2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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England: Obama could help put out the fire in Kenya


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 John Githongo
Financial Times (London)
Published: February 14 2008


There is a certain grim symmetry to the joke about the US getting an ethnic Luo president before Kenya does. The nearer Barack Obama (whose father was a Kenyan Luo) gets to the White House, the greater his potential impact as a mediator in his homeland. But the longer it takes, the more harm his countrymen will impose on themselves. As the proverb of his Luo kinfolk puts it: “When the village is on fire, its sons in the city must help put it out.”

In Kenya , a worst-case scenario is conceivable as the violence sustains weak leaders; that is why Africa cannot immediately help and nor can the Kikuyu-dominated middle class, save for a brave few speaking out under threat to their lives. Mr Obama has the “awe” factor to make a difference.

The speed at which Kenya has unravelled after rigged elections in December has shocked everyone – Kenyans most of all but the sturdy middle class in particular. A mixture of distress, fury and helplessness consumes the population. At least 1,000 people have been murdered and over 1 per cent of the population has been displaced. We must start facing the fact that the Kenya we knew has changed for good. We Kenyans have no option but to construct our second republic out of the ashes of the first, broken one. This means recognising some issues.

To many in the west confronted with images of machete-wielding Africans, what has happened may look like an atavistic uprising. In fact it has been a deadly elite-driven political game in which the machete carriers are pawns on a blood-soaked chessboard. The kings and queens include institutions such as the World Bank, western governments and others who have engaged with Kenya ’s polity in a manner that has often involved sweeping fundamental realities under the carpet. For the past four years some of these players insisted that :country-regionKenya ’s politics were merely noise that would be drowned out by the chugging of a vibrant economic engine. Those who used their credibility as purveyors of this alchemy are as responsible for the current situation as some of the leading belligerents now. They need to engage responsibly and with unity and clarity.

Kenya is gripped by a battle within its political elite that has led to a failed election. This has fractured the nation along historic fault-lines of resource inequality, ethnicity, generation and class. Potent grievances over the distribution of land, and over the perceptions that the president’s Kikuyu community feels entitled to rule, are stirred into the mix. It is a contradiction because the two ostensibly opposing forces have no fundamental ideological differences. Indeed, it is not clear that the mediation in :CityNairobi involves leaders who retain control of the situation on the ground.

There has been discussion of the military being called in to restore order – most notably by Paul Kagame, president of :country-region Rwanda . An increasing number of Kenyans contemplate this option as well, but are nervous because flames of ethnic polarisation lick at all our institutions, including the army. A military intervention would need to be invited, not forced, and would require a regional and international component for legitimacy. It is likely that the economic costs of the crisis will have a more profound head-clearing effect on the elite than the violence. Cash in the pocket is their primary preoccupation.

The failed election must be corrected. This will not happen without international participation. Prior to this, a transitional arrangement built on a constitutional amendment that reduces presidential powers could be crafted.

Any settlement that results from the mediation efforts of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, must be recognised as a stop-gap measure. Indeed, there are reasons to fear that both the main protagonists in the dispute have been damaged irreparably. What is needed is forceful action that halts the bloodshed for long enough to effect constitutional reform and review and implement the myriad abandoned recommendations regarding corruption and land allocation.

Who is best placed to apply the pressure? The African Union faces major challenges despite a good early start. In the :country-regionUS , Mr Obama is riding a favourable tide. At his other home his people are busy doing horrible things. He does not have to come himself. But he needs to engage with a ghost that is sweeping over his father’s grave leaving death and destruction in its wake.

The writer is former permanent secretary in charge of governance and ethics in the Kenya government, who fled to exile in the UK in 2005. He is now a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Ox


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