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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kenya's Collapse

January 31, 2008

A rigged election, ethnic violence, economic dysfunction and now a political assassination -- the crisis in Kenya has hit a sad superfecta. Worse, the politicians who loosed these forces don't look capable of reining them back in.

It's been a month since this once-placid country exploded. When incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the December 27 election, supporters of challenger Raila Odinga took to the streets. They claimed Mr. Kibaki, who had been trailing in opinion polls, stole the election through massive fraud. International observers say the vote was such a shambles that it's impossible to know who really won.

Hopes that the civic outrage at electoral fraud was a sign of democratic maturation were fast shattered. The death toll surged, with reports that police were ordered to put down the early protests with lethal force if necessary. Now human-rights groups claim the opposition has been organizing brutal attacks on members of Mr. Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe -- a charge that Mr. Odinga denies. In all, at least 850 Kenyans have been killed and more than a quarter of a million have fled their homes. Another spate of interethnic killings was triggered by the apparent assassination in Nairobi Tuesday of a moderate lawmaker aligned with Mr. Odinga.

Messrs. Kibaki and Odinga have ill-served their own people by doing little to nothing to mend the political rift -- which, in the meantime, turned into a potentially far more dangerous tribal conflict. Both politicians are to blame for the machete-wielding men and innocents burned to death in village churches, bloody episodes that are eerily reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994. Some in Kenya now wonder whether either man still wields control over his ethnic faction.

A political solution, perhaps involving a form of power-sharing until calm returns and a fresh election can be called, is a prerequisite to stopping the violence. But it will be difficult to pull off. One possibility that's been floated would have Mr. Odinga serve as Prime Minister alongside President Kibaki. But the Odinga camp may not trust Mr. Kibaki to follow through, since the President earlier reneged on a deal to make Mr. Odinga the Premier in exchange for his support in the country's 2002election.

Rerunning the election soon, or recounting the December tally, would also be highly problematic. At this point, there's little reason to believe that the loser, whether the Kibaki or the Odinga side, would accept the results. The vote itself, one Kenyan democratic activist says, would have to be either beyond reproach or result in a landslide win for one candidate. A democracy in which only large margins are respected isn't really a democracy.

Even if a political deal can be struck, the violence may not end quickly. The Luo tribe of Mr. Odinga, along with the Kalenjin and other clans, feels that the Kikuyus have kept too many of the spoils of independence and recent economic growth. Unhappiness with inequalities in wealth and land ownership are as much of a sore point as who gets political power. The two sides are forming militias -- in many cases, we're told, with the help of organized crime -- that will not necessarily be satisfied by seeing the politicians playing nice.

A lasting peace will have to include a shift away from granting power and wealth solely on the basis of tribal identity. This favoritism is a form of corruption, one of the most persistent ills across all of Africa. Rooting out such an ingrained system won't be easy. The democratic institutions that so far haven't stopped the current ethnic violence will have to be strengthened. They include an independent judiciary to review vote-fraud allegations and law enforcement that citizens respect.

Messrs. Kibaki and Odinga could best help their countrymen by finding a way to work toward these goals. Otherwise, they're merely arguing over who gets to preside over the next African tragedy.


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