Rumblings in Kenya

Rumblings in Kenya

Secretary of State Clinton expressed concern about the political situation in Kenya, as she should. But I don’t think violence is on the horizon.

Several weeks ago Clinton sent a letter to President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga expressing several concerns about the state of the coalition government trying to run Kenya. And last week Parliament opened but didn’t, as political wrangling over how Parliament in this new coalition era should be run.

The Kenyan coalition isn’t working the way the parties agreed more than a year ago; and not just the U.S., but much of the world including the master of the coalition design, Kofi Anan, has severely criticized Kenyan politicians.

There are a myriad of disputes. The most prominent is who gets to appoint top civil servants: the President (Kibaki) or the Prime Minister (Odinga)? The grand coalition document divided the ministries between the two men, but appointments of certain powerful positions immediately under the very top management was never addressed. And there are some appointees, like the civil servant responsible for distributing food aid, who span multiple ministries’ portfolios.

So far, President Kibaki has muscled his way on this issue, and for a while Odinga let it go. When a scandal broke out about the distribution (or lack of it) of grain, Odinga’s power base got hot. There was violence in the slums where the initial post-election violence of 2008 began and where Odinga’s heart of power truly resides. The Nairobi slums are not just the most numerous single demographic in the country, it has among the highest voting turnout of any group and it is squarely behind Odinga, the “champion of the poor.”

Then came the thorny issue of the method of determining who was responsible for the 2008 violence and what to do with them. I see an incredible analogy here with our own recent disclosure of the “torture memos.” And so there is a philosophical red flag thrown up by Obama when his administration insists that Kenya determine the raw facts and prosecute those responsible, but is reluctant to do so at home.

Neither Odinga or Kibaki really wants to pursue this “truth and reconciliation commission”, and admittedly there is more at stake than just this single issue. Obama and the EU are wrapping this issue to the general state of corruption in the country, which seems to be getting worse, not better. I’m not sure, though, that the way to tackle systemic corruption is through the extremely sensitive issue of who started the 2008 violence. Street wisdom believes that there were few sitting politicians at the time who didn’t contribute to the chaos.

Is the coalition unraveling? This weekend the Odinga camp called for new, immediate elections. I don’t think that’s serious; they’re just trying to find a way to calm what is certainly a growing uneasiness among their base. But will it come to outright violence.

I don’t think so.

This weekend Nairobi newspaper columnist Dominc Odipo summed it up well: “We’re better off than in 1989″ was the title of his column.

“What was it like …back in 1989? “ Odipo asks. “There was only one legal political party, and its leader, President Moi, was the undisputed, all-powerful political head of the country. There was no question whatsoever about where political or State power lay.”

Odipo referred to an important speech that was delivered at the time by Moi’s Minister of Agriculture, Elijah Mwangale.

Pointing at the President, Mwangale intoned: “You speak of the public will. There is enshrined, in human form, the popular will! Even the lobsters and the fishes of the sea, out to the 200-mile limit and beyond, pay obeisance to our great President!”

Odipo then went down a list of important men at the time, all of whom are either (a) happily obscured in deep retirement, (b) dead or (c) missing.

Odipo continues: “Twenty years on there can be no doubt the country has moved … in the right direction. Yes, we have not yet been able to reign in corruption, impunity, negative tribalism and other national ills but, on the political fundamentals, we have certainly trudged ahead.

“Today, any adult Kenyan, man or woman, can register a political party and have it operational within only three days. To the best of my knowledge, no citizen is being held in any torture chamber anywhere in the country.

“There has been another sea change. There is no undisputed, supreme political authority in the land. Political power is being shared, even if not yet equitably as required in the spirit of the National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement.

“Power has also largely been demystified. If President Kibaki today tells you to jump, you don’t have to. You can look him in the eye and tell him to get lost.

“We have come a long way since 1989. And don’t you ever forget that!”