The curse of democracy

Kenyans are dreading the March elections
January 23, 2013

Kenya’s most famous satirist, who works under the nickname Gado, once published a wincingly sharp newspaper cartoon headlined: “Another Weapon of Mass Destruction.” Below it he drew a sealed ballot box.

There was a time when western aid ministers illustrated progress in Africa by listing how many countries had introduced multiparty elections. Kenya’s polls, due on 4th March, make Gado’s disturbing point: a democratic contest can hold such potential for nation-rending violence that citizens come to dread the day of the vote. It’s hard to find anyone who is looking forward to the elections, in which Luo prime minister Raila Odinga, heading the CORD coalition, will contest the presidency against a Jubilee alliance formed by Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding president, and William Ruto, a Kalenjin champion.

A national hunkering down is expected, with migrant workers heading to home districts, army troops recalled from Somalia, prison guards and wildlife rangers mustered to bolster the police, and the Kenyan diaspora and tourists keeping their distance. If you like your beaches and safari parks deserted, March is the time to book.

The anxiety is rooted in the memory of Kenya’s 2007 elections, after which at least 1,100 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced. After that cataclysm, which shocked both Kenyans themselves and outsiders who had lazily labelled the country one of Africa’s “safe and reliable” destinations, two schools of thought emerged.

One declared that the country had run to the cliff’s edge, gazed at what lay smouldering below—a Cote d’Ivoire-style civil war—and learnt its lesson. The other saw the post-electoral violence as merely the first shot in a showdown between competing ethnic power blocs that has loomed since independence in 1963, with the decisive battle certain at the next poll.

Many Kenyans worked mightily to stop that second scenario becoming reality. A key achievement was the introduction of a new, devolved constitution which recognised that one of the reasons Kenya had become so polarised was that too much power rested with the president, who then played ethnic favourites with state resources. Another radical step was an invitation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try the instigators of the violence, an attempt to end decades of impunity for ethnic cleansing. The moment when Kenya’s television viewers saw some of the most powerful men in the land standing in the dock in the Hague marked a psychological turning point (see Sri Lanka, “A bad peace,” p42).

But the new constitution, complex, poorly understood and still in embryo stage, is already showing unexpected consequences. Devolving power and resources means there is more to fight for at the local level, after all. Recent clashes in Tana River and Baragoi have less to do with cattle rustling, analysts say, and more to do with the redrawing of constituency borders and community repositioning ahead of the new dispensation.

As for ending impunity, Kenyatta and Ruto both stand charged with crimes against humanity by the ICC. If the election goes to a second round, their trials in the Hague will coincide with this second vote, raising the stakes to dizzying heights. Both men will see the presidency as their ICC escape route, even if that means dooming Kenya to pariah status on the international stage.

At a pragmatic level, observers worry that the new electoral commission—replacing a body which failed spectacularly in 2007/08—may simply buckle at the challenge of administering the most complex poll in Kenya’s history, in which voters will be asked to make six separate choices. The commission has already been weakened by accusations of corruption, factionalism and incompetence, charges which will make it easier for rabble rousers to challenge the results.

But the real fear goes far deeper, that the elections may expose the vacuum at the heart of what at times feels like a nation state in words alone. Kenya’s political parties are little more than vehicles of personal advancement for Ethnic Big Men. Millions of youngsters have become so disillusioned with the political system, they have not bothered to register to vote. The Mombasa Republican Council, a movement which does not recognise central government, is boycotting the poll. In 2008, there came a moment when the monopoly of violence in the country appeared to be held by hired ethnic militias, not the police or army. No Kenyan likes the thought of where that process could lead.

If all this were happening in Togo or Malawi, it would cause only quiet concern in foreign capitals. But this is Kenya, east Africa’s most dynamic economy and a regional gateway for the likes of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, and Kenya really matters. Once the country was prized by the west as a loyal cold war ally, now it is valued as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism fanning out from Somalia. As Kenyans tussle with the curse of democracy, their friends abroad will be watching in trepidation, praying for the best.