News 2008


Ethnic Violence in Kenya: Did we mistake Ethnocracy for Democracy?

January 10, 2008 12:50 PM

By Nducu wa Ngugi

On the morning of December 27th 2007, the people of Kenya, approximately ten of the fourteen million registered voters fulfilled their civic and democratic duties by voting in the presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections concluded with very minor infractions or reported irregularities and as the results trickled in, the political landscape that had been dominated by a few individuals since independence begun to change. In deed the electorate voted out twenty of president Kibaki’s powerful and monied Ministers some of whom had been implicated in corruption scandals like the Goldenberg and Anglo-leasing schemes that had fleeced the Nation of billions of dollars. Other unsavory parliamentary aspirants who are known criminals were left out altogether. Money and intimidation alone could no longer buy or sway the will of the people.

After suffering two successive dictatorships (Kenyatta and Moi) Kenyans, at the 2002 elections, had employed Kibaki’s presidency and retired Moi’s 24-year oligarchy, thus fulfilling their democratic promise in an election that saw a united opposition end Moi’s rule thus ushering in what is dubbed as the second liberation of Kenya. President Kibaki, Raila Amollo Odinga and others in the opposition came together and formed the National Rainbow Coalition that ushered Kenya into a new democratic engagement.

The 2007 presidential elections therefore were a test of the democratic institutions and the resilient viability of a united Kenya. The excitement and bickering that comes with elections did not mar the campaign euphoria and Kenyans listened to the political bigwigs go at each other as they vied for their votes. But it was also during these presidential campaigns that a very disturbing pattern begun to emerge that exploited an already suspiciously volatile union of the many ethnic nationalities that reside within the borders of Kenya: voters begun to align themselves along ethnic lines.

Ethnocracy had begun to formulate itself into an exemplar of the voting to come in Kenya where ones ethnic background alone assured him the votes from “his” people. With Ethnocracy no one is interested in a Party’s ideology, manifesto or vision for the country. All that matters is that we put one of ours in power. Where democracy empowers people with political authority to employ representatives that best suit their needs, Ethnocracy craves for an identity that seeks and recognizes that power can only be bestowed upon one who comes from ones own ethnic nationality regardless of their polity. It is an ethnic identity that feeds of the fears, insecurities and suspicions that one group is hell-bent on destroying the others. At times it is based solely on ethnocentric sensitivities.

So the rumors, tribal jokes and slurs that begun to circulate via internet, coffee houses and in private conversations continued unabated. The threats of violence also went unheeded by the general populace except for the politicians who ceased upon these insensitivities and begun rallying their ethnic troops on their march to State House. The underlying belief amongst Kenyans is that we are different from other African countries that have found themselves in bitter ethnic clashes and genocide, a belief that has perhaps served as a bulwark against real and comprehensive discussions between our many ethnic nationalities.

There is a tension that has always found itself covered under the cloaks of national unity and every once in a while politicians would find it prudent to awaken and stir this sleeping amalgam, a tactic that Moi employed at will every time his authoritarian government was threatened. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, from 1991 to 1996, over 15,000 people died and almost 300,000 displaced in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western provinces”.

Ethnic divisions have therefore been manipulated severally in Kenyan politics before. That is not new. Kenyans have seemingly found a way to come together after the dust has settled and the dead have been buried. What is new is the severity of how ethnocracy manipulated itself into our personal conversations leading up to the general election in December. With each passing day the Nation became more and more polarized and the ethnic suspicions fueled by non-compelling party ideology and power-hungry politicians became glaring but no one addressed this dangerous proposition. In fact it seemed clear that Odinga, a Luo running with ODM and Kibaki, a Kikuyu with PNU were calculatingly enjoying these divisions that assured them votes from their ethnic affiliates regardless. If only they could now find other tribal allies.

It comes as no surprise then that when the presidential elections were tabulated, Odinga carried almost all the votes from Nyanza province which is predominantly Luo while Kibaki carried Central province, a Kikuyu stronghold. Ethnocracy had outdone democracy!

The Kenyan people who voted in overwhelming numbers are now being asked to die so that president Kibaki can stay in power or that Raila Odinga can ascend to it. In an article to the Sunday Nation Ngugi wa Thiong’o pointed out that there are two tribes in Kenya: the have and the have-nots. The have-nots have always been at the beck and call of the haves; to ayah their children, tend their immaculate lawns, mother their illegitimate children, work in their factories, tea, coffee and flower plantations and every five years vote for them. It is a symbiotic relationship that leaves one destitute and needy and the other prosperous and powerful. Unashamedly the latter claims to speak for the poor come election time and it is therefore no wonder that the same poor electorate is being asked to die for power. Whose power? Whose freedom? Whose gain?

President Kibaki, Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, the three major presidential contenders in the just concluded elections must come together and urge their supporters to shun the violence. If they are true leaders with genuine love for their country and the people who live in it they must act now and stop hiding behind their luxurious accommodations where their almost muted calls for an end to the violence through news sound bites is a lip-service that is doing little to appease the situation on the ground. They must recognize the escalating violence as the beginning of a civil war that will leave hundreds of thousands of Kenyans dead.

We need them at the front lines quieting the people. Raila’s utterances and accusations that Kibaki is committing genocide do not help the situation and only serves to exacerbate an already deadly and volatile situate. He was quoted by the BBC as saying that he refuses “to be asked to give the Kenyan people an unaesthetic so that they can be raped” when asked if he would ask his supporters to calm down”.[i]

This is not the time for Kibaki’s silence and hands-off approach to issues. His government through its spokesman countered that Odinga’s supporters were “engaging in ethnic cleansing”. Kibaki needs to show leadership by calling on all aggrieved parties to talk to their supporters and ask for a cooling off. He also needs to lift the gag he imposed on the press (democracy cannot work without its tenets) and by calling for a joint meeting with Odinga and an independent counsel to seek a solution to the violence and election debacle. He must also ask the security forces to use non-lethal methods to quell the violence. We have already lost too many lives. The solution will not be found in the gun or the machete but in a dialogue.

Despite the claims of election irregularities the United States was among the first countries to congratulate president Kibaki on his election. Now they have retracted claiming irregularities (something they know very well). There is a need for an independent body to investigate these allegations and perhaps a vote recount is necessary. But no matter what, the escalating violence has to be brought to an end. Ethnocracy must not be allowed to overtake democracy. Perhaps a third liberation of Kenya is in order: one that is not formed by a misty mirage in the skies but by political actions that empower and unite the people. Liberation endowed with the courage to find strength in our ethnicities while shunning Ethnocracy in favor of a democracy with content. The Kenyan people voted. Do not ask them to die as well!

Nducu wa Ngugi is an educator and writer currently based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. His writing has appeared in the Business Daily, Wajibu Magazine , Pambazuka, Media Focus on Africa and African Path.