“Never Again” in Kenya?

NAIROBI – As Kenya approaches its general election on March 4, memories of the bloodshed that marred the controversial 2007 presidential election remain fresh. The vote ended in a standoff between the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, who declared himself the winner, and the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, who dismissed the vote as rigged. The ensuing ethnic clashes claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people, and displaced another 250,000.

The violence ended only after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan helped to broker a power-sharing agreement in which Kibaki retained the presidency and Odinga became Prime Minister. When the agreement was signed, many Kenyans declared that such politically charged ethnic violence would “never again” consume Kenya. But, less than three months before the next election, few remain confident that such violence will not recur – especially given that Kenya’s government has taken no measures to prevent it.

This is not surprising, given Kenya’s poor record of prosecuting war crimes. In the run-up to Kenya’s first multi-party election in 1992, ethnic clashes caused hundreds of deaths, and displaced an estimated 300,000 people. Ethnic violence marred the 1997 election as well. Yet, while few dispute that politicians incited and even coordinated the violence, none was ever brought to justice.

The 2007 violence was unique in the sense that it did not begin in smaller cities, towns, or rural areas, but in the capital, Nairobi, bringing Kenya to a standstill and turning it into a focus of international attention. The United States sent then-Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer to intervene – the first time a high-ranking American officer was sent to mediate in an African conflict.

But it is increasingly clear that Kenyans’ pronouncements of “never again” were little more than an expression of relief. Now, action must be taken to avoid renewed violence; the politicians who incited and funded the bloodshed must be held accountable.

Despite its failure to investigate the conflict’s root causes, the International Criminal Court has charged four senior Kenyan officials with crimes against humanity: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, the former cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura, the former education minister William Ruto, and the radio executive Joshua arap Sang. Charges against two other officials, former Police Commissioner Mohammed Hussein Ali and Minister for Industrialization Henry Kosgey, were dropped, with the remaining four to face trial beginning in April 2013. Until then, however, it is business as usual – which includes one of the accused, Kenyatta, vying for the presidency.

Given that Kenya’s previous constitution was considered partly responsible for the violence, a new constitution was adopted in 2010, with the support of 67% of the population. But an updated constitution cannot instantly transform a country’s politics and society.

In fact, the old Kenyan constitution underpinned legislation that, if enforced, would have addressed some of the factors that fuel violence. For example, the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999 stipulates that every Kenyan is entitled to live in a clean environment. If this right is violated, citizens may petition the courts to compel violators to desist, and to pay to repair the damage. But, as the highly polluted Nairobi River demonstrates, the law has never been enforced.

More than two years since the new constitution was adopted, little has changed. The root causes of the 2007 violence – rampant poverty, significant income inequality, pervasive corruption, inadequate internal security, and an unemployment rate exceeding 40% – remain.

Moreover, Kenyans have made little effort to mend relations between ethnic groups. Last year alone, ethnic clashes in the Tana River District killed more than 100 people. And the level and tone of political debate – for example, within Facebook groups created by presidential candidates or their supporters – are worrying. Many participants make simplistic, ethnocentric statements like, “Kikuyus should never rule Kenya again” (Kenyatta is a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe).

Likewise, when cattle rustlers recently killed dozens of police officers in northern Kenya, the media described the suspects in terms of their Turkana descent, rather than calling them what they are: criminals. Unless all Turkana people are homicidal cattle rustlers, how does such stereotyping advance the cause of professional journalism, much less promote tolerance in Kenya?

The only part of the new constitution that Kenyans have been quick to implement directly pertains to elections. This year, in addition to electing a president and members of parliament, voters will elect senators, county governors, and other political leaders. Moreover, for the first time a run-off will be required if no candidate emerges from the first round of the presidential election with at least 50% of the national vote and 25% of the vote in 24 counties.

While such reforms – which give citizens more power by establishing semi-autonomous local governments – are crucial, the underlying motivation is the creation of more legislative positions. In Kenya, such offices translate into instant wealth for the winners. Indeed, given that Kenya’s lawmakers are some of the world’s highest-paid politicians, earning many times the salary of counterparts in much wealthier countries, they are willing to do anything – even incite violence – to be elected.

There is little doubt that the new sinecures will benefit only Kenya’s wealthiest. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to appease the millions of poor Kenyans who are likely to heed a politician’s exhortation to kill. With Election Day less than three months away, citizens can only hope that the new constitution created enough electoral vacancies to satisfy their politicians’ bloody lust for power.

Juliet Torome, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was awarded Cinesource Magazine’s first annual Flaherty documentary award.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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