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Last Updated: 02/12/2008
The Consequences of Failure
Martin Kimani

Kenya’s choices are simple: life or death, penury or prosperity, a cohesive, well governed nation that counts its diversity as strength or a suspicious, hateful one governed by the cynical and awash in the blood of its young. The leaders too must now decide whether they will be remembered as the men who destroyed a nation or those who rescued it and set it on a glorious path that will be remembered for generations.

There is no great mystery about what the future has in store for Kenya.  Other nations too have trodden the path of contested electoral outcomes, the formation of winner-takes-all governments, mass protests, mass violence, civil war and their breaking and shattering before they are put back together laboriously.  Others have shied away from the abyss after an initial period of bloodletting similar to the one experienced in Kenya during the past two weeks.  They have been blessed with wise statesmanship and have embraced reforms that enable power sharing, empower their citizens to emerge from poverty and embrace politics that promote cohesion as opposed to discord. 

Kenya’s choices are simple: life or death, penury or prosperity, a cohesive, well governed nation that counts its diversity as strength or a suspicious, hateful one governed by the cynical and awash in the blood of its young.  The leaders too must now decide whether they will be remembered as the men who destroyed a nation or those who rescued it and set it on a glorious path that will be remembered for generations. 

Raila Odinga is rightly aware that a great many Kenyans share his shock and dismay at the conclusion of the polls.  His party has a right to call for peaceful mass protests.  If that right is denied any further, we should not for an instant consider our country a democracy.  But the opposition should not assume that it has enough of a national mandate to force the government out through extra-constitutional measures or to try and use violence by its alleged supporters as a stratagem to force the government’s hand.  Unfortunately, Raila Odinga who promised the country transformative leadership must begin leading before he occupies State House.  President Kibaki can choose to govern a country that is unravelling or bring about reconciliation between the Mt. Kenya region and the rest of the country by pushing for genuine power sharing measures that will allow for the gains of Vision 2030 to be his permanent legacy.  Other countries have been at a similar fork.

In December 1980, Uganda held its first presidential elections.  Milton Obote was declared the winner of a poll that international observers monitored and declared to be far from free or fair.  A losing aspirant by the name Yoweri Museveni refusing to accept the decision led twenty seven men into the bush to wage a bloody six year guerrilla war that brought him to power where he remains more than two decades later.  The government of Milton Obote on its way to defeat killed over 300,000 Ugandans.  Kenya looked on, refugees crossed its borders, many Kenyan children were taught by Ugandan teachers on the run from a country that had become the bone over which men of outstanding viciousness and cynicism fought. 

Lesson to Kenya: beware those thwarted by the ballot and refused the right to organise peacefully coming to believe that the only course of action open to them is the bullet.  This may not be decided by the opposition of the day but perhaps by one of the millions of now-unknown Kenyans who feel left out of the process of governing.  Perhaps we should learn also that power sharing is national survival and not merely a procedural choice.   

For three decades after independence, Ivory Coast was the Kenya of West Africa.  It had been ruled over by an authoritarian (Felix Houphouet-Boigny) but nevertheless had distinguished itself for generally harmonious relations between its ethnic and religious groups, and its strong economy.  In the mid-1990s, this island of calm turned away from cohesion and openness to destructive difference as Henri Bedie, Houphouet-Boigny's successor, turned to a policy known as Ivoirité to maintain his tenuous grip on political power.  Ivoirité initially referred to the country’s common cultural identity but in the cut and counter thrust of politics came to exclude many northerners whose origins were in neighbouring countries but who had acquired citizenship.  What followed was a period of coups, cancelled elections, rigged Supreme Court decisions, bloody riots in Abidjan targeting ‘foreigners’ and a firm turn toward the politics of difference. 

This unfortunate period culminated in a mutiny in 2002 carried out by soldiers with northern origins.  It escalated into a full-scale civil war whose main bone of contention was how the definition of a citizen affected who could hope to govern the country.  The fighting lasted five years and cost many lives as well as bringing that formerly bustling economy to its knees.  The northerners’ exclusion from government led them to lose hope in politics as an arena that they could usefully participate in; they concluded that best course for them was to attempt to topple the system that had judged them ineligible.  Last year the conflict appeared at an end when President Gbagbo signed a power-sharing agreement with Guillaume Soro, the rebel commander. 

Lesson to Kenya: power sharing will be the way of governing whether we wait to fight a civil war to realise that point or enact it immediately and render it as law in a new constitution.  Neither Gbagbo or Soro or any of the other leaders in Ivory Coast had the support of the majority – just like the situation in Kenya today – which ultimately meant that they did not have the mandate to force their version of government on the entire nation. A further lesson is that discrimination whether in form of Ivoirité or in the Kenyan version of political strategy as cobbling together alliances to exclude one tribe or the other from the table of government reaps a storm and very rarely lasting political victory.  It should also be noted that armies and police forces reflect the feelings and identities of their fellow citizens.  To promote the politics of difference risks ultimately splitting the security forces with disastrous consequences that are visible throughout the continent.

South Africa even as it came out of decades of brutal the apartheid system had the benefit of having leaders of vision and courage.  Rather than push for a ‘winner-takes-all’ system, Nelson Mandela and the ANC, which could have secured the two-thirds parliamentary majority to force any constitutional changes it wished instead chose to form a government of national unity.  It included the Nationalist Party that had championed apartheid and the mostly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party whose supporters had fought a brutal low-intensity war against the ANC’s supporters in Kwazulu-Natal.  That Mandela and his colleagues could share a government that had detained them and brutalised millions of their fellow countrymen is a testament to their profound understanding that the path of governing alone would lead them to further misery rather than a healing democracy.  Today South Africa remains mired in the legacy of apartheid but there are few in that country who believe as they did in the mid-1990s that the country will come apart at the seams and degenerate into a widespread civil war between its internal nations. 

Surely if Nelson Mandela could share power with the Nationalist Party, then it is not too much to expect President Kibaki and Raila Odinga to do the same.  It is not their individual ambitions that should now concern Kenyans.  Rather citizens must now push to repair the vehicle that is Kenya from a brutal machine inherited from colonialists and run to maintain the power and privilege of the few by turning us against each other.  It is up to Raila Odinga to show Kenyans that he will not stand aside as Kenya disintegrates, that the love for country that distinguished his years of struggling for democracy and enduring detention and torture will rise to the fore.  He must allay fears, however unfounded, that many in the Mt. Kenya region have of him as a leader, and he must castigate violence with feeling and conviction.   

For the rest of us Kenyans, we must rally to a Citizen’s Agenda that rejects leaders who do not bring about a closure to the election either by a re-tallying or a re-election after an appropriate length of time.  We must agitate for a government of national unity to deliver us a new constitution that improves mechanisms for the transfer of power, the equitable regional distribution of State resources and trims the powers of the executive.  We must demand the restoration of the lives of the displaced, and their rehabilitation and reconstruction.  We must act on past injustices in the allocation and ownership of land while acknowledging that to not deal with these matters will forever threaten our peace.  Finally and most importantly, Kenyans must teach politicians that they are leaders to serve and not be served and that we shall reject them should they appear to take positions that bring our country to ruin.

Martin Kimani is a member of Concerned Kenyan Writers, a coalition whose purpose is to use our writing skills to help save Kenya in this polarised time. Martin Kimani has previously been a Teaching Fellow at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham, UK and an Associate of the Conflict Security and Development Group of King’s College of the University of London where he is a doctoral candidate. He can be reached on