Getting to the root of Kenyas conflict

The sitting president, Mwai Kibaki, supported by an entrenched ruling class, faces masses of ordinary Kenyans who voted for Raila Odinga, the popularly-named “people’s president” who they believe was denied victory in elections on Dec. 27.

Amid universal allegations of fraud by local and international observers, Kibaki was controversially sworn in for a second term only one hour after the Election Commission declared him the winner on Dec. 30. But Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement Party (ODM), which smashed the governing party in parliamentary races and has declared the swearing-in illegitimate, refused to concede defeat.

In the ensuing uprising, the government relied on brute police force and media censorship to end the stalemate, while the opposition’s position was backed by tens of thousands of Kenyans who took to the streets to protest what they believe was a coup by the president’s supporters.

Kibaki’s regime irresponsibly accused the ODM of committing “genocide,” but the opposition showed considerable restraint, repeatedly calling off planned nationwide demonstrations to avoid violence and calling for mediation from organizations such as the African Union to resolve the conflict.

Early this week, Kibaki invited Odinga for face-to-face talks on Jan. 11 over the disputed elections. Kibaki has said he is willing to form a government of “national unity,” but Odinga has insisted the president first resign and agree to a re-run of the presidential election, as many ballots from the December poll were tampered with or destroyed.

Although up to 600 Kenyans tragically lost their lives in post-election violence, the majority of the populace has opted to display its opposition to Kibaki’s regime by staging protests.

Nevertheless, sensational press reports have focused on the isolated cases of bloodshed, including the burning of a church in western Kenya last week, and characterized these events as purely “tribal” in nature. Indeed, the corporate media has resorted to racist and colonial terminology and imagery in their coverage of the unrest in Kenya. For instance, CNN ran the text “tribal terror” at the bottom of the television screen while the Washington Post carried the headline “tribal rage” on a website.

But, despite this simplistic analysis catering to racist stereotypes about Africa, the root of the conflict that has flared up in Kenya is economic and manifested itself in the lopsided victory for the ODM, which won 100 parliamentary seats against Kibaki’s Party of National Unity which holds only 35.

As the magnitude of the ODM victory became apparent, the government’s Election Commission first slowed down result announcements, then briefly suspended them before making the surprise announcement Kibaki had prevailed in the polls. Kenyans immediately protested the declaration and election observers accused the government of widespread election fraud. Indeed, even Kibaki’s allies in Washington and London voiced concern and encouraged him to negotiate with Odinga.

Kibaki is a close friend of the Bush administration because of his enthusiastic support for the so-called war on terror as well as his commitment to neoliberal economic policies. Odinga, on the other hand, is a champion of the poor, who comprise the vast majority of Kenyans. Educated as a mechanical engineer in the former German Democratic Republic, he has long advocated socialism as the remedy to Kenya’s economic and social woes, and famously named a son Fidel Castro after one of his heroes.

Despite the capitalist consensus that Kenya is one of the “success stories” in Africa, most Kenyans have not benefited from the economic policies promoted by western financial institutions. Odinga’s ODM drew majority support from across Kenya, especially from marginalized ethnic and religious groups as well as the unemployed youth who were most visible in the post-election protests.

At press time, the deadlock between the government and opposition remains but hope that a peaceful resolution will occur has increased. It is not possible to predict the outcome of planned negotiations, but events in Kenya over the past few weeks will send a warning to ruling parties across the continent that their people will not sit down if they dare steal an election. Observers will next focus on the West African nation of Ghana, holding an election at the end of this year, where similar economic inequalities and social dynamics exist.