The Kenyan election and political double talk

There is a large gulf between the rhetoric of the presidential candidates and the reality of politics in Kenya.

Kenya''s President, Mwai Kibaki makes an
President Mwai Kibaki had an opportunity to weaken ethnic politics but instead "regressed to old tribal tricks" [AFP]

On February 11, 2013, Al Jazeera aired Kenya’s first ever televised presidential debate. This was a lively exchange between the candidates and it was refreshing to see the eight contenders, including the two leading rivals, Odinga and Kenyatta, amicably and politely debate ideas. Such civility was in sharp contrast to the horrific political mayhem that marked the aftermath of the last presidential election in 2007 in which the principal contenders stood by, as hundreds of innocent citizens were slaughtered.

Watching the debate one would think that a political revolution had taken place since those gruesome days in 2007. Three issues dominated the debate: First, there was the discussion of the pending International Criminal Court case against Kenyatta. Second, much verbiage was devoted to tribalism and party politics in Kenya. Third, there was some discussion of corruption in government and what might be done to clean it up.

However, there is a gulf between the rhetoric of the candidates and the reality of politics in Kenya. In particular, it is worth underscoring how far the candidates went to distance themselves from tribal politics and corruption.

Any informed person about the country knows that elite-driven ethnicity has been the grammar of Kenyan politics since shortly after independence. Despite this common knowledge, senior political leaders have consistently pretended that they are the servants of all Kenyans.

Even President Kibaki, who had a golden opportunity to fatally weaken ethnic politics as a result of the broad coalition that came together to defeat former President Moi in 2003, regressed to old tribal tricks as he sought a second term in the presidency. When ethnic mobilisation failed to deliver victory, his associates gerrymandered the election results, which led to a blood path that nearly destroyed the country. 

The terror which that fraudulent victory spawned frightened the civic movement and helped them push the political class to agree to some major structural reforms. The product of this process was Kenya’s new constitution. However, it is one thing to rewrite the constitution, and an entirely different matter to legislate political morality for an elite steeped in malfeasance and sectarian entrepreneurship.

Although constitutional reform and heightened civil awakening has yet to seriously dent the appetite of the political class to mobilise the electorate on the basis of ethnic sentiments, this energy will hopefully prevent another slaughter the morning after.  

In light of this, it was amusing to hear nearly all the candidates “announce” their enduring civic commitment, and rejection of tribalism and corruption. Given the country’s tribalistic and corrupt political culture, Kenyan citizens of goodwill must hope that the almighty will bless the declaration of the candidates and turn them into a new political reality after the March election.

Short of such a miracle, old political realities are being reworked in the election campaign. It is true that none of the major candidates have openly articulated their campaigns to be ethnically anchored, but the fact remains that the country and the campaigns are Balkanised into ethnic blocs. For example, most of the major coalitions are based on tribal formulas which directly negate all rhetorical declaration made during the debate.

Double talk on Somalia

This double talk among Kenya’s presidential aspirants mirror the current government’s Janus-faced policy on Somalia. Over a year ago, when Kenya invaded Somalia, the Kibaki-Odinga government claimed its intention was to drive al-Shabaab from its stronghold in the Juba region centred on the port of Kismayo and then withdraw its forces. 

Somalis did not believe Kenya’s intentions were limited to getting rid of al-Shabaab, and it appears that Somali suspicions have been borne out. The government of Kenya, led by President Kibaki and Premier Odinga, has been involved in mobilising certain Somali tribal groups to support its agenda in Somalia. 

Since the defeat of al-Shabaab, Kenya continues to host mini-tribal conferences that it hopes will lead to the creation of a “Jubaland state” in Somalia. The aim has been not only to create a buffer zone for Kenya, but for Kenya to have a strong sphere of influence which it can use to press its desire of taking some of Somalia’s richest marine resources south of Kismayo.

To add insult to injury, Kenyan military commanders in Kismayo blocked a delegation sent to the city by the recently selected Somali president to visit Kismayo, reinforcing Kenya’s ill-intention for Somalia.

On a second front, the government of Kenya has been the vanguard of institutionalising clan political boundaries between Somali communities in Somalia through its involvement in the so-called Somali peace conferences, and participation in the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). I witnessed this first-hand when Kenya hosted one of the so-called Somalia “reconciliation” conferences in 2003-2004 and more recently through its endorsement of a particular candidate in the 2012 transition.

Despite all of its claims of goodwill towards Somalia, existing evidence indicate that Kenya’s rhetorical pronouncement about Somalia is belied by its policy and practical engagements. For instance, there was a recent Ministerial Meeting of the Core Group on Somalia in Addis Ababa on January 25, 2012, in which the Kenyan Foreign Minister questioned the legitimacy of Turkey’s willingness to help rebuild Somali security forces.

He claimed that such a project was the preserve of IGAD and that Turkey had no business in interfering in this matter. He also insisted that the newly formed Somali security force must be representative of clan divisions illustrating Kenya’s commitment to Somali subjugation.

What might Kenyans and Somalis expect

It is evident that Kenyan leaders, current ones or the aspirant group, are at ease in living a double life. Their public narrative to the people of Kenya exudes common civic identity while their political practice deeply invests in tribalism and deceit. Given the unchanged political strategy of the presidential candidates the best one can expect, in the immediate term, is continued salience of political tribalism rather than putting the new constitution in to practice.

The gulf between the reality of Kenya’s involvement in Somalia and its public pronouncements is equally incongruous. Publicly, Kenyan leaders shed “crocodile tears” to show their empathy for the Somali people. In private, they engage in policies and practices which reproduce Somali vulnerabilities and that exploit them to the maximum. Both instances elucidate that neither the citizens of Kenya nor Somalia can expect civic relief from the current cohort of political candidates anytime soon.       

Abdi Ismail Samatar is professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is also the President of the African Studies Association