Kenya’s trauma, and how to end it

Wanyama Masinde
10 January 2008

The crisis of violence and disorder in Kenya since the election of 27 December 2007 poses hard questions to members of the country's political class of all parties and ethnicities. It also raises the issue of what can and should be done now to meet the needs of Kenya's citizens and the interests of truth, justice and democracy.
Wanyama Masinde researches on global governance at Birkbeck College, University of London

Also by Wanyama Masinde in openDemocracy:

"Kenya's fruitless referendum" (21 November 2005)

The immediate wave of killings may have receded, but the catastrophic days of murder and mass flight have created a huge task of repair. Kenyans are displaced in their hundreds of thousands, there are severe food and humanitarian shortages, businesses are reeling, transport links are broken, the wider region is reverberating from the aftershocks. Most painfully of all, Kenyans have been turned against each other in a wicked display of orchestrated power-grabbing, finger-pointing, and revenge-killing. This is a national disaster and an international concern.

The work of repair will be difficult and long-term for a still distraught country. It will require the three aforementioned qualities: understanding of what went wrong (truth), an assignment of responsibility for crimes committed (justice), and a reform of governance so that the nightmare will never be repeated (democracy). What follows is a brief, provisional sketch of some of the factors that need to be taken into account in preparing this work.

My intention is to raise questions, not provide definitive answers, in this most painful moment in Kenya's modern history.

A seven-point agenda

Also in openDemocracy on Kenya's crisis:

Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)

Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Rober Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

The agenda now is comprehensive. Many authorities need to be involved - the compromised Kenyan political and judicial institutions, regional bodies, the international community and donor governments, the United Nations, as well as - not least - Kenyan citizens themselves.

Here are seven questions that together they must address.

First, where and how should those have committed violations - rapes and looting, "ethnic cleansing" and murder, but also political crimes such as vote-rigging - be brought to justice?

Second, what political factors precipitated the crisis - the circumstances surrounding the presidential-election count, the declaration of the victory of Mwai Kibaki and his precipitous inauguration, and the actions of the opposition leader Raila Odinga - and how should they be assessed?

Third, how can an open process of political dialogue between key adversaries be organised which does not degenerate into a stand-off but rather respects the larger interests of the Kenyan political community and its citizens?

Fourth, how can the solution of the crisis itself be handled in a way that will promote democracy? Does Kenyan democracy - hitherto regarded as one of the more successful in Africa - need external guarantees?

Fifth, does the particular form that electoral democracy has taken in Kenya since independence (the winner-takes-all system of first-past-the-post) fuel the "wrong" sort of political competition - that between power-blocs seeking to represent ethnic interests (see Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya", 8 January 2008)?

Sixth, what is and should be the role of Kenya's institutions such as the judiciary and electoral commission, and how can their independence from political interference and manipulation be guaranteed?

Seventh, how can Kenya's ethnic divisions be contained so that they lose their potential to spark conflagration?

Between Kenya and the world

The answers to these questions may only emerge from a focused process with clear objectives led by a dedicated team and infused with a democratic, non-partisan spirit. If these conditions are present, the results could be imaginative.

Here are three examples. First, and on the first question, the response to a defining moment for ethnic animosity in Africa cannot be to delay until the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and other crimes disappear into Kenya's equivalent of the DR Congo's forest (where Uganda's rebel leader Joseph Kony has taken refuge). The time for indictment must come soon - but Kenya's own government cannot do anything, since it will be accused of targeting a given ethnic group, and no one wants the political fallout. Who will act? The international community shares in responsibility to the victims - and Kenya is a founding signatory of the statute that created the International Criminal Court.

Second, on the third question, many western proponents of democracy have helped opposition parties to get into power without properly assessing their democracy credentials. Many times, foreign support for opposition parties forgets that incumbents can become the opposition and need to be taught democracy too. Democracy needs all-round promotion - after as well as before elections - if it is to avoid becoming part of a fruitless and even destructive cycle.

Third, on the fourth question, if Kenyan democracy does need an external guarantor in its immediate future, the East African Community (EAC) could play this role far better than the troubled African Union. The EAC, being interdependent economically and socially, has a stake in and leverage over what goes on in its member-states. In 2007, for example, the East African court of justice was able to compel the Mwai Kibaki government to address shortcomings in its selection (rather than election) of members of the regional parliament.

These are only partial indications of the kind of solutions that might be found. The post-crisis inquiry needs also to take into account other dimensions of Kenya's political reality that have emerged into the light. For example, ethnic identity exists not only on the ground in Kenya but is also disseminated in the diaspora and in forums such as blogs; indeed some of the most vicious tribalistic sentiment is spewed out in blogs hosted by "modern" or "westernised" Kenyans living in the United States or Europe. Moreover, the media in general - including new media - can be the source of prejudice and dangerous rumour as much as (or more than) reliable information. Some rumours clearly intended to manipulate the situation politically were distributed as mobile-phone text-messages. The example of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is notorious; but today, the question of new technologies and how they might be used to sabotage democracy must also be addressed.

It may be that a new body needs to be brought together, comprising Kenyans and others from Africa and around the world, to deal with the agenda set out here. Kenyans need and deserve truth, justice, and democracy. They will surely rise to the challenge. But now more than ever, they need the support of the world.

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