Seldom can a New Year have dawned so bleakly as 2008 and rarely can a news story have spoken of evil so starkly as the New Year’s Day report from Kenya of children being deliberately burnt alive inside a church. The calculated, heartless wickedness of the act recalls one of the most notorious atrocities of the second world war, when the SS herded the women and children of Oradour in France into the village church and then set the building alight. And there are more recent echoes from another genocide. The principle that the Church should provide a sanctuary from violence and hatred was breached by the actions of individuals during the Rwandan horrors of 1994. The revelation that certain nuns and priests had acted as handmaidens to the Hutu campaign of slaughter underlined just how deep into depravity Rwanda sank 13 years ago.
The images from Kenya we have seen this week, the charred remains of the Church in Eldoret, the raised machetes of enraged youths, the grief of the inconsolable, the thousands uprooted from their homes, recall not just Rwanda but other African tragedies — from the collapse of the once stable Ivory Coast into communal bloodletting and the descent of Kenya’s neighbours, such as Sudan and Somalia, into civil war. What makes these images so shocking for so many is the success Kenya appeared to be enjoying. With an economy growing at around 5 per cent every year, a thriving tourist trade and a valued place as a Western ally in the war on terror, Kenya was East Africa’s favoured child. And Kenya had appeared to enjoy one other advantage — a strengthening democracy. The replacement of Daniel arap Moi’s Kanu government by Mwai Kibaki’s administration five years ago was heralded as a specially significant moment. The peaceful ceding of power by a traditional African autocrat, the change of governing party decided via the ballot box and the rallying of different tribal and communal groups behind the new government were all hailed as welcome signs of an even more hopeful future.
Which is why the current crisis in Kenya seems so tragic. Mwai Kibaki, the man who appeared to offer an end to traditional autocratic rule, has become an all too familiar African figure — the leader who cannot imagine how his people could survive without him and his clique at the helm. And the rainbow coalition which appeared to promise new hope five years ago now looks fractured beyond repair — with re-asserted tribal loyalties fuelling communal violence.
The hopes which were fastened on Kibaki’s government five years ago, while understandable, were, however, misplaced. I argued at the time that there were deep-rooted problems in Kenya’s political system which needed to be addressed if the country was to enjoy the brighter future its people deserved. I feared that Kibaki would not be capable of providing the dynamic leadership Kenya required after the Moi years, and was concerned that too many of those in his political machine would revert to a business-as-usual style of governing, specifically warning that corruption would continue to blight Kenya’s political culture with old tribal resentments rekindled.
It is impossible to understand what is going on in Kenya now without appreciating the tribal context. Just as in Zimbabwe it is necessary to appreciate that Mugabe and his Zanu party derive a core of support from Mashona tribal loyalties and in Nigeria power struggles are set against a backdrop of Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba, so the dominance of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe in Kenyan society has become a focus for anger among those who consider themselves the dispossessed.
But it would be wrong to see Kenya’s contemporary problems as simply the working-out of traditional rivalries, a communal struggle rooted in ancient enmities which defy easy understanding. And it would therefore be misplaced fatalism to say these factors are inevitably destined to thwart progress in the future.
When neighbours who have lived cheek-by-jowl for generations turn so violently on each other, whether it’s Rwanda, Bosnia or Kenya, there are other, very modern political factors at work. In Kenya, political opposition to the Kibaki government went beyond tribal lines. There has been widespread anger at the failure to tackle corruption and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The decision of the man charged with cleaning up Kenyan politics, John Githongo, to leave the country in 2005 underlined the despair many felt at Kibaki’s failure to break from the past. And, with tragic symmetry, just as John Githongo departed, Daniel arap Moi returned to the scene, giving Mwai Kibaki’s government his blessing and support. The sense that nothing substantial had changed was reinforced by the presence of three of Moi’s sons on the electoral slate supporting Kibaki.
But the fact that all three lost their parliamentary contests, even though they were standing in areas where traditional tribal loyalties would have suggested they were guaranteed victory, indicates that popular anger with the government was cross-communal and deeply felt. The overall picture of the parliamentary elections showed a country united in its desire to see the back of Kibaki’s team and the inauguration of a new political approach. For those most determined to see change, the sight of Kibaki being hurriedly reinstalled in office even as the EU monitors were raising louder and louder doubts about the presidential ballot would have been deeply corrosive to faith in the democratic system. Twice Kenyans felt they had voted for change and twice, it appeared, nothing was changing.
In the short term the priority for Kenya is the restoration of order and reconciliation between communities. It will be fraught work after such intense and horrific violence. But, over time, there is an even tougher test for Kenya to face. It is a challenge not just for Africans, but for the West and the institutions designed to support developing nations on the path to stability and prosperity. How do we ensure that we use all our influence and resources to promote and sustain democracy? How can we ensure that our aid and foreign policies incentivise moves to greater democracy and penalise backsliding? In the aftermath of Iraq and the broader problems we face in the Middle East, democratisation has become an embattled cause. The current violence in Kenya, like that in Pakistan, appears to mock our hopes in a more democratic future. But it is the fear that democratic wishes will not be respected which is a crucial factor behind the violence. And it is only a policy based on rekindling the hope in democratic change which was so strong just five years ago that will set Kenya on the path to a better future.