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Kenya after Mwai Kibaki

Charles Onyango-Obbo
20 February 2006

There is a sense that the promise the Narc government elected in Kenya in December 2002 held out for three years before turning to ashes. The much-touted "second liberation" has turned into another revolution that has eaten its children. However, if one puts recent events in the wider context of the political chaos in Africa over the last twenty years, the picture that emerges is much brighter.

Revolutions rarely eat their children, and either by subtle calculation or pure accident of history, the political struggle between President Mwai Kibaki and his men and women and the Raila Odinga-inspired Liberal Democratic Party and (lately) the Orange Democratic Movement, has expanded democratic space in Kenya dramatically. Behind the seeming "chaos" in Kenya, there is an important lesson about African society and politics.

Kenya in an African context

The battles over the November 2005 referendum, which ended in defeat for the government, brought out some of the harshest attacks on President's Kibaki's government – and of his nemesis, the Raila Odinga-driven Liberal Democratic Party, his former partners in the ruling Narc coalition. To compound matters, President Kibaki seemed to have plunged into the deepest crisis of his three-year administration when several of the ministers he named to his new cabinet contemptuously turned down the appointments.

As embarrassments come and go, very few African presidents have endured such treatment, and it seemed Kibaki's prestige had hit rock bottom. When MPs from Central Province, the president's "indigenous" backyard and stronghold, started openly to challenge his leadership style, Kibaki seemed to have become a lame duck. Yet we must ask the questions: has Kibaki really come to be the symbol of the death of the second liberation (or even "revolution" as some called it) that saw him and his ruling National Rainbow Coalition so dramatically sweep Kanu out of power in December 2002? Did the factional wars in Narc, its failure to stamp out corruption, and the decision by the government to go with what critics say was a narrow Wako constitution draft constitute a betrayal? And was the November defeat Kibaki's worst political month? Perhaps not.

It's understandable from the perspective of someone who supported and invested emotionally on the side of the Banana (yes) side to feel bitter about the November result – and for those who were on the Orange (no) side to feel triumphant. But revolutions, even imperfect ones, never evaporate in three years. It might be for better or worse, but their effects usually continue to be felt decades later. In fact even unpopular regimes, like Kanu in its last years, also often leave useful footprints. Thus, though the Daniel arap Moi regime faced isolation and massive cuts in donor support, in that period Kenya, its work ethic largely uncorrupted by too much aid, developed an economic resilience deeper than of either its East African Community neighbours, Tanzania and Uganda. This resilience partly explains the economic rebound happening in the more relaxed atmosphere today.

Therefore, when one steps back a little and looks at the outcome of the November referendum, and the setbacks President Kibaki had putting his new cabinet together against the wider African political context, and world history in general, the verdict is much different.

Let's look at the continent. By 1998 when former United States president Bill Clinton visited Africa, the conventional wisdom was that a "new era of democracy and prosperity" had arrived in Africa. There were many leaders being touted as the "new breed". Among them were Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and Mozambique's then leader Joachim Chissano. A longer list included, unbelievable as it might sound today, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Namibia's Sam Nujoma.

As we entered the 21st century, some commentators started to flash a new list of what were regarded "hopeful countries". It was a category that was developed because the prospects of the countries under it looked good, but they had not captured international imagination because their leaders were not outspoken or charismatic personalities like the members of the "new breed". President John Kofuor's Ghana and Abdoulaye Wade's Senegal fell in this category. Some analysts put South Africa in this category, because it is considered too advanced a nation to be judged just by who its leader is, and by "African standards". Generally, the southern giant tends to be left out because it's seen to be in a class of its own.

Kenya entered the "hopeful" category after Narc defeated Kanu in 2002. It became an "African example" partly because of the promise held out by Kibaki's presidency, but also on account of the historic nature of Narc's victory. As former planning minister Anyang Nyong'o and trade and industry minister Mukhisa Kituyi used to say, Narc is the broadest democratic coalition in Africa ever to sweep a long-ruling party out of power.

There was a little overstatement there, because that honour belongs more properly to the ANC in South Africa, but the sentiment was important. Narc was the first democratic (as opposed to armed) opposition in eastern Africa to defeat an incumbent government.

Compared to "new breed" nations like Meles's Ethiopia, Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki, Uganda's Museveni, and most of the rest, today it's only Kibaki's Kenya and Kofuor's Ghana where there are no government critics and regime opponents in jail. They are the two countries in the categories discussed above, where you face the least danger for opposing the government.

By that measure Kibaki has presided over the largest expansion of democratic space in Kenya, in the shortest time. Kenya has moved ahead as a pluralistic society, where other nations have gone backwards. It might not be enough from a Kenyacentric point of view, but from an Africa wide perspective it offers new insights into what it might take for democracy to grow on the continent, and the challenges that the collapse of the big independence and the old-style military dictatorships have brought.

Also on Kenya in openDemocracy, as part of our "Africa and democracy" debate:

Peter Kimani, "Goodbye, Mr Big Man"
(January 2003)

Michael Holman, "Welcome to the aid business!"(June 2005)

Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's fruitless referendum"
(November 2006)

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The birth of power-sharing

Raila Odinga recently noted that it was unprecedented for governments to be defeated twice in three years. His argument being that the rejection of the draft constitution, was a "political tsunami", as he likes to call it, that hit President Kibaki in the face with the same magnitude that the defeat of Kanu in 2002 was a blow to former president, Daniel arap Moi. And it represented a personal political undressing for Kibaki.

Seen as a single event, Raila is right. But we don't capture the full magnitude of the process if we do that, nor do we accord the latest developments their appropriate continent-wide significance. The rejection of the draft constitution was the continuation of a process starting many years further back that resulted in the end of the one-party state and adoption of multiparty politics in 1992, and the loss of elections by Kanu in 2002.

Kanu lost, not as some observers often argue, primarily because Moi alienated tribal chieftains who ganged up and defeated his successor Uhuru Kenyatta. The truth is that through the one-party era in Africa, military rule, and authoritarian multiparty rule, it became impossible for pro-democracy groups to organise against strongman regimes nationally. A lot of organisations therefore, were local – based in counties, districts, or regions. If not, they were civil-society organisations located mostly in the city. For all the buzz about the role of civil society in the democracy movement in Africa, very few of them were national organisations in the way the major political parties were.

These organisations were confined to regions or towns not because they were sectarian, but it was in these smaller spaces that they could draw on local communities and intimate networks to shield them from the long repressive arm of the state. In this way, the political parties that emerged tended to be regional at best (or even tribal at best) – the DP in central Kenya, Ford-Kenya in western, LDP in the coast and Luo Nyanza. Though very few recognised it, we had began the end of the dominance of the independence nationalist parties (like Kanu) in Africa. And, together with that, it was a repudiation of the Moi and Kenyatta-style powerful presidencies. "Power-sharing" had been born.

The pattern is reflected elsewhere. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi led the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) to victory against the Mengistu Haile Mariam military junta in 1991. The TPLF was a regional movement, and the cynics still insist it remains a tribal organisation. However, to consolidate his power, Meles formed the fourteen-party ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Today Ethiopia is a loose federation, with eight major national parties and various regional ones – fifty-eight of them – ruling or contending for power in the various regions. While Kenya and Ethiopia went the coalition way, in Rwanda, an otherwise powerful Rwanda Patriotic Front, took a different route and settled for a constitution where power-sharing is a cardinal principle, and in this way commits all future rulers to share the spoils of office.

The extreme case was in Somalia, where the collapse of the Siad Barre government led to the split of the country in warlord -controlled fiefdoms. And, perhaps, not too far behind there was the Democratic Republic of Congo. When power began to slip from the hold of the kleptomanic Mobutu Sese Seko, he opened up political space to redeem some credibility. Nearly everyone laughed when more than 400 new parties mushroomed; ignoring what they signified about the depth of the governance crisis that had been fermenting under Mobutu. With a little more wisdom, the world would have known that the next stage was going to be the break out of rebellion and the rise of dozens of militias that fought in a war that has resulted, directly and indirectly, in the death of 4 million people in the last seven years.

Therefore, the wrangles that plagued Narc were milder tensions that we were witnessing everywhere in post-authoritarian Africa between localisation (a weak president with power dissolved to the regions or districts, where the parties have key roles), and centralisation (a powerful president with most powers concentrated in the capital, and the hands of a single dominant party). For that reason, to have presented the referendum as a battle between Kibaki and Raila, and the current political pull and shove as just another round in the fight for power, is it to vulgarise something that has greater historical significance.

The world's tribal voting patterns

So, to restate, the defeat of the Wako draft was a triumph of the localisation movement. The Orange Democratic Movement led it, without starting it, though several of its key players can claim credit for being part of the struggle in which it was born in the late 1980s.

The "tribal voting pattern" therefore shouldn't have come as a surprise. There is nothing fundamentally anti-democratic in the Kikuyu of central Kenya supporting Kibaki as one of their own, or the Luo voting to a man and woman against the draft heeding a call by Raila, or the Rift Valley resoundingly rejecting it too. This is, partly, because without that same regionalisation, Kanu wouldn't have been defeated in the first place.

While the "modernist" school tends to be horrified by these trends in African politics, they have never demonstrated ably what would be wrong with the Kikuyu having a common interest in voting for the draft, or the Luo nursing a common grievance to rally against it?

When one thinks about it, this is a question that has been faced and continues to be confronted by some of the world's most stable democracies. In the United States, for example, the south traditionally votes Republican, and the north Democratic. In Germany, Bavaria has for long been in the grip of the Conservatives, ensuring that the CDU has ruled there for ages. In Britain, the same tensions resulted a few years into the creation of the Scottish assembly. As Michael Chege observed, Switzerland is a stitch-up of various tribes who fiercely guard their identity today.

Yet African leaders who ruin their countries with dictatorship they impose to "guard against the dangers of tribalism", are the same ones who hide their looted billions in Switzerland, which has prospered and is very stable – despite its tribes. The solution in the US and Germany was devolution of power through a federal arrangement. In Africa, the fear of the break of the post-Berlin conference states, leads us to view regional or tribal voter behaviour with hostility.

However, the cries about the danger of breaking up countries through tribalism in Africa are overstated. The political elite use it to avoid dealing with the problems. In Kenya's case, the solution was there in both the Bomas and Wako drafts – devolution. The question was how much power to devolution, and to what levels. The referendum outcome showed that there had been important movements along the path that Kenyans started out on in 2002.

To thoughtful observers of African politics, the surprise in the results was not where most commentators have focused on. Central Kenya was solidly behind President Kibaki in backing the draft. However while turnout was average in the region, in some areas, it dipped well below 50%. In Luo Nyanza, on the other hand, where Raila was leading the charge, turnout was lower. There have been questions raised about turn-out patterns in the Rift Valley, which were dizzyingly above national average, in some places over 90%. From this, the possibility of malpractice has been raised.

However, the curse of African politics is that the president's backyard and the areas where the government is strongest usually have the largest turnouts. Not that the people there show up in the largest numbers, but governments usually steal the most votes in these areas. Thus you have situations where government strongholds have more votes, than registered voters and the total population resident in the area. In other countries, to be sure, in opposition strongholds they too steal the vote.

The curious thing in Kenya is not that the turnout was highest in Rift Valley, but that it was not so in Nyanza or Central. One way to interpret this is that the Kivuitu's electoral commission is sufficiently independent. But the other is that the regional clout of parties, are now a new check and balance on the abuse of power: you don't steal the vote where you are strongest, I won't steal it where I am strongest either. Or simply that political culture has changed in favour of honest polls.

In any event, once Kibaki failed to use his incumbency to "fix" the referendum, the "crisis" over the new cabinet was not only inevitable, but necessary. The referendum defeat had not so much humiliated the president, as demystified the presidency. It made it possible for MPs to tell him to stuff his appointments once he named some of them to the new cabinet. The media reported that such rejections of ministerial positions are unprecedented in Kenya's history.

In many parts of Africa, if a president appointed you minister, and you turned the job down on TV, you would be in exile the following day, or in jail if you can't run faster than his security goons. Politics is still so lucrative in Africa that people go to the bush to fight to become ministers. In Angola, Jonas Savimbi went back to the forest because he felt he wasn't given a juicy enough position. Compare that then to a situation where people reject ministership!

The Kibaki factor

In light of the big picture, this is an important indicator of the state of democratic progress. First, it is a necessary condition of democratic growth that you should not be so scared of the president, that you can't feel free to reject his appointment. Second, Africa needs more politicians to reject ministerial appointments, for whatever reason, if ever cabinet positions are to become offices of public service, not self-enrichment.

My own sense is that when the history of Kenya is written in the years to come, Mwai Kibaki will probably be judged more favourably than current events suggest. Whether through his proverbial laidback style, poor judgment, non-combative approach, or subtle calculation, he enabled Kenyan democracy to make its unpredictable erratic march forward. His Orange Democratic Movement opponents, whether they were driven by a need to settle political scores, humiliate Kibaki, or were motivated genuinely by legitimate political cause, had the courage to test the country's political mettle. For if you don't test and stretch a country's political structures, they never mature.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is the Nation Media Group's managing editor for Convergence and New Products in Nairobi, Kenya.

This article was first published in the Daily Nation (Nairobi), 13 January 2006 [subscription only]

It's difficult to erase everything that came about by a revolutionary or hard-fought political struggle. In Uganda today, President Yoweri Museveni has turned into your typical African "big man". He had the constitution amended to remove term limits, and effectively created a life presidency. He has attempted to jail his opponent in the 25 February presidential election, Kizza Besigye. But the pressure to legitimise the rebellion that brought him to power in 1986, at great cost in lives, led him to push through enduring reforms of land (one of Africa's most radical land initiatives), that broke nearly a century-old hold on the country's most important economic resource by the landed gentry.

These reforms are irreversible – whichever way his rule ends. The tensions and tests that we see in Kenya today, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, provoke the responses that eventually become a nation's political DNA. The outcome might be democratic, or set back countries as in Liberia or Sierra Leone. In all, most African leaders usually fail the test and become primitive when they are faced with defeat at election, or referendums. There are many things that the Kibaki government handled incompetently during the November 2005 constitutional referendum. But after the dust has settled and Kibaki has gone back to Othaya, I suspect the enduring fact of history from the referendum will be that he restrained himself from altering the course of this history.

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