror tactics used by the Mau Mau. But how else were they supposed to organize themselves, other than secretly, when they were in fact quasi-serfs, and de facto imprisoned in their own land? As for “oathing,” it was a common practice in England in the late 18th and early part of the 19th century, when trade unions were first organized, also in secret, as a protection against being betrayed to the authorities. In Kenya, given that any display of resistance to the colonial regime was met with beatings, torture and even hanging, betrayal by informers was even more of an issue.
By the early 1950s it was probably the case that almost all the Kikuyu poor and working class in Nairobi – the latter were not all Kikuyu, of course – as well as a large proportion of the farm squatters had sworn the Mau Mau oath of loyalty to the fight for independence and paid the subscription required. There were even “mass oathings” held collectively in the early days, before the severe clamp downs by the police and special branch. Since all of the population of the poor urban neighborhoods were on the receiving end of the same oppression, most were willing participants.
However, as the Mau Mau campaign progressed, the British authorities detained all those suspected of taking oaths and many were hanged simply for this “offense.” It was after this that some Mau Mau leaders began to use coercion and threats to control the neighborhoods and to force people to help them.
The white farmers were not the main initial target of the Mau Mau rebels. What they saw as the real problem was the layer of “loyalist” Kikuyu whom the British had bribed to side with them, by giving them plots of land and local powers, in specially created reserves. It was these Kikuyu who formed an armed guard against the rebels and served as a buffer between the landless poor and the British colonizers. So in the view of the Mau Mau, it was these better-off “loyalists” who had first to be tackled if the British were to be sent packing.
Contrary to popular mythology, the Mau Mau killed very few white farmers – 32 in all – over an 8-year time period between the years 1952 and 1960. In contrast, 1,819 African civilians who were acting as Home Guards for the British or opposed the Mau Mau were assassinated during this period, although probably a lot more simply “disappeared” and their bodies were never found. But it was the Mau Mau themselves who bore the brunt of the casualties, especially later when they had running battles with the British army. Their total casualty figures were probably close to 30,000.
The Mau Mau war was, in its initial stages, a bitter “class” war fought mainly in the Kikuyu’s own ranks, in which the richer, privileged, landed, pro-British Kikuyu pitted themselves against the landless squatter army. The latter formed what were called “land and freedom armies,” which went to train and live in well-organized camps in the forests, on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range. Their leaders were very often veterans from the Kings African Rifles or other World War II regiments, like the famous General “China,” who had fought in Burma.
What is not so well-known is the role of the Nairobi proletariat in this fight. The first trade unions were built by people like Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia, who also became prominent in the Mau Mau struggle. When Nairobi was officially declared a city by Britain’s King George in 1950, Nairobi’s workers went on general strike for eight days, bringing the newest city in Britain’s empire to its knees. Every morning huge crowds of strikers met at the public meeting grounds, thronged the streets and were set upon by police firing tear gas. The strike leaders’ demands were quite simple: immediate self-government, cheap maize, higher wages!
The working class slums were overcrowded and the unemployed far outnumbered the employed. By 1946 there were 65,000 unemployed in Nairobi, versus 30,000 workers who had jobs in the small industries and shops. Almost all of these workers took the Mau Mau oath at some point over the next few years and the fight continued in the form of strikes and boycotts (for instance, a bus and various consumer boycotts).
Eventually the colonial authority launched the so-called “Operation Anvil” in 1954, in which the urban working class areas were cordoned off, with a tight “pass” system to allow armed police to screen every single worker who entered or left any designated area. Thousands of workers were arrested and thousands expelled from Nairobi for not having the right passes.
The colonial regime tried new internal restrictions and the de facto “imprisonment” of rural squatters, in a so-called “villagization” campaign during which more than one million Kikuyu were resettled in 854 villages in just 15 months. These were “villages” with perimeter fences, little more than concentration camps. But the Mau Mau guerilla attacks continued nevertheless and regularly penetrated British and Home Guard defenses, freeing prisoners, stealing weapons and sometimes killing loyalists in brutal attacks that occasionally included hacking to death the wives and children of those known to be British stooges.
The fact was, that despite all the authorities’ punitive measures against ordinary Kikuyus suspected of helping the rebels, and despite the controls on movement, the beatings, the torture, the detentions and the hangings – or perhaps because of all of these – support for the rebels, without which they could never have survived, continued unabated. Of necessity the guerillas had to have somewhere to hide, an early warning system of imminent army patrols, as well as basic food and supplies. It was thanks to this local support that they sustained their fight for so long.
The colonial authority, under Churchill’s Tory government, followed a policy of criminalizing the struggle, as if it had nothing to do with a political fight against oppression. It summarily hanged any Mau Mau suspect caught after they had been, more often than not, brutally tortured to get a “confession.”
But none of this worked. From the time of the declaration of the emergency in October 1952, to the amnesty declaration in January 1955, there were 12 army battalions engaged in the attempt to defeat the Mau Mau’s land and freedom armies, a force of an estimated 20,000 fighters scattered around the forests at the highpoint of the struggle. These were organized under several “generals” who may have had a few thousand guerillas each. When their retreat deep into the forests proved an obstacle for the army that could no longer find them, the Royal Air Force was called in. They began to bomb the forest systematically with ten Harvard bombers and four heavy Lincoln bombers. But even this bombardment did not succeed in routing the rebels. In fact, in 1964, 1,000 forest fighters finally emerged from their hide-outs, considering that it was time for them to come out, a full year after independence! They had survived in the struggle and in the forest for over 12 years and kept their oath – never to give up until independence was achieved.
At the peak of the rebellion, over 71,000 Kikuyu supporters of the Mau Mau were held in detention camps, most of them simply on the basis of suspicion and without trial. It is estimated that even more, up to 150,000, spent some time in these concentration camps, during the course of the war. These camps were unsanitary and overcrowded. In the most notorious, like the Manyani camp which took prisoners from Operation Anvil (urban workers), there was a typhoid outbreak resulting in 1,151 cases of the disease and 115 deaths. Others suffered from pellagra and similar vitamin deficiency diseases, the direct consequence of poor diet, while at the same time the prison wardens were trying to force the prisoners to do hard manual labor. On this issue of work, however, they were met by the prisoners’ organized and determined resistance.
In 1960-61, that is, five years after the supposed defeat of the Mau Mau, the British were still facing local rebellions against their diktats in the resettlement areas, mostly because there was not enough land. Evicted squatters re-occupied the white farms and if farmers tried to evict them again, they just refused to go. It became evident that it would be impossible to keep control over the colony except at a huge cost.
An exit strategy was developed by the British authorities in the form of installing a “loyalist” Kikuyu elite in government to prepare the handover. This loyalist elite had, however, to include “rehabilitated” Mau Mau leaders, now released from detention. The president-in-waiting was Jomo Kenyatta, a “democratic” nationalist, who had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for nine years for supposed Mau Mau sympathies. He had, in fact, never sympathized with the Mau Mau at all, referring to them as “hooligans.” But Kenyatta had been active in local politics and had raised his voice against injustices, which at the time was more than enough to condemn him to prison.
It was Kenyatta who had founded the Kenya African Union which later became the Kenya African National Union or KANU. He and his anti-Mau Mau, suitably moderate ministers ensured that the landed African bourgeoisie took over from the white colonialists by stepping straight into their shoes.
But worse, when Kenyatta was “crowned” Kenya’s first president at the independence ceremony on December 12, 1963, by the British governor, he told the Kenyan people to forget about the past, in an attempt to discredit and wipe out of history the Mau Mau freedom fight. As he wrote later: “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated and must never be remembered again.”
Well, quite obviously, there were and are those in Kenya and in Britain who would like such a challenge to colonialism to be erased from memory. Yet there is a lot to learn from it. In particular, the potential of the working class in this struggle was never realized, but if the Mau Mau leaders underestimated it, the British administration certainly did not. It ensured the arrest and imprisonment of union leaders and turned the working class areas into no-go areas, surrounded by police. The Luo people and other workers were brought in to take over manual jobs from expelled Kikuyu.
The obvious limitation of the movement, however, was to confine itself to a guerilla fight, one not even waged against the colonizers, but against their African auxiliaries – thereby failing to turn outward and see, beyond the borders of Kenya, the simmering potential that existed in the vast poor masses of colonial and post-colonial Africa.
Kenyatta made sure that the farmland vacated by white farmers, who took advantage of the generous sale terms for their land, was not redistributed to the landless, but to his family and clique. The existing loyalist “landed” Kikuyu gentry, who had been given land in the reserves as a reward for their help to the British administration and against the Mau Mau, were not only allowed to retain their lands but were given administrative powers in their districts.
The land hunger of the Kikuyu poor would never be resolved. The landless Kikuyu would only be able to find a plot by buying or renting land in the traditional territory of Kalenjin, Masaai and others, thereby leading to accusations, which have survived ever since, that they were acquiring land at the expense of other peoples.
Kenyatta’s real problem with the Mau Mau, however, was that from the point of view of the weak Kenyan bourgeoisie, a threat remained as long as the spirit of Mau Mau rebellion still survived among the poor in some way. Kenyatta reacted by getting rid of any dissenters in and around his government, particularly those on the left, killing them or, if they were lucky, they were “just” tortured and detained without trial.
The greatest tragedy of this chapter of Kenyan history, which ends at independence, is that it indeed did lay the basis for Kikuyu “privilege” and “hegemony.” But this was privilege for a very thin layer of the Kikuyu elite, while the vast mass of the Kikuyu were left to struggle in dire poverty, just like the rest of the Kenyan population,.
Daniel Arap Moi, who had been Kenyatta’s deputy, took over as president when Kenyatta died in 1978, to rule for 24 years.
It was under Moi that the large British and American firms began to take control of the production of cash crops – the flowers, tea, coffee and sugar cane – forcing the government to import large quantities of maize from South Africa and the U.S. This policy proved disastrous for the small farmers.
The resulting crisis, exacerbated by drought, led Moi to try to reconcile with old adversaries, but not before an attempted coup by air force officers tried to unseat him in 1982. One of the participants in this failed coup was young Raila Odinga, fresh out of his university in East Germany. He was imprisoned for six years without trial, and once released, re-arrested, spending nine years in total behind Moi’s bars.
That did not prevent Moi from bestowing on Odinga the general secretaryship of the ruling party, KANU, nor, later on, from inviting him into the government as his energy minister in 2000.
Moi’s playing of the ethnic Kalenjin card (he was himself born in a Kalenjin family) was far worse than anything seen so far today. During the preparation for the 1991-2 election he got the General Service Unit (GSU, his personal paramilitary police) to direct killings against Luo, Luya and Kikuyu settlers in the Rift Valley. More than 1,500 people were killed. For the 1997 elections, the area of GSU operations was expanded. About 2,000 people were killed including in the coastal area of Likoni. Raids against Kikuyu in Narok and West Pokot were continued into 1998 because, in Moi’s view, they had not voted “correctly” in the election, i.e. had voted for the opposition.
By the time Moi was finally ousted (even if he is still alive and well and living in the midst of great wealth, under a still pending corruption investigation), he was completely discredited, if not actually hated by the majority of the population.
The Kenyan political scene and its institutions (all inherited directly from the British) can be considered bankrupt, even if the players on this exclusive scene are themselves certainly not badly off, financially. Most of them are extremely rich. And this is largely, or maybe entirely, thanks to abusing their positions in the state.
Kibaki, a graduate of the London School of Economics and ex-university lecturer, has held government posts from the day he was first elected on a KANU ticket back in 1963. He occupied various posts in the government until Kenyatta died, then was elevated to the vice-presidency by Moi, while remaining Finance Minister at the same time. He remained in this post until he fell out of favor in 1988 and was confined to the Health Ministry. When Moi legalized political parties in 1991, Kibaki left KANU to set up his own party and was unsuccessful in the presidential election the following year, then again in 1997. Finally he ran successfully in 2002.
Kibaki is said to be among Kenya’s richest men, but finding figures for his personal fortune (probably not kept in a Kenyan bank) proves difficult. Having come from humble beginnings, all of his wealth has been acquired while in office and it is unlikely to be the consequence of the shrewd investment of his salary.
Raila Odinga, although he may have been called a “communist” by some of his opponents (perhaps because he promised to bring in welfare benefits for the poor), seems to be even richer: his personal fortune is about seven million British pounds (about 14 million U.S. dollars). Some of this comes from his oil business, which he managed to acquire while energy minister in Moi’s government (2001-2002). Apparently he had made links, while negotiating government contracts, with the Saudi Al Bakri Group and the Libyan government. His Pan African Petroleum Company has an annual income of half a million pounds, as does the gas cylinder manufacturing company founded by his famous nationalist father, Oginga Odinga. Papa Odinga is, for some reason, also accused of “communism”! Odinga senior did advocate good relations with the Soviet Union during his short period in office under Kenyatta, with whom he later broke. He sent his son Raila to study engineering in East Germany, and his grandson is named “Fidel.” But that is about as far as his “communism” goes!
The Odinga family business is called Spectre International. It bought the ex-state owned Kisumu Molasses Plant for the equivalent of 27,000 pounds at today’s exchange rate, when it was privatized under Moi in 2001. Then the family sold a 55% stake to the Canadian firm Energem, for about 2.2 million pounds shortly afterwards. The Odinga family retains 40% of the shares of the plant. Thanks to Canadian investment, the plant has expanded to one of the largest in the country, producing industrial ethanol. It is now valued at 7.8 million pounds.
Normally Raila Odinga would have taken over from Moi as KANU’s presidential candidate in the 2002 election, when Moi was barred from standing for a third term. But Moi appointed another heir apparent, which prompted Odinga to lead a split from KANU. Those who left then joined other parties, including Kibaki’s Democratic Party, to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in order to put up a joint candidate. Kibaki was selected and he easily defeated KANU’s candidate.
In the 2002 election campaign, Kibaki had promised to tackle corruption. The following year he appointed John Githongo as his “czar.” By 2005, Githongo had to flee the country, having done such a good job that he feared for his life. He had uncovered fake contracts that allowed various business friends of Kibaki to get millions of dollars of state funds.
That same year Odinga and Kibaki fell out, as anyone could have predicted. The pretext for the break was a new constitution drafted by Kibaki, to be put to referendum. Admittedly, it was a reactionary piece of work. It aimed at centralizing power even more, creating a land commission to remove rights of local officials to distribute land. It also proposed the creation of Christian courts (Muslim courts already existed), the banning of regional political parties and the outlawing of abortion to all intents and purposes. To gain popular support it played the nationalist card by banning foreign land ownership and it played the anti-corruption card by proposing elections of all local officials.
Seven of Kibaki’s ministers defected as a result, ostensibly at least, because they disagreed with this constitution and joined the opposition, among them Raila Odinga. They proceeded to campaign for a “no” vote and the “no’s” won by over a million votes in the context of a 54% turnout. Apparently many people had used the opportunity to protest against Kibaki’s regime
Odinga and a few other “no” campaigners then moved to the Orange Democratic Movement. (Maybe this orange was a reference to the orange used as a symbol for the “no” vote in the referendum, or maybe it was a reference to the “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine, or maybe both.) Odinga then also invited William Ruto, a well-known Kalenjin politician from the Rift Valley settlements, as well as former Vice President Musalia Mudavadi from Western Province, to join. It was these areas which provided the bulk of the ODM’s votes in the recent 2007 election. Both politicians were rather dubious characters. Ruto, a former leader of KANU’s Youth organization, was apparently responsible for the embezzlement of state funds during the Moi period – about which he still faces corruption charges. Mudavadi had been finance minister under Moi, during the so-called Goldenberg scandal in which over five million pounds was looted from government coffers.
And what about the ODM itself? It was a fraud, neither new nor democratic, of course. It may well have other features in common with the Ukrainian pro-U.S. movement than its “orange” name, since the ODM election strategy was overseen by someone named Dick Morris, alleged to have helped along the events in the Ukraine and later in Mexico at the behest of the U.S.
In fact, the birth of the ODM was just a rerun of the “birth” of so many other Kenyan political parties that have arisen because of personal rivalries and thwarted ambitions among politicians of exactly the same ilk. These politicians have fallen out with each other, riding cynically on a wave of popular discontent. Very often they play the ethnic card, no matter how lethal it may be. These politicians shuffle backwards and forwards between the old parties and make new ones at will, without any scruples and purely on the basis of their own personal interests.
Since the new government was mainly formed of Kikuyu from Kibaki’s support base, it was soon dubbed by Odinga as the “Mount Kenya Mafia.” The ODM began to imply in its propaganda that it was necessary to get rid of “Kikuyu hegemony” over the country’s economy.
This was one reason why “Majimbo” (or federalism) was turned into a big issue in this last election. Opposition politicians argued that it was the only way to even out the inequities and deprivation of other provinces compared to the better equipped, Kikuyu-dominated central Kenya. But in reality “Majimbo” has meant a call for ethnic-based federalism, the orchestration of ethnic violence and the call to expel “foreign tribes.” In this case it is purely for the sake of defending the interests of one set of rival politicians over another. No more, no less. There is no gain in all of this for the 66% of Kenyans who live on less than a dollar a day. Poverty knows no ethnic label in Kenya.
This use of real social and economic issues affecting the majority of the population, twisting them in order to blame one tribal group, in this case the Kikuyu, has become “normal” politics in an increasingly impoverished Kenya where there is less and less for everyone.
What politicians ensured that this resentment was ominously bubbling just under the surface during the 2007 election campaign. It exploded after December 30th. And it has so far led to 1,500 deaths and at least 300,000 people displaced from their homes.
The run-up to the December 2007 general and presidential elections had been somewhat free of violence, a relief since pre-election periods have invariably been accompanied by orchestrated violence by the incumbent party to prevent opposition parties from holding rallies. This time the killing started after the elections.
The immediate cause was the obvious ballot rigging in the presidential vote. What added insult to injury was that the 76-year old Mwai Kibaki, supposedly convinced he had won, got himself sworn in as president almost immediately, even though people were already rioting (and dying) in the streets in protest.
The official results from the Kenya Electoral Commission (ECK) gave Kibaki 4,578,034 votes against Raila Odinga’s 4,352,860 – a very slim margin for Kibaki of just over 225,000 votes.
But in 72 of the 210 parliamentary constituencies, the local figures, released by the ECK returning officers and election agents, were quite different from those later released by the national counting center. So, for instance, at Ole Kalou, out of 102,000 registered votes, local ECK figures gave Kibaki 72,000 and Odinga 5,000 votes. Yet by the time the figures for Ole Kalou were released centrally, Kibaki’s total had jumped to 100,980, that is, 99% of the votes. This kind of rigging was repeated in other constituencies where Kibaki’s vote was swelled by the odd 10,000 to 20,000 votes after the event. The chairman of ECK, Samuel Kivuitu, had to admit “I don’t know who won the election and I won’t know till I see the original records, which I can’t for now, until the courts authorize it.”
That said, the ODM had actually already secured a decisive victory over all the other parties in the parliamentary elections that took place at the same time as the presidential election.
A lot of candidates, 2,547 from 103 registered political parties, had been vying for the 210 parliamentary seats. The ODM won 99 seats. Kibaki’s party, the Party of National Unity (PNU), won only 43, with the split-off ODM-Kenya getting 16 seats and the old ruling party of Kenya, the Kenya African Nation Union (KANU), 14. The remainder, that is, 34 seats, were won by minority parties, which is also unprecedented.
Of course, it is always possible that the vote in the presidential election, in which there were actually nine candidates running, might not completely reflect the parliamentary vote, especially since people may cast a vote for president on the basis of different considerations, or because their favored party is not fielding a candidate. But nobody really believes that is what happened.
The announcement of what was perceived to be Kibaki’s fraudulent victory caused an immediate explosion of violence in the Nairobi slums and in the western province.
In fact, Raila Odinga’s own constituency is one of Nairobi’s slum areas called Kibera, where he probably received votes from Luos, Kikuyus and others purely on the basis of his opposition to Kibaki, without any “ethnic” consideration.
In the urban centers and in Nairobi’s slums in particular, the violence aimed by ODM supporters and activists against Kibaki’s supporters could, at least initially, be considered a result of anger and frustration. Their aspirations for social and economic change were thwarted, even if their expectation that these would be fulfilled by the ODM was an illusion. Unfortunately, it did not take long for this resentment to take on an ethnic content – with Kikuyu attacked as if they were “natural” Kibaki supporters, no matter what their actual politics, just because Kibaki had been identified by election propaganda as “favoring” Kikuyus. And since the ODM had by then ensured that it was identified as a Luo-Kalenjin alliance “against” Kikuyu privilege, local thugs were able to feed into such prejudice to inflame “Luo” versus Kikuyu pogroms. Many Kikuyu had to flee from Kibera and their houses or shops were burnt.
In the Rift Valley, Kalenjin gangs attacked Kikuyu farmers, but there the violence was more organized and seemed to have been partly an opportunity to settle old scores. The Kalenjins have a historical grievance, having been pushed out of some of their traditional home lands, first by white colonials and then by Kikuyu settlers. The Kikuyu were sent there, of course, after they themselves had been deprived of their traditional lands. Of course many other “tribes” have similar grievances – like the Masaai.
The 35 people who were burnt in the church in Eldoret were from Kikuyu farming families, women and children hiding from the machetes, knives and wooden clubs of “warrior” Kalenjin – who had been excited and equipped, in advance, by local headmen and politicians.
It is claimed that the ODM had already set the scene for what was to come. Before the election, Odinga predicted the rigging of the election, making sure it was widely reported in the media. Of course, everybody expected the election to be rigged anyway, as is always the case, after all. But it seems the ODM was trying to arrange for a “spontaneous” outpouring of “people power” that would allow Odinga to take the presidency no matter what the actual vote turned out to be, as happened in the Ukraine.
In Eldoret, three policemen were lynched by youths on the day before the elections, on the grounds that they had been sent to rig the election in favor of Kibaki – before it even started! An ECK vehicle was burnt. Within days, the killings had escalated in the Central and Western provinces, while the long procession of African dignitaries and foreign diplomats held talks with Kibaki and Odinga in an attempt to work out a deal with them.
Today, Kenya is supposedly living under true multiparty “democracy” – it is true that there are many political parties still allowed to register– so one could ask why the same old names are cropping up again and again in the top government positions.
How can anyone take political “differences” seriously in a system where politicians re-cycle themselves constantly under ever-changing banners? A veteran like Kibaki, who was in Kenyatta’s first government and is a KANU veteran, today wears a PNU badge, having passed through many other political disguises while remaining in the top circles of government.
Are people supposed to forget that in 2002, Odinga and Kibaki, allied in NARC, opposed Moi’s appointed successor, Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, who at the time stood on the KANU ticket? Today, Uhuru is in the ODM, with Odinga, against Kibaki! But then Odinga was also in KANU with Moi two years before that! Neither of these corrupted politicians wants to hear the free democratic expression of the population’s will. One happens to have been the victim of the other’s vote rigging, but it could just as easily have been the reverse. More ominously, both are prepared to use the ethnic card in order to advance their political careers (and inflate their incomes) without any concern for the blood shed by the poor as a result.
In fact, only the political labels of politicians seem to change in Kenyan politics. Underneath, the same system operates: the small layer of politicians champions their own cliques of businessmen and wealthy Kenyans at the expense of the working class and rural poor. That is what the rivalries are really about: which clique among the rich is going to rake it in when government contracts are handed out. But this is in a context where, for the vast majority of the population, things are going down the drain. Therefore, the risk of an escalation of violence is all the greater.
So what now? The first test of the current agreement between Odinga and Kibaki will probably take place when the 300,000 refugees try to return home. Will the politicians be able to restrain their thugs? Will they find a reason to let them loose again? And what about the thugs who do not recognize their command nor any other command, but who are themselves victims of chronic poverty, chronically cynical and corrupt politics and utter desperation?
Tragically, the Kenyan people will be condemned to continue asking such questions until they throw off the unbearable weight of this layer of parasites who suck their blood when they are not actually spilling it. Surely a new political party representing the interests of the working class, the poor and the dispossessed in Kenya must be built, because no other party will throw out capitalism and the capitalists. Until that happens, the endless cycle of poverty and violence can only continue.