Eruption of anger at Kenya’s elite

January 25, 2008

The crisis in Kenya over the December 27 presidential election apparently stolen by President Mwai Kibaki deepened as police attacked protests called for January 17 by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

At least five people were killed, according to initial press report. Some 250,000 Kenyas have been displaced in ethnic cleansing, with Kibaki's Kikuyu group targeted by supporters of Odinga, who is a Luo and has the backing of many of Kenya's 40-plus ethnic groups.

Such violence is unprecedented in Kenya--the most developed country in East Africa and long considered "stable" by the Western governments that supported its longtime dictatorial ruler, Daniel Arap Moi, who retired after democratic elections in 2002.

Kiama Kaara is deputy coordinator and researcher at the Kenya Debt Relief Network. He was also the convener of the organizing committee for the youth commission at the 2007 World Social Forum (WSF) in Nairobi. He explained for Socialist Worker's Lee Sustar the background to the crisis and prospects for an alternative.

THE U.S. media portrays the violence in Kenya as an explosion of tribalism. What is the reality on the ground?

THE REALITY on the ground is the simmering tensions that have grown over time, on the basis of inequality. The perception is that those who control the state are the ultimate beneficiaries.

On top of this is the perception that Kibaki was brought to power for the purposes of maintaining the dominance of the Kikuyu, and their stranglehold on the state.

As such, the feeling that the election was stolen is pervasive, and with the eruption of violence, this took on an ethnic expression. But it is not ethnic or tribal affiliations that are the cause. If that were the case, how do you explain the fact that when he swept to power in 2002, there were no charges of an ethnic alliance, but this was hailed as an example of a matured democracy in Africa?

But it serves the political elite to push such an explanation.

THE U.S. appeared set to endorse Kibaki's victory despite obvious irregularities in the vote, then backed off in favor of a compromise with Odinga. Why do you think this is the case? Does the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of neighboring Somalia have something to do with it?

KENYA CERTAINLY has played an important role in U.S. interests on this side of Africa. Kenya is the gateway to Anglo-America imperialist interests on the Eastern seaboard.

In January 2007--ironically, during the World Social Forum--U.S. fighter jets used Kenyan airspace to bomb supposed Islamists in Somalia, setting the ground for the Ethiopian occupation. We can also throw in Kenya's central role in the Sudan process, Northern Uganda, Rwanda and the Great Lakes region.

All along, Kenya has represented the interests of the U.S., masquerading as a peacemaker. So it was no surprise that the U.S. would grandstand in support of Kibaki until the situation on the ground proved undeniable, and the U.S. backtracked.

But again, it's in the interest of the U.S. to strengthen its influence over the Kenyan government to do its bidding. This was a welcome opportunity to dangle the carrot of democracy and respect for rule of law--the human rights carrot--in order to gain a bit of lost ground that had occurred in the past five years, as Kenya became more assertive.

For example, public pressure stopped the enactment of Kenya's Anti-Terrorism bill, which was cut-and-pasted from the USA PATRIOT Act. Also, there was a debate on military bases and lawsuits against the British for munitions injuries, rapes, etc., in local communities. These were complicating issues.

Also, a robust economy (though top-down in its benefits) meant that the arm-twisting of donors and international financial institutions no longer held sway. A whole mix of different factors was giving muscle to Kenya's autonomy on a range of issues.

KENYA, ESPECIALLY Nairobi, has seen a great escalation of police violence and gang violence. What, if any, role has this played in the current crisis?

A LOT of people are missing the point that there is a bigger structural dynamic to the violence. There are challenges to the status quo of inequality, broken promises, etc. Then, certainly gang and police violence gets into the mix to fuel the confusion.

This works for the state, too, since it can criminalize peoples' power on the assertion that it is criminal violence.

WHAT SOCIAL groups and political currents do Kibaki and Odinga represent? What is the position of the Kenyan left on the election?

KIBAKI IS a status quo guy--a rabid capitalist, committed to top-down, trickle-down economics. He served as a powerful minister of finance in the independence-era government, thus forging our capitalist economic development paradigm.

Kibaki is a rich man, which is a product of ripping off the state. He has little connection with the general populace. To him, they are just votes to send him to parliament and keep him on the gravy train. He rules on the advice of a small, extremely rich group of his buddies that forms his kitchen cabinet. It's called the "Muthaiga Group," named after the colonial relic golf club where they meet to craft strategy.

Raila Odinga, on the other hand, is a son of Odinga Odinga, the inspirational nationalist and first vice president after independence. Odinga Odinga is famous for his biography, Not Yet Uhuru (No Freedom Yet), and was a socialist who pushed for peoples' voices especially on land reform.

Raila has been in the struggle all his life and was the longest detained person in Kenyan history under Moi. He has democratic credentials for work in the underground.

But while remaining a populist, Raila has morphed over time. He survived the scandals that embroiled Kenya's top leadership and is a master political operative. But he is also a rich guy in his own right, mainly from family business.

He is today more in the mold of a social democrat. But he does connect with the citizenry and is perceived as a voice of the voiceless, watching out for the peoples' interests. He has near fanatical backing from his supporters.

HOW HAS the Kenyan economy affected the political situation?

THERE HAS certainly been an economic boom. By the time Kibaki took over in 2003, economic growth was at 1.6 percent. It grew by the middle of his term to 5.5 percent, and was 7 percent by the time we had the elections in December 2007.

But the question is: growth for who? A lot of economic activity has been concentrated on the service industries--banks, tourism and the stock market--where Kibaki's rich crowd has major interests. There is also a lot more privatization--selling national assets to Kibaki's cronies, who act as henchmen for global capital.

However, there has been no job creation and no investment in the productive forces that would lift people's standard of living. So people are resentful. They ask if people can eat shares of stock.

This has played out widely, since people can see the inequality gap grow. Today, 10 percent of the population controls almost 46 percent of the total wealth. And with the benefits of education and a more literate society, people--especially the young--can see what the malady is. It's not ethnicity. It's the economy, stupid!

That's why, in droves, people lined up for hours to read Kibaki the riot act by voting him out on December 27.

Hence, when people perceived the election to be stolen, it was seen as an affront to the Kenyan people and a blatant example of elite arrogance. The message was, "We will steal the election to keep the state and continue our accumulation of wealth!"

So the people are angry, and all these different shades of opinion and social forces were part of the inferno. That made it all too easy to call the violence ethnic and tribal, since it's in the service of imperialism to reduce the question to this balderdash.

Kenya will certainly never be the same. It has taken a turn, hopefully to righting past injustices and rebuilding. Or it can go down the cliff.

WHAT ARE the prospects for the Kenyan left in this context?

THE KENYAN left today is in retreat. Part of it has been caught up in mainstream politics and mutated over time. The rest remains in civil society circles. But there credible voices: Wahu Kaara, Wanyiri Kihoro, Edward Oyugi and others who continue to organize.

Still, the "democracy" wave sweeping across Africa in the 1990s has nearly succeeded in wiping out the left's discourse. A more Thatcherite/Reaganite "There Is No Alternative" dictum seems to have gained ground.

But we are all contributing our input and our organizing. And as more young people fall out of the prosperity bus, more are becoming ideologically clear and active. Today, more people can look at issues from a class perspective and understand how the nation is organized, and for whose benefit.

Further Reading

From the archives