Kenya: Government Must Heal Ethnic Rifts

New leadership needs to move from ethnically-based politics to a more inclusive form of government, experts say.

Kenya: Government Must Heal Ethnic Rifts

New leadership needs to move from ethnically-based politics to a more inclusive form of government, experts say.

''Our tribal relations are at stake because of divisive values,'' said Cleophas Malala, director of “Shackles of Doom”, a controversial play which the Kenyan government has tried to ban.

The play is a parable for the fragile relationships among Kenya’s many ethnic groups. It tells the story of how a fictional community is rocked by the discovery of oil on its land. Businesses come in and exploit tribal divisions to buy influence, creating conflict.

The play hit a sensitive spot with the new national leadership elected in March, which many accuse of manipulating ethnic allegiances to win votes.

The actors are Nairobi schoolchildren, and the education ministry took the matter so seriously that it banned performances, although this has been challenged in court.

“We, the artists, should lead by example and tackle the elephant in the room,” Malala said at a recent press conference.

The winners of this election, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto, drew many votes from, respectively, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups to which they belong.

Their alliance was a major turnaround in Kenyan politics given that the two politicians and their followers were bitterly opposed in the last election, held in December 2007, when a disputed outcome led to months of bloodshed and over 1,100 deaths.

In broad terms, Kalenjins and Luos backed the Orange Democratic Movement, whereas Kikuyus voted mainly for the Party of National Unity of elected president Mwai Kibaki. The political battle quickly took on ethnic dimensions as old grievances over land and privilege surfaced.

The conflict ended with a power-sharing agreement under which Kibaki stayed president and his Orange Democratic Movement challenger, Raila Odinga became prime minister.

This time round, the March 4 presidential polls and simultaneous parliamentary and local elections went off peacefully, but that does not mean that deep-seated ethnic animosities, hardened by the brutalities of the 2007-08 conflict, have gone away.

Odinga, standing against Kenyatta, challenged the results, but his appeal was turned down by Kenya’s Supreme Court and Kenyatta was confirmed as president on March 30.

Defeated, Odinga then issued a warning that Kenya remained as divided along ethnic lines as it was during the conflict five years ago.

“The wounds unfortunately have not been healed,” Odinga said in an interview with the BBC. “In fact they have been opened by what has happened, because what has happened here is a replica, a repeat of what happened five years ago.”

The losing candidate could be accused of having an axe to grind, but the basic point – that Kenyan leaders need to engage all communities, not just their own – is one being made by a wide range of commentators.

“The failures of the last elections, as well as the former regime, were about lack of inclusivity,” John Githongo, who was permanent secretary for ethics and governance under former president Kibaki, told IWPR. “The way forward for the new government should be to unite and heal wounds.”

Prior to the elections, Kenyan politics seemed to be heading in a new direction. In the media especially, there was a sense that this time, voters would be swayed by the different candidates’ policies and ideas, not by their ethnic backgrounds. Two televised debates involving all seven presidential candidates seemed to capture this mood.

The election results, however, largely reflect the same kind of preferences as before.

Most of Odinga’s votes came from his Luo people, and also the Luhya people in western Kenya. Kikuyus and Kalenjins voted overwhelmingly for Kenyatta and Ruto.

James Aggrey Mwamu, head of the East African Law Society, concludes that ethnic allegiances still trump political considerations at election time, although he blames this on the politicians as much as the electorate.

“The politicians are surrounding themselves with their communities first, in order to ascend to power. So surely how can the people vote otherwise?” he asked.

The idea of ethnic constituencies of winners and losers could be reinforced if the new government is imbalanced. Of the 16 new cabinet members, four are Kikuyu and four are Kalenjin. The Luo, Luhya and Kamba get one each.

Professor Frank Matanga, who teaches political science at Masinde Muliro University, questions whether the dominance of Kenyatta and Ruto allies is just a matter of politics.

“As president, you only select those who share your ideals,” he said. “But in Kenya, the ideals seem to be taking a tribal angle.”

Even the alliance underpinning the Kenyatta-Ruto leadership may not be all it seems. As Mwamu noted, just because the two leaders have buried their differences, it does not mean the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities are now at ease with one another.

Five years ago, the two groups were on opposing sides in a conflict that was at its worst in the western Rift Valley, where intercommunal tensions have existed over many years. Even now, many of the people displaced by the fighting are too afraid to return to their homes, because their old opponents are still there.

Mwamu argues that the partnership works only because Kenyatta and Ruto have a common enemy – the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, where both are due to go on trial later this year, charged with orchestrating the 2007-08 violence.

In campaigning, the two men used the ICC issue to their advantage, portraying the individual charges against them as an indictment of Kenya and of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin peoples in particular.

“If the ICC cases drag on until 2017 then there is a possibility they [Kikuyu and Kalenjin] would remain together, because their interests will still be the same,” Mwamu said. “If one or both of them have their cases terminated, then I do not see anything that will hold the two communities together.”

Some commentators argue that the best way of laying old tensions to rest is to focus on building an accountable government that delivers economic prosperity.
Ndung’u Wainaina, executive director of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict in Nairobi, argues that people are more likely to let go of old ethnic grudges if they see their government doing something for them.

“The objective Kenyans are targeting is to achieve more transparency, more efficiency and more quality as well as a reduction of [government] expenses,” Wainaina said. “The new administration must of necessity, therefore, restore this confidence. The new civil service that this regime seeks to create should be transparent and accountable to the people.”

Kenya’s new county governance structure could also help lower tensions. Powers devolved to the 47 counties are intended to enhance decision-making at local level and open up new economic opportunities.

In Kenya, historical rivalries have often been built on unequal access to resources and perceptions that leaders favour their own group.

“There are always divisions when it comes to people,” Jennifer Shamalla, founder of the National Conservative Forum, a group that campaigned against the constitution passed in 2010, said. “If Kenyans have adequate infrastructure and security, they will be able to engage in commercial activity that is beneficial to them.”

Walter Menya is a reporter for The Star Newspaper in Nairobi.

This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation in partnership with The Star.


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