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Losing the democratic plot

Kenya, the most stable East African State, faces a crisis. What is encouraging is the speed in which groups are organising around a peace agenda, writes Parselelo Kantai.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2008 02:44 IST
platform | Parselelo Kantai
platform | Parselelo Kantai

Last Sunday evening, Kenyans witnessed a civilian coup. As he announced the final results of the 2007 presidential election, Electoral Commission Chairman Samuel Kivuitu was interrupted by members of the Orange Democratic Movement. They claimed that the results he was reading out were bogus. Minutes later, General Service Unit troops stormed the Kenyatta International Conference Centre plenary hall and ejected party agents, politicians and journalists including the numerous television crews that had been filming the results live. Samuel Kivuitu was led into the VIP lounge, where he proceeded to declare President Mwai Kibaki the winner of the election before the State-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and a select number of election observers. Half an hour later, the Chief Justice swore in Mwai Kibaki. Minutes later, the country exploded.

As the President took his oath of office, ten people were killed in Kisii in western Kenya. Rioting was reported in several areas countrywide. What followed was an orgy of ethnic violence on an unprecedented scale. In the Rift Valley, western Kenya, Coast province, Nyanza and the slums of Nairobi, members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu people were murdered and their homes and businesses torched. Bands of youth took to the streets all over the country protesting the results. A circular issued from the Ministry of Information on instructions from the Minister of Internal Security banned all live broadcasts. The public was also warned against spreading hate messages via SMS. Rumours began to serve as news as the country fell into a terrible silence.

Five days later, the death toll is over 300 around the country, and rising. There are an estimated 70,000 displaced people all over the country. They are mostly Kikuyu but not exclusively so. Beyond ethnicity, their common label is supporters of the Party of National Unity, the vehicle President Kibaki used for his re-election campaign. Towns and businesses have been shut down across the country. Transport has been paralysed. The opening date for schools has been postponed.

Events have moved at an astonishing speed this past week. The EU’s observer mission cast serious doubts over the election result. On Tuesday, Election Commission Chairman Samuel Kivuitu, in an astonishing admission, said that he could not be sure who had won the election. He also revealed that he had been under intense pressure to declare the results as quickly as possible, despite having grave misgivings himself. He has, however, refused to resign. The leaders of the Orange Democratic Movement have declared that Raila Odinga is the legitimate winner of the election. Both Raila and Kibaki have accused each other of violence.

Now as the violence and humanitarian crisis continue to grow, numerous lobby groups are appealing for peace. International mediation, led by Archibishop Desmond Tutu and urged on by western leaders, may provide a resolution. However, it is clear that any way out of the crisis must involve a retreat from hardline positions and a willingness on both sides to a recount.

It is important that we remember where the rain started beating us. Post-independent Kenyan politics has been characterised by bad faith, deal-breaking and betrayal, all done in the name of ethnic jingoism. These were Kenya’s first truly democratic polls. Millions of Kenyans went to the polls and voted — a unifying cause. There was no wily autocrat to force out of office; no detention laws to rail against; no restrictions to basic freedoms. Beyond ethnicity, these elections also pitted a nationalist gerontocracy against the youth. Now the youth, schooled in the ethnicity of their fathers are reacting to the electoral robbery they have perpetrated.

What is encouraging is the speed in which groups are organising around a peace agenda. Dozens of professional groups, retired military officers, church leaders and politicians from minority parties, as well as musicians and other celebrities and media houses are pushing for dialogue and an end to the violence. In this lies the hope that this most stable of East African countries will not go down in flames.

Parselelo Kantai is a Kenyan journalist and writer based in Nairobi and London