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Paul Vallely: Spread the money and power

30 January 2008

Kenyans need to challengetheir political inequalities

Do not get between the hippos and the water, the sign said. It was the only danger around. We had gone to see the vast flocks of flamingos that covered the lake like a shimmering pink haze. Naivasha was a pretty little lakeside town.

This week has turned it from a tourist town into a no-go area, a terrible development for a country where tourism is the top earner of foreign exchange, but more terrible for the hundreds of people who have been hacked to death with machetes, pulled from their cars by mobs and stoned, or burned alive as they took refuge in buildings.

The post-election violence in Kenya has taken a disturbing new turn, as a tribal polarisation between the Kikuyu (20 per cent of the population) and Luo (13 per cent) has deepened to a low that Kenyans have not seen before. It all gives further ammunition to the prophets of despair in the West who dismiss Africa as ungovernable. The Daily Mail has even published photos of vigilantes armed with bows and arrows, reinforcing the subliminal message that these people are primitives, not long out of living in trees.

It is tempting to lose patience with Africa, especially when violence comes to a country long hailed as the most politically stable in the region. We all have what a friend of mine calls “the Daily Mail within”, from which our basest atavistic reactions bubble before they are dissipated by our reason. It is there in the other media, too — hence the wildly off-beam comparison of Kenya to Rwanda. Things are terrible in Kenya, but this is not a small group mobilising a community and state institutions, using state resources, to exterminate an entire community.

Kenya has long had what the locals call “land clashes”, flaring up around election time. It happened in 1993, 1997, and 2002. The cause is the lack of fertile land for ordinary people, though frustration is commonly expressed through ethnicity or tribe.

This is not rocket science. Three years ago, Graça Machel, in a report interrogating the country’s governance under the African Peer Review Mechanism, suggested that Kenya was sitting on a political time bomb: “Kenya has much strength that mitigates against the outbreak of mass violence, but it also exhibits many of the factors that have been markers of civil strife elsewhere, such as strong ethnic divisions, socio-economic disparities, poverty, and endemic corruption.”

It is the culture from which this disturbing violence erupts that does not disturb us sufficiently. Kenya is far from Africa’s poorest nation, but 60 per cent of its people live on less than $1 a day. The strong economic growth in Kenya in recent years has not filtered down to them, but has remained with the “Mount Kenya Mafia” of politicians and their business cronies (Comment, 11 January).

Ordinary people lack not just economic affluence, but are deprived of the education that would enable them to see that the small solidarity of tribalism offers no solution to problems that go far wider. They need to press for change to a system where the President appoints the electoral commission and the judges that hear electoral petitions; or where Nairobi’s inner circle can manipulate who gets elected to parliament in most of central Kenya; or where politicians who had previously tried to minimise ethnic conflict this time mobilised their supporters along tribal lines.

The two men who both claim that they won the disputed election are now prisoners of their respective political positions. The time has now come for them, like their supporters, to abandon their sense of grievance, and look to a solution that is not driven by fear and anger. If they cannot, they should both go.

Paul Vallely is a co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa (2005).

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