Strange but true: In Kenya’s ethnic divisions may lie the country’s salvation
Whichever way you looked at it, the repeat presidential election in Kenya was bound to be problematic. For starters, there is the novelty of the experience, in that we had never seen an African presidential election declared null and void by a court of law. (Of course, we are used to declarations of null and void, but these usually come from the losing candidates and their supporters).
The annulment of the August 8 presidential election was an absolute first for Africa, and the shockwaves it generated will continue to reverberate around the continent over time.
Second, although the presumed victor in the annulled election, President Uhuru Kenyatta, was ambivalent about the court decision, at first seemingly accepting the ruling with grace, he later shabbily lambasted Chief Justice David Maraga who had presided over the judicial panel.
Third, the August election was another episode in an epic saga of political rivalry spanning two generations and pitting major ethnic formations against one another. The marathon tussle between the Odingas and the Kenyattas is the stuff of legend, one that has bedevilled Kenya’s politics to this day.
Then you have the ethnicisation of politics (or is it the politicisation of ethnicity?) that most Kenyan political (and other) operators swear by, so that some people in the region will, sometimes wrongly, determine a person’s politics from the sound of his/ her name.
Lastly, as every self-respecting African will tell you, elections are for stealing, even when you know you can win without cheating. You have to make “assurance double sure” just in case all the prognostics go awry. Elections are not a matter of life and death; they are much more important.
On the continent, as I have always pointed out, losing an election is losing everything for you and your supporters – your livelihood, your economic opportunities, everything. That is why an African election becomes a beall and end-all and why we Africans predicate all on them every time they come around.
But we know elections need not be so important, that there is life after every election, because we know there has been life after every one of them. Kenyans surely know that there was life after every one election that they have had, even after 2007, which looked like a cataclysm, but which, after all was said and done, came and went, and Kenya was still there.
I think that is what matters most. It would be silly to pretend that all is well, because it is not. Every time an exercise like the one Kenya has just gone through happens, someone gets hurt, and something goes wrong. But that cannot be the end of everything. Lessons are garnered and experiences accumulated.
It would be insensitive to wish another 2007-08 on the Kenyan people, because that was a horror story that we all lived in technicolor, but it would be stupid not to acknowledge the invaluable lessons from that grim drama. Kenya emerged from that tragedy with greater maturity, having been forged in the furnace of the fury unleashed by that other botched election.
It is all very well to bemoan the divisiveness of the ethnic mosaic that informs Kenya’s politics. We have too often heard people talk of the infamous “tyranny of numbers” and we have thrown our hands in the air, saying that there is nothing to cure Kenya of its “tribal” politics. But I would like to offer a thought to those who dare take it: If 2007-08 meant, largely, that two major ethnic formations were at each other’s throats, causing the death of more than a thousand people, and if it is true that those two ethnic groups find themselves today on the same side of the barricade, does this not mean that a certain reconciliation, however delicate, has been reached?
It is interesting to note that the tyranny of numbers is progressively informing all involved in the electoral processes in Kenya. Everyone is busy massing up the votes on tribal lines, roping in the principal shakers and movers in every major ethnic stronghold.
Everyone is busy massing up the votes on tribal lines... that was exactly the way England was built, with alliances forged and re-forged
That may look like a backward and primitive system, but I have read some English history, and I know that was exactly the way England was built. In the English narrative, many bloody battles were fought and many changing alliances forged and re-forged.
The incurable optimist in me tells me we are probably witnessing the crafting of such formations in Kenya.
. Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: email@example.com