NAKURU, KENYA — The farmlands along the Mau escarpment of Kenya’s Rift Valley are some of the most fertile in Africa, replete with irrigation systems and railway viaducts cut through an area littered with the colossal residences of settlers of a bygone era. It would not look out of place in Europe or America. Here, a mere two or three acres means a good living, as far as farmers in Africa go, and those estates that weren’t appropriated by the Big Men of government after Kenya’s independence were broken up into small acreages and sold or leased to immigrant tribes.
The land seems bucolic and fruitful, but the fact is, Kenyans will go the polls on December 27 to vote in a new president and parliament. And in the Rift Valley, ethnic strife at election time is a time-honored tradition.
It has been that way ever since the days of Daniel arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin who lorded over the country for the 24 long years of his presidency. They were dismal, corrupt times, but not for Kalenjins, who benefited grandly from Moi’s godfatherly sense of tribal consciousness. Funds for paved roads, well-kept railroads, and fertilizer subsidies –all flowed to his homeland. In 1992 elections were held and however rigged they were, the Kalenjins were naturally upset by the fear of losing their share of power. They lashed out violently at the non-Kalenjin farmers resident in their homeland, who were themselves none too pleased about decades of second-class citizenship. The result was an all-out war, with thousands killed.
The violence has gradually subsided in the subsequent election cycles, though this year there have been the usual outrages. Joseph Gachie, a Kikuyu maize farmer, had his house set on fire while his family was sleeping, and his arm was badly burned in a failed attempt to save his youngest child, a two-year-old, from the blaze. For the past month he, his wife, and his remaining three children have lived in tent villages at church compounds in a nearby town — five among 16,000 refugees crammed into a few, dusty crossroads settlements that typically house no more than a few hundred people.
The violence is so routine that those who perpetrate it no longer attempt to hide their complicity. The raiding party that burned down Theresa Maina’s home in broad daylight was presided over by a Kalenjin chief — in Kenya, chiefs are officers of local government. Farmers wanting to return to their homestead to harvest the crops that have not been plundered must be willing to pay a generous bribe for a police or army escort. And after the government at last swung into action after months of skirmishes and a couple weeks of outright havoc, their presence has had only a limited effect; it is telling that the Kalenjin bus line runs on one major road without issue, while the Kikuyu-run bus service on the same road remains discontinued because of armed robberies.
The attacks are an arrangement of convenience. By displacing the farmers, average Kalenjins get the spoils of cattle and crops from raiding, while Kalenjin chiefs get kickbacks from the candidates — assuming, of course, that enough voters have been displaced to secure the election of a candidate, who thereafter makes sure to keep this tribal machine well-oiled. And the party that sponsors that candidate, while remaining aloof and unimplicated, nonetheless keeps a wary quiet over the abuses: The party benefits, too, if the candidate wins, no matter how. It’s a vicious equation that for as long as Kenya has been independent has been routine.
It was not supposed to be this way any longer. In 2002, when Moi was finally pushed from power by a “Rainbow Coalition” of a breadth Kenya had never seen, the days of tribalism were declared to be over. And for the past five years, Kenya has shaped up pretty well relative to the stultifying years of the 1980s and ’90s. Growth is at seven percent — the highest ever for Kenya — a middle class has grown and it has a financial consciousness beyond its years, investing vigorously in a stock exchange in Nairobi that is the envy of the continent. Although mass corruption persists as very nearly a way of life, the government is certainly providing better and less tribalized services than in the past. And Mwai Kibaki, the 76-year-old economist who is president, is Kenya’s first leader who has tolerated public criticism of his presidency at all.
But since 2002, Kibaki’s governing coalition has fallen apart amidst bitter acrimony: There were simply too many coalition partners and not enough ministries for them to head. And as a matter of realpolitik, it now seems obvious that the president relegated the wrong politician, the rabble-rousing Raila Odinga, to the Roads Ministry. Odinga was not at all satisfied, having expected the vice-presidency.
Once, Odinga was considered a marginal politician. He was educated in East Germany, and was so inspired by Cuba’s new leader, who paid a visit there during his studies, that he named his first-born Fidel. (On this point he differed from his father, a famous independence-era politician, who refused on principle to have his children baptized with Christian names that were alien to his people, the Luo who live along Lake Victoria.) For a decade and a half, Odinga has been the member of parliament for a Nairobi constituency that includes one of Africa’s largest slums — Kibera, home to some 700,000 people with no sewage system or running water. But he has little to show for it, his most memorable accomplishment being to champion the wearing of African garb in Kenya’s parliament so as to “decolonize the African mind” as his biographer (and, once upon a time, Bob Marley) put it. In his capacity as minister of roads, a popular joke around Nairobi’s pro-Kibaki business community is that the only thing Odinga did was to buy himself a Hummer — reputedly Kenya’s first — which he took campaigning near and far against the very government of which he was a member.
Raila Odinga proved to be an assiduous coalition builder, and if he is still imbued with his past radicalism he hasn’t shown it in piecing together his party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Ostensibly, the party’s unifying aspect is its pledge to rid at last the Kenyan government of corruption and nepotism. Were the party honest, it would be a self-defeating proposition. Not long ago Odinga accused of corruption the man who is now his running mate; the Odinga family is said to have profited mightily from the spoils of land after independence; and Odinga himself was a proponent of a measure in Kenya’s parliament that pushed MPs’ salaries to extents greater than that of a British MP or an American congressman.
In reality, ODM is not really about an ideology at all. It is about tribes, and finding enough Big Men to run on its ticket to make the party viable. Odinga himself is a Big Man among two constituencies — the Luo, who are one of Kenya’s largest tribes, and the urban poor. To boot, he has also co-opted Swahili and Arab-descent politicians from the coast, and with several Muslim clerics signed a secret “Memorandum of Understanding,” since made public, wherein they pledged to talk up Odinga to their faithful in return for a variety of favors — among them, less cooperation with the United States in tracking down the many Somalis who have formed terrorist cells in Nairobi.
But the real secret to ODM’s stratospheric rise of late has been the dozens of tribal dignitaries plucked to run for parliament. And this is truly bizarre aspect of the clashes in the Rift Valley: While for so long they benefited the decaying autocracy of Daniel arap Moi, nowadays it is the ODM candidate, a former Minister of Internal Security, who refugees blame for the violence. (When asked by the Kenyan press about the massacres, the candidate smiled and said, “Why would I do that when I am confident of winning?”)
Kibaki’s Party of National Unity has responded by embarking on a desperate advertising campaign trying to portray the president as a kindly, trustworthy old man who is, at least, a known commodity. “You know Kibaki stands for peace and unity,” reads one of his Swahili-language ads, which appeared next to an advertisement from the Electoral Commission encouraging Kenyans, “Don’t elect leaders who incite violence.” He has rallied his own tribe, the Kikuyu — Kenya’s largest — and he, like Odinga, can count on taking about 90 percent of the votes of his tribesmen. To try to dampen his effete, technocratic image, Kibaki has even taken out newspaper and television ads asking people text message the president their ideas; Kibaki himself is pictured in these ads, a grandfather with an ovular face and considerable jowls being led through a garden by two youths, a scene faintly evocative of Vito Corleone’s last moments.
For the past half-year, Kibaki has trailed in the polls by as much as 10 points, though in the final week of the campaign the race has become a statistical dead heat. Raila Odinga’s supporters nonetheless feel that they are part of an insurmountable coalition, much like that in 2002, and that their loss at the polls could only be attributed to ballot rigging. As one somewhat intoxicated Masai who lives in Nakuru township told me, “Odinga must win! If he does not, we little tribes will cause mayhem for three months.” And tribe, even in one of Africa’s most prosperous countries, is what democracy is all about.
– Travis R. Kavulla is a Gates Scholar in African history at Cambridge University, and a former associate editor of National Review.