Let Kenyans Take the Lead – by Shalini Gidoomal

Focus: Kenya view.

It’s just over a month since the GSU threw journalists, observers, and anyone else getting in the way, out of Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in the first step to quickly re-instate Kibaki as President.

In that time, conservative estimates indicate nearly 1000 people have died and over half a million are refugees. Kenya, once the symbol of progress in Africa, lies in tatters as a systemic and poisonous polarisation infects the country.

At first it’s possible to feel outraged when someone with such questionable moral fibre as Jacob Zuma urges his supporters not to behave violently in a backward way – like those Kenyans.

But then the killings and mass displacement which are extensively documented – this has been a media saturated event – begin to spread and grow. And every day, in large and small ways, the animosity continues to increase, infiltrating deeply into Kenyan society. Security companies shuffle askaris around to ensure they’re guarding clients of the same ethnic background. Disturbing reports appear of preferential treatment in Nairobi’s Kenyatta hospital – subject to tribal status. In Naivasha a Luo nurse is torched in her clinic by her patients. Yesterday, a well-known large banking group had to split up a fist-fight amongst their staff relating to ethnicity in the office. Even the moderate voices of reason are breaking down.

In response to the terrible events that have built into this crescendo of shock, we see our leaders – aspirant and otherwise – proverbially retreat behind great big electric fences, to bicker while Kenya burns. They argue about seating arrangements during mediation talks. They insist that filmed police murders are mere computer graphics. They deny attacks on both sides of the ethnic divide were pre-planned. They play a ping-pong blame game. It’s their only consistent form of public debate. Even though we have long passed the place where that sort of brinkmanship is heroic

And as they verbally harangue each other, gunshots, bonfires and machetes continue to claim life after Kenyan life.

It’s as if leaders don’t comprehend the scale of the crisis on their hands. Or perhaps they don’t care. As Kenya bleeds and burns, neither Raila nor Kibaki have yet to come out clearly with a strong condemnation of the spiralling violence. Their messages don’t convey any real desire to quell the unrest. And so instead their fudging has created a platform on which Kenya is enacting its worst hatreds.

It wasn’t always this way. In February 2003, I was having lunch at Naivasha Country Club (recently under siege), when a newly elected Kibaki decided to pay a visit. He arrived unannounced with a small coterie of six people and sat down to have tea. Spontaneously the occupants of other tables, some 200 individuals, stood up and began to clap. Kibaki looked bemused, surprised that his presence – or what it represented – could cause such a reaction. We were basking in the glow of the power of the vote, the delivery of democracy at last.

Five years later and Kenya is being destroyed in name of that democracy. What kind of warped logic allowed this to happen?

Perhaps it’s because there’s only ever been a superficial diagnosis of the problems afflicting us – which means they can’t be healed, because the root of the sickness remains uncovered. We have a small, barely minted modern middle class with their professors, their associations, their academics who, in the past five years took out loans to buy their own home or to contribute to traffic jams in their very own new car. We have a cabal of wealthy citizens, about1% of the population, who command over half of Kenya’s wealth. Based on this, we talk of economic growth rates, rising tourist numbers, the vision of 2030. All the time forgetting that over 60% live in a different world. A world which doesn’t access this growth at all.

They can only watch as banking, privatisation of national assets, stocks and property booms benefit a few. The growth rate of the last administration did not create significant additional jobs or provide infrastructure to improve living standards. So the poor continue to pay over-inflated rents in the cramped conditions of Nairobi slums or stay in rural areas where there’s little hope of jobs.

Can you feel the growing GDP? asked a radio station. For the bulk of the population, the answer is not at all.

In India, when the economy powered on with an impressive double digit growth of 13%, up from 3%, the voting public – the masses – the youth – threw out Vajpayee Singh’s government. The reason? His galloping economic progress didn’t touch them. And it’s the same here.

Figures released by NEC indicate that 1.8 million youth have no jobs. That’s a lot of restless anger waking up each morning with nothing to do, nowhere to go. A substantial mass of energy with no goal and no focus. Until now. In this post election chaos, the bitterness festering in our society has found a vent. Ethnic fears incited and excited during the 2005 referendum, and through poverty, and land resentment have combined in an explosive mix.

For many dispossessed, this time of violence is a seminal moment in their lives – it’s a time of grand expression. An intoxicating taste of an immense newly found power. After all, being responsible for someone’s death is supremacy indeed. Quite a change from the tedium of a daily routine of nothingness. And all this is in the name of a cause – fighting for the tribe.

It needs to be different. As Kenyans, we have surrendered collective leadership to a political elite who has shown nothing but self-interest. Nobody, from the array of elected parliamentarians has emerged out of this crisis looking like a credible national leader. Where’s our Nelson Mandela? Our Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? Our Martin Luther King?

Looking back into history could point the way to possible solutions. In the early 19th century when the Teso broke from the Karamajong and fought their way towards what is now the Busia border they became a Nilotic enclave surrounded by Bantu. As there was direct competion for land, the next 100 years were a series of bloody territorial incursions. In the 1880’s the Teso and Abagusii met and permanently stigmatized war amongst their groups. You could not go home a hero if you killed either Teso or Gusii. For 130 years – there wasn’t a single a raid amongst the two – although both continue to war with their neighbours with whom no pact was made.

Can this process be extended across Kenya? Can such pacts, which extend existing moral boundaries be used to create an abhorrence of killing? Can a widespread campaign to highly stigmatise ethnic slaughter, and humanise each and every person in every tribe make a change? It could work. We need to take this sort of process and spread it across Kenya – to stigmatise killing, vilify those who advocate it, make it abhorrent, unpopular and ugly. A sustained campaign is critical. Are we fed up enough to try? The politicians will follow if it is successful enough. After all, don’t they follow anything that gains them popularity?

In essence we could save us. We need to save us.

Informal institutions must usurp national responsibility; leap in where leaders have left such a vacuum. Established organisations such as churches, member clubs, associations, businesses, unions all need to band together with coalitions that have sprung up such as the Concerned Citizens for Peace, and Peace with Truth and Justice, to steer a new track.

Some of this is already happening. These groups have been working through public forums; with facilitated mediation (such as encouraging, visits to Kenya by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and various former African Presidents), through committees focused on peace action at community level, through initiatives by women, on sms and blog sites, by youth for peace, and with the mass media. The networks are spreading, but it needs to be faster, quicker, more decisive if we are to save Kenya from the brutalizing violence that is destroying our once great nation.

And it would behoove our erstwhile leaders to reflect on how this country, in its munificence, has served them well. Both Raila and Kibabi are millionaires with major assets and holdings. Both have been allowed to amass vast political prestige.

Now it is our turn. They owe it to Kenyans to give back to us, with dignity and integrity. To let go and let Kenyans find a way to be Kenyans.

They owe it to us.


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