A few weeks after the Westgate Mall terror attack in 2013, a select group of journalists and newspaper pundits met in a hotel in Nairobi to ponder the meaning of it all.
The election a few months earlier, unlike that of 2007, had been peaceful.
Even with the pending ICC charges against President Kenyatta and deputy William Ruto, the air was pregnant with optimism. Kenya had survived a bullet, rallied around a new Constitution, and elected a new government that united warring parties. The terror attack felt like external interference in domestic stability.
The microphone went around the room, and there was unanimity towards this consensus, except for two speakers: Your columnist, and Charles Onyango-Obbo.
I will leave it to COO to share what he said (all I can say is that he, older and wiser, was more nuanced and delicate in his choice of words). Your columnist argued, in a nutshell, that Kenya’s domestic political questions were far from answered.
The Kofi Annan peace talks and the resultant ICC investigation and coalition government, a voice inside me blurted into the microphone, had only postponed rather than resolved the problem. Kenya, the voice continued to the startled room, should have given violence a chance, or certainly more time.
Suffice to say, it is thanks to Kenyan middle-class sensitivities about bloodstained clothes and lynching that your columnist left that room alive. Yet over the months and years that followed, I was reminded of that conversation as the political settlements in Kenya underwent one stress test after another.
This is not a peculiarly Kenyan problem, but an African and even post-colonial one.
Much of the post-colonial state-building efforts in Africa and the Middle East have been exercises in solving ethnic, religious or geographical knots in which countries found themselves tied.
Examples are legion, from Ivory Coast to Palestine, but we need not look too far beyond Uganda.
Many of the existential political questions of the day, from land to representation and inclusion, are unresolved riddles from the past.
Who owns the land? Who are we before we become Ugandans? How should we relate to one another? How should we deal with those who, not feeling a strong sense of belonging, would rather go off and do their own thing?
Kenya’s dilemma isn’t too dissimilar. The colonialists took over the best pieces of land and disenfranchised many natives, forcing different nationalities to share, and fight over, the small tracts on which they were crowded.
Post-independence leaders, unwilling to confront the armed settled elephants in the room, conducted their own private appropriations.
After grabbing most of the land, they turned to other forms of public wealth, for which control of government was both a gateway to more grabbing, and a protective barrier against the poverty-stricken barbarians at the gate.
The Kikuyu-Kalenjin Jubilee alliance offers a numerical solution to the straight-line equation of electoral numbers, but it is the right answer to the wrong question. It provides a formula for winning power, but not for building a united, inclusive and accountable state.
To its credit, Kenya has tried to learn lessons from its past mistakes.
The 2010 Constitution reduced the power of the imperial presidency and devolved authority and resources to county-level governments, but this might have had an unintended consequence of fanning the embers of ‘tribal nationalism’.
It also shows that the country is yet to wean itself from the bloated breasts of the central government. The two warring sides in 2007/8 are now in alliance.
And a lot of the fighting thus far has been in wood-panelled courtrooms, but this is every bit a continuation of that unfinished fight over land, over jobs, over inclusion.
Kenya’s biggest challenge today isn’t navigating the legal minefield to put on a credible election; it is how to govern a country that is divided almost down the middle, regardless of who wins. Recent clashes between ‘native’ pastoralists and ‘settler’ conservatories are a reminder that the land question is unresolved, while increasingly outspoken calls for secession could snowball into an alliance of the excluded.
From Eritrea to South Sudan, Scotland to Catalonia, tribes that feel excluded and weighed down under a ‘tyranny of numbers’ have been known to pull away from the centre; winning them over is much harder than defeating them in an election, and it requires imaginative ways of sharing power and resources.
The country does not have to bleed, but if Kenya wastes the current legal, electoral, political and constitutional crisis, it will be forced to take the fight out to the streets.
Time has shown that as scary as it was, Westgate wasn’t Kenya’s biggest threat; often the real monsters live deep inside us.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org