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Last Updated: 02/07/2008
Kenya in Crisis
National News Archive

An in-depth look at the background of the Kenyan crisis, disputes over the election, and the potential for re-establishing peace in the near future.

Kenya held its fourth multi-party general election on December 27, 2007.

The incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner on December 30. His main challenger, Raila Odinga, refused to concede defeat, maintaining that the election had been massively rigged.

Riots accompanied the three-day delay in the announcement of the result and intensified following the declaration of Kibaki as the winner.

Police and Para-military General Service Unit troops were deployed in the capital Nairobi and other major towns like Mombasa, Kisumu, and Eldoret.

Extensive damage was done to property in these cities and towns and by January 1, 2008, over 200 people had lost their lives in the most serious unrest in Kenya since the 1950s Mau Mau civil uprising against British colonial rule.

With the country at a standstill and nearly all the ATM bank machines out of service, desperate Kenyans and other residents started to run out of food and other basic supplies. Airlines suspended their flights to Kisumu. 

When trading opened on the Nairobi Stock Exchange on Wednesday January 2008, shares in every listed stock tumbled by an average of 4.4 percent, with some stocks down by 10 percent, and trading on the stock exchange had to be suspended until further notice.

The unrest in Kenya disrupted the flow of imports and exports from as far as Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The major western countries, with a vital security and geo-political interest in Kenya’s stability, while at first hailing the success of the election, quickly moved to expressing alarm at the deteriorating situation.

For observers all around the world, the sudden descent into civil upheaval in Kenya served as a reminder of the delicate nature of the nation-state in post-colonial Africa.

To Uganda, Kenya’s landlocked neighbour to the west, the unfolding events in Kenya were at first drama that engrossed the public --- until a stark  reality set in: Uganda’s economy was being disrupted.

The price of a litre of petrol, recently just over 2,200 shillings, suddenly rose to 6,000, then 7,000, and finally 10,000shs a litre as the long-haul fuel trucks that carry Uganda’s imported oil remained stranded at the Kenyan seaport of Mombasa.

The sudden and acute rise in fuel prices threatened, by the beginning of 2008, to wreak much greater havoc on the Ugandan economy and society than even the shortage of electricity that the country has experienced since March 2006.

The credit rating company, Standard & Poor’s of the United States, on January 3, 2008 downgraded the standing of the Kenyan shilling from BB- to B+.

The unthinkable question on many Ugandan minds was a simple one: if just four days of violent civil unrest in Kenya could see the price of fuel shoot up five fold, what would happen to Uganda if Kenya experienced the years of civil war that countries like Uganda, Burundi, Somalia, and Ethiopia have endured?

Background to the election

Kenya, a former British colony, sits at the eastern seaboard of the African continent. It is bordered by some of the historically most unstable nations in Africa --- Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Uganda.

As all its neighbours save for Tanzania underwent successive periods of civil war, military coups, and national breakdown, Kenya remained the most important centre of the continuity so important for regional stability.

Kenya --- like Algeria, Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, and South Africa --- was a major nest of white European settlement even after independence. Its flourishing tourism industry, staunchly capitalistic economic policies, westernised urban society, and political stability made the country the Thailand of Eastern Africa: a playground for white tourists and business interests.

It also has been host to important British military training facilities and during the post-World War II Cold War, Kenya, with its strategic location along the Indian Ocean and facing the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Peninsula could always be counted on to provide western powers with logistical support.

It was to Kenya that Israeli turned in June 1976 as it planned a rescue of hostages held by German and Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe airport in Uganda.

As the elections drew near, political and news analysts --- recalling how unexpectedly smooth and cordial had been the transfer of power from President Daniel arap Moi to his former vice president Emilio Mwai Kibaki --- assumed that, whatever the outcome, Kibaki would be just as magnanimous in conceding defeat, if it came to defeat.

This, as the events of last week proved, was not to be. In hindsight, it should not have been surprising. Kibaki, a golf-playing economist (the first African to earn a first class degree in economics at the London School of Economics), was always viewed as a gentlemanly politician. Moi was the dark, Mafioso-type, classic African strongman.

Kibaki, went all conventional wisdom, had to do better than Moi.

However, hindsight in this instance should be the best instructor. At his first press conference as president, Kibaki was asked by a reporter in Nairobi if, now that he was victorious, he intended to keep his word and remain in office for only one term, as he had pledged during the 2002 election campaign.

Affecting surprise, Kibaki asked the reporter when he had made that pledge and denying ever committing himself to one term.

That surprising but little noticed retraction would set the stage for the character of his presidency. Major promises to fight corruption would be broken. He would rule almost by decree, disregarding pledges he had made during the campaign to consult widely before selecting his cabinet ministers.

No euphoria could have been greater than that that greeted Kibaki’s victory in December 2002. Moi’s 24-year rule had cast fear over Kenyan society and gave them their first taste of iron-fisted rule.   

So total was Moi’s domination of the political scene that Kenyans resigned themselves to the fact that Moi would impose on them as his successor Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the late founding President Jomo Kenyatta (born Johnson Kamau, circa 1893-1978).

Similarly, no disillusionment ran as deep through Kenya as that in the five years of Kibaki’s term. Under Kibaki, the Kenyan economy grew by an average of six percent, the Nairobi Stock Exchange flourished, Kenyan businesses expanded into neighbouring countries and acquired local companies. The country’s well-known high urban crime was reduced and long-neglected infrastructure was restored.

A sense of national wellbeing and confidence akin to that which took hold in South Africa with the end of apartheid in 1994, took hold. By that alone, a Kibaki second term could be assured. However, what Kibaki failed to appreciate, as he emphasised his economic record, was that he had been elected as an antidote to Moi.

He was elected to reverse everything that Kenyans had come to dread in the Moi years: a chill in the air brought on by the ever-present secret police; an impression that an all-powerful clique close to Moi and his family controlled all means and ends in the country, and the numerous rumours and unexplained and allegedly state-directed political murders.

When Kenyans started to feel that, rather than be a break from the rampant corruption and abuse of state power under Moi, Kibaki was a continuation of that mafia-led era, if only in a milder form, Kenyans were ready to seek an alternative.

The election

The main national and international interest was in the presidential race. The following contested as presidential candidates: the incumbent, President Emilio Mwai Kibaki; Nixon Kukoba; Kenneth Matiba; Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka; Bishop Pius Mwangi; Joseph Ngatcha; David Nyethe; Rajput Nazlin; and Raila Amolo Odinga. Voting began at 6:00 a.m. local time when polling stations around the country started accepting registered voters.

Even though Kenya is the largest and most industrialised economy in eastern and central Africa, with the largest and best-educated middle class and work force, a particular scourge of the country has, since independence, been tensions between the major tribes.

Over the past four decades, the rivalry between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga set the tone for rivalry between two tribes: the Kikuyu, the largest in Kenya, of Bantu-speaking stock, related to the Meru and Kamba in Kenya and the Luo (or Jaluo), a Luo-speaking people related to the Dinka of southern Sudan, the Luo of northeast Tanzania, and the Acholi and Langi of northern Uganda.

Other smaller Bantu tribes have tended to throw in their lot with the Kikuyu, while certain Nilotic and Nilo-Hamitic tribes like the Nandi, Masai, and Kalenjin --- the latter Moi’s tribe and from which most of Kenya’s world-famous long-distance track Olympic and World champions largely come --- have tended to support Luo speakers like the Odinga politicians.

An illustration: early in September 2007, during the reality television show Big Brother Africa, the Kenyan entry, 23 year-old Jeff Anthony, fresh upon eviction from the Big Brother Africa house in Johannesburg, South Africa, made a point of declaring before a live television audience across Africa his pride in having represented well the Nandi, the largest ethnic group in East Africa. Even in this television show, the undercurrents of tribal tension in Kenya were apparent in Anthony’s declaration.

On November 30, four weeks before the election, leaflets mysteriously appeared in towns in the Rift Valley area of western Kenya.

“Business along Eldoret-Eldama Ravine Road, Keiyo District [in Rift Valley Province, northwest of Nairobi], came to a standstill yesterday when hundreds of demonstrators protested over the dumping of hate leaflets against ODM [opposition Orange Democratic Movement] presidential candidate, Raila Odinga,” reported the Kenya Times newspaper on December 1. “The demo was staged only a day before a visit by President Mwai Kibaki to Eldoret town. In Kericho [a town, home to the aforementioned Nilo-Hamitic tribes], two people were almost lynched on Thursday evening [29 November] when they were caught distributing of anti-Raila leaflets.”

The mastermind behind the leaflets remained unclear by election time. However, the Standard newspaper appeared to voice the suspicion of some that these leaflets might have been printed by pro-Odinga operatives in order to stir up anger and reinforce support for the candidate among the Rift Valley voters, when it quoted a former Member of Parliament for Siakago constituency, Justin Muturi as saying “it was surprising how allegations of hate leaflets were made. He [Muturi] noted that ODM had details even before the leaflets were intercepted.” (The Standard, December 1, 2007)

In anticipation of election violence, Kenyan’s Asian citizens had left the country more than a week before the voting started.

Tanzania’s Guardian newspaper, in a survey, reported that, “Those who were interviewed…cited violence that had been witnessed during the campaign and in the previous two multi-party general elections of 1992 and 1997, as reason for their leaving the country until elections were over... [A] few people of Asian origin have remained in Kenya at the moment as the majority has travelled to other East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.” (The Guardian, December 27, 2007)

Although there had been violence in the run up to the Election Day, voting started peacefully at 6:00a.m., local time on the day itself.

Exit polls broadcast by the main Kenyan television stations after 8:22p.m. East African Time were mixed.

The pro-Kibaki Citizen TV gave the early lead to Kibaki with 16,527 against Odinga’s 4,805 votes. The Kenya Television Network (KTN) station reported that Odinga had a wide lead, with 14,091 votes against Kibaki’s 6,630.

Another station, Nation TV, in a mobile phone alert message reported at 8:21p.m. Odinga was in the lead in the Coast and Rift Valley provinces, while Kibaki was leading in the Kikuyu tribal area of central Kenya.

The following day, Friday December 28, unofficial results broadcast by KTN put Odinga in a commanding position, leading with 2,976,043 votes, while Kibaki had 2,019, 265 votes. In third position was the former foreign minister, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka with 275,239 votes, out of over 5.3 million votes counted.

Asked by a reporter what chances he had for re-election, Kibaki, shortly after casting his ballot at Munaine Primary School in Othaya constituency, in Nyeri town, quipped: “Listen, I am elected already.” (As broadcast by Capital FM, Nairobi, at 11:00 a.m.)

In remarks that would appear in hindsight as the statement of the year, William Ruto of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), said just after he voted at his North Rift constituency that, “There is relative calm as opposed to yesterday when people were very anxious about what was going on. People were wondering, there were rumours flying left, right and centre about administration policemen and ballot boxes and ballot papers pre- marked and things like those. Today is a very, very peaceful day and I think these elections are going to be historic.”

These elections were going to be more than historic; they were to change Kenyan history and society in the most far-reaching way since independence in 1963.

After voting ended, the public that has expected results to be announced right away or at least as soon as possible started to feel uneasy, considering the rumours of rigging that had been rife for several weeks.

Odinga had consistently placed ahead of President Kibaki in nearly all public opinion polls and many observers felt that Kibaki might attempt to rig the vote, should final results show he was losing.

Speaking at a press conference in Nairobi on December 29, the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), Samuel Kivuitu, expressed concern at the delay in dispatching the results from 51 constituencies.

Kivuitu remarked that it was “not clear” why certain areas close to Nairobi had not yet sent in their results while distant polling centres in remote parts of Kenya had already delivered theirs. He wondered whether the poll officials at these 51 centres might not be tampering with the results.

“As you can see,” Kivuitu said, “this state of affairs is not satisfactory. I can assure you, if we don’t get these results quickly, I think we’ll have to announce what we have.”

Kenya’s future

A particularly ominous sign of what lies ahead for Kenya came in a news broadcast by the private station Kiss FM just before 1:00p.m. on Monday December 31, 2007 when a reporter said, “Fresh clashes have erupted in Likoni Maweng’ area and the Mushomoroni area in Kisumu Ndogo [all in Mombasa] where three houses and shops have been set ablaze and looting is going on under the very watchful eye of police officers.”

Since the late 1980s, Kenya’s police have gained the notoriety of being actively involved in much of the crime reported in the major towns. That looting and burning of property could take place with the police looking on --- reports similar to what the BBC World service and Radio France Internationale were told by eye witnesses that they interviewed in Kisumu and Eldoret --- points to the danger the future holds out to Kenya.

London’s Independent newspaper commented on December 31, 2007: “It is now difficult to be optimistic about Kenya’s future. There is likely to be a violent reaction from Mr Odinga’s supporters. The rancour will be exacerbated by the tribal divide between Mr Odinga’s Luo political base, and Mr Kibaki’s mainly Kikuyu constituency…Kenya, for all the manifest faults of its political class, has long been regarded by the outside world as an oasis of relative calm in a volatile region. After this dubious result and yesterday’s bloodshed, it may lose even this saving grace.”

It might be that the stakes were high and unsettling enough to make the election of Odinga unthinkable. His father, Oginga Odinga, had to play second fiddle to Jomo Kenyatta, settling for the position of vice president. Two high profile Luos with national appeal and presidential potential, Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko, were murdered in 1969 and 1990 respectively, deepening the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the Luo and other Nilotic tribes.

Kibaki’s victory in 2002 was made possible when Raila Odinga handed his large flock of supporters to Kibaki. The soft-spoken, earnest-sounding Raila Odinga --- son of the first vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga --- had always been regarded in Kenyan political and media circles as Kenya’s Kingmaker.

It is in that context that Odinga’s firm refusal to give in to demands for him to negotiate with Kibaki is to be understood. It had largely been his effort that secured Kibaki the presidency and, in Odinga’s mind, for him to win the election outright and then be denied the presidential office by Kibaki, amounted to high betrayal.

To Odinga, the erstwhile power behind the power, to concede defeat to Kibaki who owes his presidency to Odinga, is an indignity that he cannot countenance. This situation is similar to that between President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The former mentored the latter and helped him in his rise to power in Rwanda and as the latter started to assert his independent policies, awkwardness and then friction resulted.  

Then too are the guarantees that Kibaki gave Moi after Moi stepped down from power. An Odinga presidency would, in all likelihood, re-visit the whole span of post-independence Kenya and shed light on some of the country’s most sensitive state secrets.

Many political murders from the 1960s to the 1990s were swept under the rug by successive governments; huge sums of public money embezzled and as yet unaccounted for; a whole political and business establishment would be dismantled in the event of an Oginga term in office.

These tensions between Kibaki and Odinga are not going to go away soon. Neither, for that matter, shall the ugly wounds re-opened between the Kikuyu and Luo in the wake of the election violence. This is the end of the innocence for Kenya.

The National News Archive is published by the Research Bank Limited, P.O. Box 33787, Kampala, Uganda.