Sunday March 10 2013

Kenya’s moment of truth

Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga casts his vote on Monday.

Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga casts his vote on Monday. PHOTO BY MONITOR CORRESPONDENT 

By Timothy Kalyegira

The long-awaited Kenyan general election of March 4, 2013 came and went. It came and went as a date and a national event. However, much unfinished business that has dogged the country since independence in 1963 did not come and go.

It was always there and will remain there long after this election and its outcome had faded from the news.
One of Kenya’s problems since the departure from power of President Daniel arap Moi in 2002 was that it acquired a false sense of optimism and confidence.

Newspaper columnists, radio talk show hosts and musicians started to project an image of a country on the move. The attitude became like what we see among the ruling class in Rwanda. Kenya was declared a hub for everything from Information Technology to manufacturing, it was projected that Kenya was about to attain middle income status.

The well-to-do, upwardly mobile urban middle class Kenya felt upbeat about itself. It postures patriotism and claims it is “Proudly Kenyan”. It believed and promoted all the hype about Kenya as an essential ingredient in Africa’s stew.

Where before the normal attitude among the middle class professional was skepticism and questioning, the new way is of expression upbeat optimism. The new national mood among the middle class was “Proudly Kenyan”.
Under this new optimism, all the historic grievances, economic inequality, mysterious political assassinations, land distribution and other long-standing and sensitive national matters were put firmly to one side.

In the 2013 election, the middle class was keen to stress national unity and peace at all costs.
Kenyan television stations highlighted the new electronic voting and vote tallying machines that had cost millions of dollars. As usual, this was billed as yet another sign of how Kenya sets the trend and standard for the rest of the East Africa region.

When the electronic system developed glitches and anything electronic eventually abandoned for manual counting and tallying, the spin became that this was part of the teething problem for Kenya. There was lavish praise for the peaceful way the election had been conducted, although many also expressed concern at the problem of voters spending too many hours in queues just to cast their ballots. On March 7 after Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, running mate of Raila Odinga, raised doubts about the vote counting, there was an almost hysterical reaction.

Even on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that are supposed to be bastions of free expression, middle class Kenyans became paranoid, shouting down anyone who dared to agree with Musyoka or who raised anything that resembled skepticism about the election.

There was such tension that those who questioned the election were attacked as inciting violence or trying to undo the peace. Middle class Kenya was starting to sound like middle class Rwanda where any questioning of the 1994 genocide or the rule of President Paul Kagame is slapped with the label genocidaire or one trying to plunge Rwanda back into chaos.

So the politically correct way of assessing Kenya’s politics was to emphasise national unity, peace, patience as the electoral commission, the IBEC, counted and tallied the results. All this was the way matters were, as seen from middle class and propertied Kenya. Then there was the majority of Kenya. This was the Kenya that lives in slums, in the far flung arid and semi-desert north and northeast, the one that is packed like sardines in matatus, the one that walks to work every day, that lives on Ksh100 a day.

The suffering majority
It was the Kenya of the Kibera slum right in Nairobi city. It was the Kenya that those who travel to and through the country by bus and matatu see every day, of scattered peasant farming communities, people living in grass-thatched huts, shanty houses in Kisumu, Kakamega, Voi, Mombasa, Nairobi, of often poor roads and dust.

It is that rural or urban poor Kenya that looks much like Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi.
It is the Kenya that is made to take part in an electronically-driven election and yet had to stand in the hot sun for hours without a drink of water just waiting to vote.

When the provisional results started coming out, there was an immediate reminder of what Kenya really is. The American-style TV presidential debates with candidates standing at lecterns had been intended to showcase this new trend-setting Kenya of ideas and progress.

The voting pattern, however, reverted to type, to the naked tribalism about Kenya that foreigners find so puzzling. This is a country that boasts the best infrastructure, largest manufacturing sector and highest rise buildings in East Africa, but which still thinks in ethnic terms through and through. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta, took an early lead in the polls. Many Kenyan analysts commented that if the election was about competence, the former Justice Minister Martha Karua had held the most professional and issue-based campaign of all the candidates.

Was it issues Kenyans voted for?
And yet Karua ranked near the bottom in terms of votes gained. Clearly, then, Kenyans were not voting on the issues. It appears that those who voted for Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were doing more than just electing future leaders; it was almost a desperate effort to vote these men to help save them from the ICC at The Hague.

Those who voted Raila Odinga, especially from the Nyanza Province, saw in this election a possible last chance for Nyanza Province to get its first head of state since coming so close so many times since independence.
Both the leading contenders were in a make-or-break election and there was little time for voters to make up their minds based on TV debates or listen to Karua’s technocratic plans for a modern Kenya.

This is the Kenya that we witness today. It is one of the most unequal societies in Africa and rather than address the root of this inequality, had tried since 2002 to gloss over them in the hope that an upbeat emphasis on national pride and Internet connectivity would eventually deliver the country.
It is the same denial that Rwanda lives in.