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Two Years In, Old Ills Still Norm for Kenyan Government

In early 2008 Kenyan presidential rivals Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga signed a political pact to end weeks of turmoil, forming a unity government which left Mr. Kibaki the presidency and offered Mr. Odinga a newly-created prime minister slot. Two years on, the temporary peace has held, but little has been done to address the core rifts many fear could crack through the surface once again.

Roaming tribal militias wreaked havoc across the Kenyan countryside. Trigger-happy security forces bloodily squashed rioting urban crowds. More than 1,300 Kenyans died and 350,000 others were displaced.

The international community went into high alert, suddenly fearful that its preferred regional base of operations would tear itself apart. A delegation of African leaders, led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and backed by the Western diplomatic corps, flew in to try to forge a negotiated end to the chaotic mess.

On February 28, 2008, after a few weeks of high stake talks, the two warring parties agreed to a power-sharing deal, producing a collective sigh of relief from Kenyans and the rest of the watching outside world.

At a base level of assessment, the coalition government in Kenya has so far fulfilled its main purpose: restoring stability to the region's biggest economy and international hub.

Last week, President Mwai Kibaki, in a speech before the nation's parliament, praised the two-year anniversary of the peace accord, saying that the country has made significant progress on maintaining national cohesion.

"I appeal to honorable members to shun divisive partisan politics and focus on the greater good of our country," he said. "Whatever differences may arise between us should be amicably resolved in the national interest."

But many fear the relative calm of the past two years could likely prove a deceptive lull. The heated tensions which burst forth from below in 2008 have, for the most part, only been pushed beneath once more, as the unity administration seems more bent on engaging in inner power struggles than seriously tackling the nation's problems.

John Githongo, a former anti-corruption official who had to flee the country after digging too deep into a massive corruption scandal, says that in some respects the coalition government has actually made things worse.

"The peace that we all sought has been achieved. But I think the most important thing to point out is there has been a lack of public confidence in the commitment of the administration to bring reforms. On graft, not only has not much been achieved, I think there's been a slide backwards," he said.

Like Githongo, former justice minister Martha Kurua, once one of the president's fiercest allies, berates her former boss for hypocritical rhetoric on reforms. "You cannot tell us about an enhanced fight against corruption while retaining all the tainted officials in government," she said. "So in other words, [President Kibaki] is saying, 'I retain my tainted guys, but we shall reform somehow.'"

Lack of commitment

Karua's successor, Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo, expresses similar disappointment with the lack of commitment in tackling government graft.

He says the president's public words have not been matched with action, and he wants additional legal provisions to give the anti-corruption bodies real power.

Officially, the government will point to progress on forming a new constitution, some limited police reforms, and a myriad of official commissions and proposed legislation as proof that it is in fact committed to governance reforms.

But critics of the current government are quick to point out that corruption is no mere side issue of poor management, but goes straight to the heart of the ills which brought the country to its knees just two years ago.

They say that the systematic siphoning from state coffers by officials is an essential part of a political system which rewards tribal leaders with key slices of the national pie in exchange for the bulk of their ethnic community's support - building resentment and distrust between Kenyans, and creating a politics centered on the constant shuffling of cozy elites instead of addressing the issues core to the rising discontent of its poor and jobless.

Western governments, and the U.S. in particular, have vocally warned that this system of corrupt tribal patronage risks spilling out into mass violence once again if nothing is done to change how business is done in Kenya's capital before the next national polls in 2012.

Especially disconcerting to many is that, in nearly all cases, those suspected of masterminding the post-election violence retain top spots in the government and have yet to face any charges. Kenya's failure to erect a local judicial process to try the suspects has prompted the intervention of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

If the Court grants the prosecutor his quest to indict Kenyan officials on war crimes, the reaction from the charged politicians - who some analysts say could be emerging as a dangerous new class of tribal warlords - could be troublesome.

But, in the view of many of the country's advocacy campaigners, such a surgical incursion would be preferable to a system which forever protects its own problems. As new coalitions of tribal elites begin to form in the lead-up to the next polls, the fear is that 2012 could prove a nightmarish repeat of a past Kenyans were hoping to soon forget.