Back from the Brink?

By Healy, Sally | The World Today, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Back from the Brink?

Healy, Sally, The World Today

Kenya's post election crisis has highlighted the serious risks of mobilising political support on ethnic lines. Mediation efforts may now provide the impetus to find a better way of managing democratic competition than the country's familiar brand of ethnically divisive patronage politics. But more is at stake, African leaders will be judged on their commitment to be their brother's keeper in times of crisis.

kENYA' S POLITICAL LEADERS SEEM to be inching slowly back from the brink with the help of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his negotiating team. An agreement to work for a political settlement has started to calm the atmosphere and there is hope the political crisis can be resolved.

Events since January have shown Kenya to be acutely vulnerable to violent ethnic conflict. But it will take much more than a quick fix or a power-sharing deal to address this. The country's politicians have finally to bite the bullet of political and constitutional reform that has eluded them for the past fifteen years.


The graphic exposure of ethnic cleavages in recent weeks has been sobering and shocking. But politically inspired ethnic disturbances are not a new phenomenon in Kenya. Major waves of violence in the Rift Valley province were associated with the first multi-party election of 1992. On that occasion Kalenjin supporters of President Daniel arap Moi attacked Kikuyu communities who supported the newly legalised opposition parties.

It happened again during the 1997 elections, both between Kalenjin and Kikuyu in the Rift Valley and in the Coast province where the local Mijikenda peoples, who backed Moi, turned on 'up country people', Kikuyus, Kambas and Luos, who largely supported the opposition.

An estimated fifteen hundred people died in these earlier waves of violence and three hundred thousand were displaced. During the 1990s United Nations Development Programme mounted major support and resettlement aid for the victims. In the post election period, the violence was largely brought under control by the security forces. Parliament and the vibrant religious and civil society leadership mobilised and played a very positive role in containing ethnic clashes and condemning political leaders who incited violence.


The 2002 election was hailed as Kenya's great democratic success: Moi retired, his KANU party was defeated and President Mwai Kibaki rode to power at the head of the National Rainbow Coalition. This included Raila Odinga and representatives from most of Kenya's ethnic groups who united behind Kibaki and delivered him 62 percent of the popular vote.

The absence of any large scale ethnic violence lulled many into thinking that it had been just part of the messy democratic transition of the 1990s that could now be consigned to the past with the Moi era. In reality, a political system in which party support is mobilised almost exclusively along tribal lines meant that the risks remained all too real.

This was amply demonstrated when the argument over the December election results evolved - with such frightening speed - from political protests into violent ethnic confrontation, becoming a catalyst for much more deeply rooted contests over access to land and power.


The violence has taken a heavy toll: over one thousand dead and three hundred thousand displaced. A small minority of ethno-nationalists, not under the control of party leaders, may have been calling the shots, but the scale and intensity of the violence polarised the nation. It also paralysed Kenya's vibrant civil society and religious leadership whose restraining voices have been barely raised.

It is early to judge the severity of the impact on the economy, which had been booming with the best growth figures for years, but has been put in jeopardy. Great harm has already been done to the tourist trade. …

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