Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Few Words on Kenya

What with the run-up to Super Tuesday – which just happened to coincide with the conclusion of Mardi Gras and Carnival on February 5th – and then the event itself, much of the rest of the important national and international news slipped off the front pages of papers and even the television and cable channels.

Of course, most of the rest of the world didn’t bother to alter their routine because of Super Tuesday, so in one sense the day was, globally speaking, a wash.

Today, however, my focus reset itself on the situation in the African country of Kenya as a recent traveler there was at my office to relate what she saw, heard herself, or was told by others.

Once hailed as an example – if not an island – of political stability and economic success, the country exploded last December when the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was pronounced the winner of the ballot to choose Kenya’s next president under obviously fraudulent conditions and, five minutes later, was sworn in for a second term. Within 30 minutes, violence had broken out as the followers of the challenger – and presumptive winner – Raila Odinga, took to the streets. The GSU – an elite Praetorian Guard police unit – had been dispatched to the edge of Nairobi’s huge shantytown, and within minutes of the announcement of the “win” by Kibaki, they began shooting and kept shooting for half an hour, killing some 100 people.

The reaction was explosive as the huge number of unemployed and under-employed youth surged out of the shantytown armed with knives, machetes, bow-and-arrows, even stones. What the world saw in Rwanda a dozen years ago was repeated in much of Kenya – and for the same reasons. Some 80% of the population is between 18-30; only in Brazil is the disparity in earnings between the richest and the rest of the population greater than in Kenya. And then there are the ancient vendettas, supposedly long forgotten or settled, but never forgiven. It was almost as if the old men and women acted as the conduits of information about past wrongs committed by individuals of another tribe. Sometimes, the “injury” committed was nothing more than that a man or women had married outside their tribe and now risked losing their lives if they remained in their homes.

In short, our visitor said that the root problem for Kenyans is not a disputed election. Yes, that was the proximate trigger that ignited the violence. But the real problems go much deeper and are more ancient.

The question may be whether they are so entrenched, reaching back to pre-colonial times, that to exorcize them would entail unraveling the country and the sense of what it means to be “Kenyan.”

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