Saturday, January 5, 2008

January 5, 2008 - Kenya's politics and its current crisis

I would just like to preface this blog by saying that I can only write about what we have seen, read, heard, and experienced here in Kenya. Our views are obviously not meant to be representative of the Kenyans around us. Also, if you aren't that interested in the nitty gritty details of the last week...feel free to skip this blog and read the one I wrote about our vacation instead. I will try to write about all of this in the most easy way to understand (can you tell that I am desperate to teach!?).

Before Kenya's national election was held on December 27th, the campaigns had been intense. From the moment we arrived in Nairobi, all around were billboards, posters, flyers, stickers, and blaring trucks reaching out to the people. The two major political parties in this election were (are) PNU - the Party of National Unity, whose candidate was the current President Mwai Kibaki - and ODM - the Orange Democractic Movement, whose candidate was a MP (member of Parliament) Raila Odinga. It is interesting to note that in the election of 2002 when the country was united in removing the long-reigning President Moi from power, Kibaki and Odinga were on the same side and Odinga endorsed Kibaki's presidency. In his first term, Kibaki saw tremendous growth in Kenya's economy and made primary school free across the nation. However, corruption is a huge problem in Kenya and his administration was no exception. Additionally, average Kenyans, many of whom are quite poor, did not feel the benefits of a booming economy. Therefore, Odinga put up a good fight in this election making promises of decentralizing the government, ending corruption, and helping common Kenyans prosper.

All of Kenya was abuzz on the morning of the 27th. On our vacation, we could see hundreds of people walking or biking miles to the nearest school or police station to cast their votes. The Kenyans we spoke to were so proud to have voted and happily displayed purple pinkies (marked when voting). We even heard a story that matatus (remember, those scary little buses?) were not picking up riders who could not prove that they had voted. This election was surely taken seriously! Especially in a country where people know that corruption is playing a role in their lack of wealth, Kenyans truly believe that democracy takes place when you cast your vote and your voice is heard. Unlike in America, where people carelessly choose not to vote and exercise the right that many people in the world would die for, it was inspiring to see how proud the Kenyans were on election day.

Rumors of unfairness also began that day. We heard through other guests at our lodge who had spoken to some local people that when Raila Odinga went to vote in his district, his name was not even on the ballot. He was the only serious rival to the President! How could that be?! Unfortunately, the results were not expected until the following day (Friday the 28th) and, regardless, nothing else was making headlines after the assassination of Pakistan's former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. Everyone in Kenya settled down to wait for news on Friday.

On Friday the results were anticipated and while they did not come in, the polls were showing that Odinga was leading by at least 1 million votes, with some projections close to a 2 million vote difference. The people around us, many who it seemed had voted for Odinga, were thrilled. We also heard that at this time it was very clear that most of PNU's MP's had lost the election to ODM rivals. It looked like ODM would take Parliament and so everyone was just waiting for the ECK (Electoral Commission of Kenya) to announce Kenya's new President. After all, why would Kenyans have voted for ODM members of Parliament but not an ODM President?

Saturday is when the true tensions began. The results were still not in and there was increased talk of "vote rigging" when all of the sudden it was reported that the latest tally had Kibaki in the lead. As soon as this was announced, a small amount of riots and protesters began in areas with strong ODM support. This is a good time to explain that prior to the election, we learned from some local Kenyans that politics in this country is still extremely tribal. Kenya is made up of 42 tribes, and they are grouped into three groups of tribes based on the roots of their languages. Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe, the largest in the country, which has been historically dominant in politics, business, and among Kenya's most educated group. Odinga is from the Luo tribe (like Barack Obama's father), the 3rd largest tribe, which is also a more modern, educated, and economically successful tribe. Many people are saying now that the campaigns these leaders ran were designed to stir up tribal loyalties in voters. It is in the aftermath now that we can see how dangerous this tactic was. From the moment that election rigging was suspected, many Kenyans began seeing other tribes as enemies instead of as fellow Kenyans.

On Sunday morning, we awoke preparing to leave our vacation and head back to Nairobi. We called UN Security and were told that it was a very volatile situation and that we should reconsider travelling that day. When speaking to the manager of our lodge about the possibility of staying on a bit longer, he received a call from an employee in Nairobi with the most recent rumors that Kibaki would be secretly sworn in as the President and that Nairobi would be declared in a state of emergency after that (it didn't actually happen this way). Of course we decided to sit still and moved to another lodge that could accommodate us (and that we could afford indefinitely!). Increased chaos in Kenya was reported that day as people were very anxious for the election results and very suspicious of fraudulent behavior on the part of PNU. It was not until about 6:00pm that we heard from the manager of our new lodge that President Kibaki was officially re-elected. She was Kikuyu and she was actually crying because she was so happy and relieved. At the lodge, the TV only played international news and we were desperate for something local so we were allowed to sit with the staff in their lounge. We watched President Kibaki be officially and legally sworn in at the state house only 30 minutes after the election results were announced. This was unprecedented in the history of Kenya! Normally, the President is sworn in one or two days after the results in Nairobi's main downtown park.

The violence following these events was almost instantaneous, specifically in the slums of Nairobi and in the area of western Kenya where Odinga has been an MP for many years (this area also houses the largest slum in the country). Later in the evening, a partial media blackout was instituted with the government forbidding local TV and radio stations to air any live broadcasts. This was an extremely difficult order for people to deal with because EVERYONE in Kenya listens to the radio. Even when you drive through or by poor areas, there are antennas sticking out of shanty dwellings. Even if people do not have electricity they use batteries to hear the radio: it is their life line. To cut off the radio is to completely isolate the population, many of whom do not have TVs, and this only incited people's anger. The death toll began to climb along with mounting evidence of foul play. For example, in some polling stations they reported a voter turnout of between 115 - 200% for presidential results only!

On to Monday, New Year's Eve. The UN actually forbid us to leave for Nairobi as all UN staff were ordered to remain in their homes or exactly where they were. The violence in Nairobi slums (fires, looting, and police shooting), which we would need to drive near in order to get home, was at a high even though our actual neighborhood of Westlands was completely quiet. We heard several rumors from different people of food/water/oil shortages throughout the country and the possibility of phone lines being shut down. While we were never in any danger whatsoever, I will be honest and say that we were very nervous and very sad for Kenya. The Kenyans at the lodge with us were quietly watching their country disintegrate before their eyes. It was devastating.

It was at this time that we heard from several of Kristoffer's WFP colleagues, all stuck in their Nairobi homes wanting to make sure we were safe. We heard about a planned rally during which Odinga would inaugurate himself and establish a shadow government, alleging of course that Kibaki and PNU rigged the election (this rally was later postponed). There were other rumors that Kibaki had fled the country, that the military was splitting (this was a particularly interesting rumor, although never confirmed, because it was the first Kenyan election in which the military was allowed to vote), and that the US was supporting Kibaki (which was initially true but later the US recalled that statement in favor of investigating the election tallying). There was a curfew imposed in many areas for New Year's Eve and the violence did not abate.

On Tuesday there was very little news from Nairobi and the BBC was counting the death toll at over 100. We ventured out into the small village near us and talked to some Kenyans. All of them, in the village and working at the lodge, seemed confident that everything was fine now and that everyone wanted to get back to work. While this was the feeling around us, the UN still told us to stay put. We heard of a rescheduled rally for Thursday but also that businesses were opening up in Nairobi.

We were given clearance to go home on Wednesday and were happy that we had filled up our gas tank before things got too bad because there was definitely a shortage. To explain this, Mombassa is the second largest city in Kenya on the eastern coast. It is also the largest port in East Africa through which Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries receive supplies. There was violence in Mombassa and also along the roads leading from Mombassa to Nairobi and beyond. As a result, all of these countries were (and are still) hurting for food, oil, and water.

On our way to Nairobi, there was one point in the road where some trouble was starting up in a small group of young men. While we could not see anything, other Kenyans on the road alerted us of this trouble a few miles down the road and so we took a longer detour to get to Nairobi safely. Upon arriving, we immediately went to the grocery store and bought food, water, and a radio so that we could hear some news. Thursday's rally, which was deemed illegal by the police even though we have heard from many sources that it is unconstitutional for them to do so, was a bust. The Police heavily blockaded the park and used tear gas, water cannons, and warning shots to keep crowds away. The rally was again rescheduled for yesterday, but did not materialize for the same reasons. The news we have heard now is that both leaders - Kibaki and Odinga - have met with Archbishop Desmund Tutu and will meet with the American envoy from the Department of State today. There are varying rumors of who will agree to do what, although it seems to us that the standstill is this: Kibaki will allow for a recount but only if a Kenyan high court orders it (and of course the high court judges were all appointed by him) and Odinga has said he will meet with Kibaki but only if he acknowledges that he stole the Presidency. Where do we go from here?

While there is still trouble in other parts of Kenya, Nairobi is trying to get back to normalcy. The slums here seem destroyed from the footage we have seen; people are hungry with no money or supplies. The death toll is calculated on BBC at about 350, but of course there are probably many deaths that have not been reported. It is estimated that 250,000 people are displaced as a result of the violence, and emergency supplies are desperately needed. The WFP (Kristoffer's organization), which normally feeds millions of Kenyans, cannot move the necessary food and so we assume they will be operating in crises mode when he returns to work, hopefully on Monday. We bought a TV yesterday and had our cable installed (miraculously fast); in our neighborhood everything seems totally normal, which is bizarre when you know the country is in a crisis.

So...did you get all that? It is a little strange for us because when looking for jobs in Africa, Kenya was always at the top of our list due to its stability and democracy. It has been known as the capital of East Africa and one of the continent's greatest successes. How difficult it is for us, and more so for Kenyans, to realize that their stability and, in fact, their democracy was a facade. Pre-colonial wounds and loyalties have not healed since this country became independent. Was Kenya always a time bomb waiting to explode? While we haven't been here long enough to have fallen in love with Kenya, we have really wanted to love this country and the people here. We have only had positive experiences with Kenyans so far and have learned so much in one month. We are sure that during the next two years we will experience and learn a lot as Kenyans try to unite and recover from, perhaps, one of the most difficult week in their history.

Finally, a word on democracy. In Kenya, 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty and while they may not have food or water or shelter, they believed they had a vote. They didn't take it for granted and they cast it towards a leader they thought would improve their lives. When you take that away from people, when you tell them that their vote didn't matter, they are left with nothing. That is why young men in the slums are chanting "No Raila, No Peace!" and claiming that they are willing to die for this cause. Odinga may also be a corrupt politician and might have done nothing to help these people, but it is not a question of who is a better person or would be a better president. If the election was rigged, as it appears to have been, then Kenyans were robbed of their voice, their vote, and their hope. We hope to see the leaders do something to heal this country now. There are other countries with election drama right now besides Kenya, namely Georgia and Pakistan. I know Denmark's election has passed but my personal hope is that at home in America , when people are voting in upcoming primaries and in the 2008 election, they look around at what people in these other countries are fighting for and do not take their freedoms for granted.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hope the week-end in Mount Kenya was fab'. Geoff very envious, remincing about his youth ... Can't wait to hear all about it. Will post to you to-morrow. Monique & G.