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Intellectuals say Post-Election Conflict Could Create Improved Kenya


Members of Kenya’s Concerned Writers Group have appealed to the international community to continue to put pressure on political leaders in their country to institute democratic reforms. Some of Kenya’s leading intellectuals have united under the banner of the group to debate the crisis. About a thousand people have died in violence since President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a disputed election in late December. Supporters of the president’s chief rival, Raila Odinga, say President Kibaki “stole” the election. President Kibaki’s supporters say he won it fairly. The writers say that in the aftermath of a political agreement, such as power sharing, being reached by President Kibaki and Odinga, certain reforms must happen in Kenya if an enduring peace is to be achieved. Darren Taylor reports in the fifth part of our series on the Kenya situation.

Kenyan author Muthoni Garland, who has been nominated for Africa’s most prestigious literary award, The Caine Prize, says a few actions are “non-negotiable” to ensure a lasting peace.

“My ideal solution would be an interim government, and during that period of an interim government, a new constitution to be put in place, and a new electoral board, so that when we then have a new election, that it can be perceived as free and fair.”

Rasna Warah – another respected Kenyan writer and also a columnist for the country’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation – described the ongoing negotiations between President Kibaki and Odinga as a “football match.”

She’s not very optimistic about the outcome.

“Whoever wins…. it will just serve to polarize the country even further. I feel the next leader needs to be just a technocrat, who can deliver us a new constitution. And later we can have another election that is fair and not subject to manipulation. And we can then decide who we want as our president.”

Warah feels that it’s very important that neither President Kibaki nor Odinga becomes – “or is seen as” – the leader of Kenya when a deal is eventually reached. She says both men have been “severely tainted” by their actions before and after the chaos that swept Kenya after the late December polls.

“The priority should be to set up a transitional government in order to facilitate the passing of a new constitution through parliament. So that when there is another election, whoever becomes president doesn’t have the enormous powers that the current constitution bestows on him or her,” Warah states emphatically.

For Stan Gazemba, a winner of the East African nation’s top literary prize, The Kenyatta Award, the most important instrument to ensure a prosperious future for Kenya is a new, more democratic constitution, which reduces the “immense” and “dictatorial” powers of the president.

“If we were to continue on the path we’re going now, then even if the presidency was to go to Odinga – or whoever – that person would just be yet another ‘big man.’ We have to push for the creation of institutions that will put checks on the president and his government,” says Gazemba.

Unlike Warah, though, he maintains that President Kibaki and Odinga should form a coalition government to share power, so that both the Kikuyu and the Luo ethnic groups are “appeased.”

Kibaki is a Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, while Odinga is a Luo, the country’s second largest ethnic bloc.

“Power sharing – at least for an initial period – would be a win-win situation in which -very importantly, no one can be branded a loser,” Gazemba says. “For there to be peace, it’s important that both their (sets of) supporters see them in government and working towards a solution. But in the long term we have no option but to go back to redraw the constitution and to strip the presidency of the enormous powers that are concentrated in it.”

He adds that another priority is for Kenya to get a strong judiciary, so that rule of law can be established.

But these are all longer-term solutions to Kenya’s socio-political malaise. Warah is in favor of far more immediate and radical steps.

“Every politician who does not seek a solution to this crisis should have a visa ban imposed on them, and all their children who study in America should be sent back home. And all their assets abroad should be frozen,” she says.

The United States has imposed travel bans on 10 Kenyans suspected of instigating ethnic violence. U.S. embassy officials in Nairobi say five of those banned are politicians, while the rest are prominent business people. The embassy has declined to provide further details, but it is thought that Odinga and President Kibaki are not among those prevented from traveling to the U.S.

But Warah insists that international travel bans must be applied to all Kenyans who have fomented ethnic violence, “no matter how big or small” they are.

“It has to hit them personally. Right now, none of their relatives have been killed, their children are safe and their neighborhoods are safe. They’re not going to feel anything unless the crisis begins to affect them personally. If they can’t access their foreign funding and they can’t vacation in London and New York, I’m sure they’ll find some quick solutions.”

However, she asks the international community not to suspend aid and institute sanctions against Kenya.

“They will impoverish the people who have nothing and enrich the people who have a lot…. The U.S. government declared that it would freeze its funding, its aid to Kenya. I think that’s a mistake. Because every time you strangle a country economically, you’re not strangling the elite who’re running the country, you’re strangling the poor. More poverty will just mean more conflict,” Warah explains.

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress merely asked the government to “conduct a review of current U.S. aid to Kenya for the purposes of restricting all non-humanitarian assistance to Kenya unless the parties are able to establish a peaceful political resolution to the current crisis….”

Officials in Washington say the U.S. continues to provide aid to Nairobi and has not suspended any funding to Kenya. They say the U.S. remains dedicated to helping the people of Kenya.

Kenyan intellectuals, though, remain deeply concerned about their country’s future.

They say that political dynasties such as those governed by President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, with support from their various societal and economic networks, have been in control of Kenya for far too long and that unless this changes, Kenyans are doomed to suffer further.

“If we placed less importance on (political) leadership, and more on the institutions that are meant to be governing us, then it wouldn’t matter so much who our leader is and which ethnicity he comes from,” says Warah. “We’re overemphasizing the importance of political leaders. We’re giving them more power than they deserve. And what may end up happening now is that people will just disregard all leaders in this country because they’ve been a total disappointment. That’s when anarchy could set in, or total cynicism on the part of the population.”

Binyavanga Wainaina, winner of The Caine Prize and one of Kenya’s most respected writers and commentators, says cynicism was endemic in the country even before the election and the violence that followed.

In recent years, and in the run-up to the December polls, the Kibaki administration repeatedly praised itself for achieving economic growth. Yet, says Wainaina, this “so-called growth” never translated into fundamental improvements in the lives of most Kenyans, who remain extremely impoverished.

“A lot of the young people in Kenya have had decent educations but do not have access to jobs. And so they remain at home, in their villages, frustrated. Not enough opportunities have been created in the economy for what could be a skilled and educated class of people. These youngsters’ aspirations rose a long time ago beyond the idea that they should just be subsistence farmers. But the state has failed to create any opportunities – even in the way of the most basic infrastructure – for them to achieve their ambitions. This is a recipe for social unrest,” Wainaina warns.

If Kenya is to have “any sort of decent future,” he adds, then job creation – and not “further enrichment of the elite” – must be the priority of any future government, no matter who its leader is.

Kenyan short story writer Billy Kahora says the peace talks between President Kibaki and Odinga are “no doubt a good thing,” but he’s concerned that these two figures have “lost the respect” of most Kenyans.

“There’s a huge feeling on the ground that we should just isolate both these politicians. It’s not in anybody’s interests for these two people to be having their own (private) stand-off,” Kahora says.

Warah is emphatic that neither President Kibaki nor Odinga deserves to be Kenya’s political leader.

“Violence is the card that both Kibaki and Odinga have been using and for that they’ve lost the little credibility they once had amongst many Kenyans,” Wainaina adds.

Yet he’s convinced that no matter what kind of deal is eventually forged, Kenya is a changed country.

“What we’re seeing now is the last stand of the old guard. The old alliances, with all their money and their grip on everything in Kenya, are battling for political survival against a new wave of popular sentiment, expressed in the desire for a new constitution, a fairer society and a president who is not supreme.”

But to ensure that there’s “real change” in Kenya in the near future, Wainaina says the country’s “intellectual forces” and Kenyans born after independence (in 1963) “need to be taking a stand, right now need to be marshalling their forces, need to be gathering money” and organizing themselves.

“This is a battle between new versus old ideas,” he declares, before adding: “Now the question is whether our generation will stand up, and fight for the battle of good ideas.”

Gazemba’s convinced that Kenyan politicians will find it more difficult in the future to “play with” his compatriots.

“After the events that we’ve witnessed, people have realized that they’re open to manipulation, and that it’s up to them to decide what they’re going to believe and what they’re not going to believe…. It has sent a message to the older generation of politicians that it is time for a younger, more progressive crop of leaders to take over the running of this country. We don’t want to be tribalists anymore. The older leaders have let this country down.”

Wainaina agrees, saying the “venality” of Kenya’s political class was once again exposed when one of the country’s radio stations recently asked MPs to contribute a portion of their massive incomes towards aid for the victims of all the violence.

“Hardly any MP – if any at all – has contributed their salary. Some have given a little bit of money, but something that amounts to nearly nothing. So none of them – even in these times that are extraordinary times – are showing that they have any kind of statesmanship, any humanity that rises above their petty political interests. And we are watching and we are remembering. And we are documenting,” he says.

What Wainana wants for his homeland is “visionary leadership” that looks beyond narrow self-interest.

“If vision stands up right now in Kenya, there are enough people who’ll be able to see that no machete will create opportunities for them. But if vision doesn’t (emerge), this is where we will remain…. In a trap of ethnic politics.”

But within the maelstrom of modern-day Kenya, Wainaina and others like him sense a chance for a better future for their land.

“This is an incredible opportunity. The fact of our nation being laid bare like this allows us to see what those major problems are inside (society), and to take drastic and deep action to do what we should have done 20 years ago – which is to create a country for Kenyans.”

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