Kenya and the fate of political cohabitation: Why a TRC might not work.

This is a guest article by Maingi Solomon. Maingi is a graduate student at Ohio University.


Cohabitation is usually a temporary arrangement which is meant to achieve certain collective short-term interests. Political cohabitation is not peculiar to the world or Africa. It is indeed an integral part of the history of politics and political power. If we open our eyes to the Rome of the 50s BC for example, we see a period of political disaster. The Roman senate failed to counter the first triumvirate which was an informal alliance of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Gang warfare was commonplace in Rome and holding elections was almost impossible. After Crassus was killed in the Roman defeat in 53 BC at the hands of Parthians, Pompey and Caesar fell out. In 49 BC Caesar, later to be assassinated in 44 BC, crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome starting a civil war that lasted three years. After his assassination there was a fresh round of civil war between the assassins and the Caesarian party led by Antony and Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian. The defeat of Brutus and Cassius in the civil war gave way to the second triumvirate (Antony, Octavian, and the aristocratic general Lepidus).

I would say that this sounds like today’s Kenya. During the run up to the 2002 national elections, opposition leaders knew that the only way to defeat KANU (Kenya African National Union) was through a united opposition. In early 2002, even before the then president Daniel Arap Moi announced that the KANU candidate would be Uhuru Kenyatta; Mwai Kibaki, Michael Wamalwa, and Charity Ngilu formed the National Alliance for Change which was later registered as the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK). Many were skeptical about the ability of the three leaders to come up with a single presidential candidate to counter Moi’s choice. However, if they were willing to swallow their pride the other question was how would they convince party supporters to support the single chosen candidate? The dismissal of the then Vice-President George Saitoti and the defection of powerful ethnic leaders from KANU to form the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) significantly weakened the party. KANU’s ethnic formula crashed.

When LDP and NAK merged before the 2002 elections to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a win for the opposition was almost inevitable. The fronting of Kibaki as NARC’s captain was widely seen as a move to split the Gikuyu vote between him and Uhuru. Therefore, the formation of NARC and the fronting of Kibaki was solely a strategy to win the elections. NARC was controlled by a bunch of powerful ethnic chiefs who led the party and had made a power sharing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which was supposed to be honored in the sharing of spoils after the anticipated win. According to the MOU, Kibaki, the president, was supposed to be one among equals in the NARC SUMMIT, the most powerful organ of the party. The biggest problem with the MOU was that it was not legally binding. When Kibaki became president, he trashed the MOU and therefore fell out with the NARC SUMMIT.

Long before Troy burned, several Achaean princes including Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus were attracted to the beautiful Helen. These men however understood one thing: that only one of them could marry her. When Menelaus won her, they swore to destroy whoever tried to take Helen from him. So when Paris stole Helen from Menelaus, his fate was sealed. When Kibaki trashed the MOU, his fate was sealed. In doing so, did he sacrifice some Kenyan lives to save himself from his nemesis?

Towards the end of December 2007, Kenya held a historic flawed election. This election was characterized by delaying of counting results for certain regions which were considered strategic for some parties, and sometimes surprisingly exaggerated voter turnout in some regions which implied that even the dead had risen to vote in this historic election. Party of National Unity (PNU) was hastily declared the winner and president Kibaki was hastily sworn in at state house in the evening at 4pm. We all know that Kibaki knew that this was dangerous. The country degenerated into violence in the days that followed. For more than a month, Kenyans turned against each other, the police and other government security agents turned against Kenyans, the politicians cheered! It was time to spill some blood and settle some ‘historical injustices’. That was foolish but the lessons were valuable. After these happenings, a second GNU was born in Kenya.

The desperation of both the (PNU) and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) to win the 2007 vote was driven by greed on the one hand and the desire to settle political scores on the other. It should be remembered that Kibaki’s failure to honor the MOU led to a constitutional campaign that was more focused on individuals than institutions. Those who argued for a powerful president did so with Kibaki in mind while those who argued for a ceremonial president and an executive prime minister did so with Raila in mind. When the people finally rejected the constitution in the referendum, Kibaki fired the LDP group which had spearheaded the opposition to the manipulated constitution. This group regrouped to form the Orange Democratic Party of Kenya (which later split to form ODM and ODM-Kenya).

Politics in Kenya has been dangerously ethnicized. All policies, appointments and other key decisions of government are made with ethnicity in mind without consideration of qualifications. Due to this polarization, for any party to win the general election, it must have an ethnic formula. These ethnic formulae usually bring together ‘tribal chieftains’ who are supposed to provide the numbers from these communities in exchange for a strategic position in government and at least some hope of clinching the ultimate post some day, The Presidency. Governments made out of these arrangements are often unstable because if a chieftain decides to withdraw support for the government, most of the members of parliament from that community will also withdraw. Unfortunately, NAK, NARC, LDP, ODM and PNU were all made with this formula in mind. Under this political climate how can we expect justice for the thousands of Kenyans who became the sacrificial lamb of the political violence of 2008? Even more compelling to ask, how can we build national reconciliation for the future generations if the pillars of governance are so deeply polarized?

After the end of the Moi era, Kenya has conducted two elections which have led to two coalition governments. Both of these governments have been deemed failures. The first one was a friendly Government of National Unity (GNU) made by political cons while the second was forced by ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which were not so extraordinary as they were planned. These coalitions have brought together politicians with voting blocs who view each other as equals and so the front runner only gets the presidency for the group. The current crop of politicians was all Moi’s students who were always controlled by him. In Moi’s absence, these politicians act like a herd of goats without the herder. This is because although Moi played ethnic politics, he was a powerful dictator who maintained control over his ethnic point-men. All his ethnic front-men feared and adored him and they were rewarded for that. During the Moi regime, he was equal to the presidency and all the power was accorded to him. When and how Kenya is going to have a leader who will represent the people of Kenya and not a bunch of greedy people who eat on behalf of their communities, only God knows. By all means winning political power in Kenya should not be like winning the adoration of the beautiful Helen of Ancient Rome of which all the men of Rome fought for, and certainly not worth the lives of Kenyans slaughtered in political plunder.

How can we break this dangerous chain of masters and apprentices? These questions are not only critical for Kenya but for the questionable fruits of the arranged marriage of Mugabe and Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe, even more so for the poor Zimbabweans who lost their lives and votes, without an option to pick which position most suited them in the cabinet. How does their justice look like if the governments of national unity are only the marriages of elites? As the Romans would say ‘cui bono’ (to whose benefit)? For whose interests are all these marriages if certainly not for the nation? And most importantly, can we trust them to abide by the mandate of the TRC or a special Tribunal should either be finally restored, and honestly bring truth, justice and reconciliation to their citizens?
Bokamoso

7 Responses to Kenya and the fate of political cohabitation: Why a TRC might not work.

  1. Well written man. Succinct & to the point. A ruthlessly simple presentation and analysis of the facts, devoid of the bogus emotional highs that Kenyans affect when defending their pet political heroes as if they were saints and everyone else a wolf in sheep's clothing. (Lol…I see Walunywa 412 paid off!)

  2. Firstly I must put it out there that I really like this type of writing! not only because it is important to make these connections back to Europe where the westphalian state was founded and perhaps to show tragically and very sadly that history repeats itself too often. I think most of us easily and passionately think Africa exists in a vacuum and Africa's problems are so out of our sensibilities that it is difficult to conceive the solutions. Ofcourse this is not true, much of the tragedies of the African state are not even close to those of Europe in 1648 after the 30 years war!! But with the European experience we know better what to avoid, therefore the evolution of the African state should not be as violent and tragic, Africa has that unique opportunity.

    i'm also impressed with this writing because it is so glaring making us ask ourselves how in the world we could not have realised that when we were watching Brad Pitt in Troy we should have already started our own storylines with our own Achilles…perhaps not as handsome 😉

  3. As I know very little about Kenyan Politics. My questions is Have there been parties formed that have consisted of people from different ethnic groups. Where the president and vice-president were different ethnicities?
    Kibaki's actions appear similar to what brought down John Quincy Adams who tried to place himself above party politics and ended up alienating his own party and the opposition

  4. Democracy: the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

    I always thought that this basic and simple definition was enough. Nonetheless, as I look at the current state of affairs in Africa, including the Kenyan situation that Solomon eloquently portrays, I feel the need for a re-examination of this definition and a possible change.

    My suggestion: the government of all people, by all people, for all people.

    Why? Maybe our leaders did not grasp the full context of the concept. Or maybe they are just manipulating the concept due to the loopholes that it contains. Or maybe it is us citizens, especially that we have been party to the politics of division for far too long that we lost hope in the concept. For some of us who have been sidelined by an ethnic majority rule maybe the all could finally signify inclusion and acceptance,and a full unconditional membership to our countries. Thus, instead of cohabitation, we could finally get married!

    But then again, maybe it is not about the definition. In any case, I am sure that we could all sit all day and talk about the definition on democracy. Nonetheless, the true description lies in the respect for all and definitely not in the sacrificing of lives for power. We must remember that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'.

    3dees- In 'Profiles in Courage' Kennedy illuminates stories of courageous US Senators that have made great sacrifices, both personal and professional, to defend and uphold the Union. Amongst those profiled is John Quincy Adams for his courageous effort in placing national interest over party and section. Though Adams was deserted by the Federalist Party, Kennedy believes in him. Your opinion?

  5. Politics is never about the masses and governments are made by politicians. More often than not, the masses are just spectators and have no idea what lies beneath what the politician says. Therefore, people will kill each other for the politicians egotistic interests. In ethnically polarised states, the ethnicities take pride in the politicians and not institutions. Kibaki is a kikuyu, kibaki is the president, so the presidency is for the kikuyu. Does that sound farmiliar? Am sure it does.

    To address Sir/Madam 3dees concerns, if the most dominant personalities in a multiethnic party come from the same ethnic community, the rest of the personalities appear like stooges. In majority of the states in Africa, if you have the presidency you have everything. Ethnic politicians will therefore support the most dominant among them for the presidency in the hope that if he wins they can be rewarded.

    The politics of fear dominate. Ethnic politicians will tell their people…"if we allow THEM (another ethnic group) to take the presidency, then we are doomed". The presidency is therefore communally owned. At least in dreams by the masses for they get no benefits from it except the ethnic pride that comes from the longing and desire of the oppressed to dominate another person.

  6. @Bose As Maingi said democracy is an ideal. There is no real democracy anywhere, just the majority carrying the day. Hence democracy really is a government of the people, by some of the people for most of the people. That said it all comes down to party lines. John Quincy Adams attempted to place national interest over party and section, however that's forgetting that there was a party that got him to where he was in the first place. There were other factors that led to him not getting re-elected e.g. his demeanor towards France etc. My point is when you get to where you are by abiding by party principles and then decide to suddenly switch because you feel you're above a party, that's not going to help your cause. That's where my comparison with Kibaki sprang from.

    @Maingi. My point is to have the top 2 as different ethnicities. So if the president is one, then the vice-president and the secretary of state cannot be the same ethnicity. I am wondering if that model has been tried. Like you said it might make the rest of the personalities appear as stooges, but there have to be politicians in Kenya who believe in "shared governance"

  7. @3dees, Governance has always been shared in Kenya. Currently, the President is Kikuyu, the Prime Minister is Luo, the Vice President is Kamba, one Deputy prime minister is Luhya the other is Kikuyu. That is four of the big five communities represented but there are more than 42 ethnic communities in Kenya. However, my point was not whether power is shared or not.

    I am more interested in polarization on ethnic lines for political expedience by politicians. Exploiting division on ethnic lines through hate speech, politics of fear and bogus coalitions that are only focused on sharing power and not building institutions for good governance.

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