Facing the prospect of a new round of mass protests, the Kenyan regime headed by Mwai Kibaki agreed to a power-sharing arrangement last week negotiated by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Signed on Feb. 28, the deal creates the new position of a powerful prime minister, to be held by Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and the assumed winner of the disputed presidential election in December. In the interests of peace and reconciliation, the ODM dropped its earlier insistence that Kibaki resign and a new vote for president take place.

In fact, throughout negotiations over the past month, the opposition showed far more flexibility and sincerity while Kibaki’s ministers reneged on agreements and leveled unsubstantiated accusations against the ODM. Annan grew so frustrated with the government’s arrogant and incendiary behavior — one minister reportedly shouted at the former UN head and his team — that he halted the talks on Feb. 26.

Only two days later, the regime relented and agreed to share power with the ODM, which holds the largest share of parliamentary seats and draws support from across Kenya.

Ethnicity and economics

Kibaki’s misnamed Party of National Unity (PNU) is based almost exclusively in the Kikuyu areas of the country and his administration is dominated by that ethnic group. Indeed, one of the reasons for opposition to his rule has been the preferential treatment given to Kikuyus, not only in the allocation of governmental positions but also in the awarding of lucrative business contracts and rich agricultural land.

This dominance by the Kikuyu elite has historic roots stretching back to the period of British colonial rule and continuing through the administration of independent Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

In contrast, the ODM leadership reflects the nation’s diversity, not only ethnic, but also religious. Odinga’s party swept the elections along the largely Muslim coast as well as among marginalized groups in northern and western parts of Kenya. Moreover, the ODM’s support is strongest amongst the working class and unemployed who form the vast majority of the population.

From the so-called Kibera slum in Nairobi to struggling farming communities in the Rift Valley, the ODM’s campaign platform of redistributing the nation’s wealth and investing in social services resonated with a nation disillusioned with the promises of the free market model embraced by Kibaki and his predecessors.

Anger at overturned election

The popular verdict was delivered in elections on Dec. 27 when the ODM crushed the governing PNU in parliamentary races. Once it became clear Odinga also would unseat Kibaki as president, the Election Commission suddenly suspended the announcement of results coming in from across the country, then bewildered Kenyans with the declaration on Dec. 30 that Kibaki had won a second term. Foreign and local election observers unanimously charged the government with fraud and tens of thousands of ordinary Kenyans took to the streets in protest.

Kibaki’s regime responded with violence and censorship, unleashing the police on peaceful demonstrators and banning live television broadcasts. In the ensuing conflict, more than 1,000 Kenyans lost their lives and at least 300,000 were forced to abandon their homes. Ignorant of the basic economic factors underlying the explosion of mass protests, the corporate media resorted to the colonialist, racist explanation for troubles in Africa, ascribing the conflict to “tribal” loyalties.

Violence and power

While there is no doubt the disputed presidential poll exposed ethnic divisions, blame for the post-election violence lies solely with Kibaki’s regime. Blindly embracing the dictates of neo-liberalism, partial to its own ethnic base and rejecting the democratic choice of the Kenyan majority, it clung to power at all costs, agreeing to this week’s power-sharing deal only after the ODM promised to resume nationwide protests.

Even the Bush administration, his chief backer, encouraged Kibaki to assent to a coalition government as it became clear one of Africa’s strongest economies was being severely damaged by the dispute. Annan underlined this risk, saying “Compromise was necessary for the survival of this country.”

Vladimir Lenin’s thesis on imperialism still rings true in this new age of capitalism. Like most underdeveloped countries, Kenya supplies raw materials to the industrialized world, imports manufactured goods, and is continually forced to further open its economy to foreign capital. More importantly to the Bush/Cheney gang, Kenya’s strategic proximity to the vast oil wealth of the Middle East makes it a crucial outpost of America’s global military network. Kenya is a key ally in Washington’s so-called War on Terror, providing military bases, communication networks and intelligence-sharing. While Odinga’s progressive agenda may be perceived as a threat by Washington, even more dangerous would be Kenya’s collapse.

Across the world, far from the halls of the Pentagon, working-class Kenyans simply voted for a better future with Odinga and supported the battle to claim his electoral mandate. Their new prime minister has vowed to “destroy that monster that is called ethnicity from this nation.” He declared, “With the signing of this agreement, we have opened a new chapter in our country’s history, from the era or phase of confrontation to the beginning of cooperation.”