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Monday, Jan. 7, 2008

Hope and betrayal in Kenya


LONDON — More than two years ago, when Kenya's current opposition leader, Raila Odinga, quit President Mwai Kibaki's government, I wrote the following: "The trick will be to get Kibaki out without triggering a wave of violence that would do the country grave and permanent damage. . . . Bad times are coming to Kenya."

The bad times have arrived, but the violence that has swept Kenya since the stolen election Dec. 27 is not just African "tribalism." Kikuyus have been the main target of popular wrath and non-Kikuyu protesters have been the principal victims of the security forces, but this confrontation is about trust betrayed, hopes dashed, and patience strained to the breaking point.

Nobody wants a civil war in Kenya, but it's easy to see why Raila Odinga rejects calls from abroad to accept the figures for the national vote that were announced last Dec. 30. If Odinga enters a "government of national unity" under Kibaki, as the African Union and the United States want, then he's back in the untenable situation that he was in until 2005, and Kibaki will run Kenya for another five years.

If Odinga leaves it to Kenya's courts to settle, the result will be the same: There have been no verdicts yet on disputed results that went to the courts after the 2002 election. So when the opposition leader was asked by the BBC if he would urge his supporters to calm down, he replied: "I refuse to be asked to give the Kenyan people an anesthetic so that they can be raped."

Despite the ugly scenes of recent days, Kenya is not an ethnic tinderbox where people automatically back their own tribe and hate everyone else. For example, it is clear that more than half the people who voted Mwai Kibaki into the presidency in the 2002 election were not of his own Kikuyu tribe, because the Kikuyu, although they are the biggest tribe, only account for 22 percent of the population.

Kibaki's appeal was the promise of honest government after 24 years of oppressive rule, rigged elections and massive corruption under the former president, Daniel arap Moi. If he had been just another thug in a suit, most Kenyans would have put up with Kibaki's subsequent behavior in the same old cynical way, but his victory was seen as the dawn of a new Kenya where the bad old ways no longer reigned. It is his abuse of their high hopes that makes the current situation so emotional.

By 2005, Kibaki's dependence on an inner circle of fellow Kikuyu politicians was almost total and the corruption was almost as bad as it had been under Moi.

British ambassador Sir Edward Clay accused Kibaki's ministers of arrogance and greed that led them to "eat like gluttons" and "vomit on the shoes" of foreign donors and the Kenyan people. The biggest foreign donors, the U.S., Britain and Germany, suspended their aid to the country in protest against the corruption.

Most of the leading reformers quit Kibaki's government in 2005, and in the weeks before last month's election their main political vehicle, the Orange Democratic Movement, had a clear lead in the polls. That lead was confirmed in the parliamentary vote Dec. 27, which saw half of Kibaki's Cabinet ministers lose their seats and give the opposition a clear majority in Parliament.

The presidential vote was another matter. Raila Odinga won an easy majority in six of Kenya's eight provinces, but in Central, the Kikuyu heartland, the results were withheld until long after the vote had been announced for more remote regions. Observers were banned from the counting stations in Central and the central tallying room in Nairobi, and on Dec. 30 Samuel Kivuitu, the chairman of the electoral commission, declared that Kibaki had won the national vote by just 232,000 votes in a nation of 34 million.

It stank to high heaven. Ridiculously high turnouts were claimed for polling stations in Central — larger than the total of eligible voters, in some cases — and 97.3 percent of the votes there allegedly went to Kibaki. It was an operation designed to return Kibaki to office while preserving a facade of democratic credibility, but no foreign government except the U.S. congratulated Kibaki on his "victory" — not even African ones — and local people were not fooled.

Within two days Samuel Kivuitu retracted his declaration of a Kibaki victory, saying the electoral commission had come under unbearable pressure from the government: "I do not know who won the election. . . . We are culprits as a commission. We have to leave it to an independent group to investigate what actually went wrong."

But Kibaki is digging in, and innocent Kikuyus — many of whom did NOT vote for Kibaki, despite the announced results — are being attacked by furious people from other tribes.

Meanwhile, the police and army obey Kibaki's orders and attack non-Kikuyu protesters. It is not Odinga who needs to accept the "result" in order to save Kenya from calamity; it is Kibaki who needs to step down.

He probably won't, in which case violence may claim yet another African country. But don't blame it on mere "tribalism." Kenyans are not fools, and they know they have been betrayed.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.


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