Dark days in Kenya dim an African beacon

Times Staff Writer

With a thriving economy and two free, fair elections under its belt, Kenya was supposed to be a model for Africa.

But much of its progress appears to have unraveled in two weeks of postelection violence in which 500 people have been killed and 250,000 driven from their homes. An economy that grew 6% last year has screeched to a halt, tribal clashes are threatening to boil over, and Kenya’s reputation as a democratic stalwart is in tatters.

Now Kenyans and international observers are wondering whether the nation’s promise was merely an illusion. Many express concerns about the long-term effects, not only for Kenya, but for all of East Africa.


In a sign of Kenya’s importance to the continent, prominent African figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are involved in trying to resolve the crisis.

“Peace in Kenya is a must for peace in all of Africa,” said former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano.

Chaos began after last month’s presidential election, which international observers say was plagued with irregularities and suspected fraud by both President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger, Raila Odinga. Each man claims to have won the Dec. 27 vote. The election commission, which was appointed by Kibaki, declared him the winner and he was hastily sworn in on Dec. 30.

After efforts to end the crisis by forming a coalition government failed, Odinga on Friday called for three days of nationwide protests in Nairobi and 27 other cities, beginning Wednesday. He urged supporters to remain peaceful, but most Kenyans fear protests will lead to deadly clashes with police.

The stakes extend far beyond Kenya’s borders.

Nairobi’s role as a hub for the United Nations, dozens of humanitarian groups and international journalists has long given Kenya an elevated status in the region.

In recent years, the country has emerged as one of Africa’s leaders, playing a prominent role in resolving conflicts in Sudan and Somalia. Kenyan negotiators played host to peace talks that helped end Sudan’s north-south civil war, and Nairobi served as a safe haven for Somalia’s transitional government.


Kenyans raised the bar for democracy in Africa in 2002 and 2005 when citizens voted against the sitting government without violence or repercussions. They defied the wishes of former President Daniel Arap Moi, who had ruled Kenya for 24 years, by rejecting his handpicked successor, scoring a rare victory for Africans in the fight against the continent’s powerful Big Men.

The country’s ports also serve as conduits for commerce and aid across East Africa. World Food Program shipments destined for neighboring Somalia start in Mombasa. Its beaches and wildlife parks draw about half a million tourists a year, mostly from Britain and the United States.

Nearly all of Kenya’s neighbors rely on its ports, highways and logistics networks for deliveries of goods and access to international markets. Last week, the turmoil in Kenya temporarily drove up gasoline prices in Uganda by 200% because oil trucks were unable to complete their usual trek from the Kenyan coast.

The U.S. has come to view Kenya as a key partner in its anti-terrorism programs in the Horn of Africa, particularly after the attacks in 1998 against the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and in 2002 against an Israeli-owned beach resort. Kenya, which receives about $1 billion a year in aid from Washington, has worked closely with U.S. intelligence agencies to develop an anti-terrorism police unit that attempts to block extremists, particularly from Somalia, from spreading through East Africa.

But some experts say that Kenya’s political and economic successes are relatively recent, and that Western nations may have put too much faith in the country’s progress.

During most of their country’s post-independence history, Kenyans lived under authoritarian rule, including Moi’s iron-fisted reign that began in 1978. Democratic reforms only began with the 2002 election of Kibaki, who moved quickly to improve human rights, bolster the economy and relax media restrictions.


But his record on fighting corruption, creating jobs and alleviating poverty was less successful, and these issues remain at the root of the recent unrest, experts said.

“Underlying the violence are inequality, corruption, discrimination and the exclusion of certain communities,” said Dan Juma, acting deputy director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, a private advocacy group. “These things have been boiling up for some time. The election was just the trigger.”

Nor is ethnic-based violence new to Kenya. Similar tribal clashes leaving hundreds dead occurred during elections in 1992, the country’s first multi-party vote, and in 1997.

Though Kibaki and Odinga have accused each other of orchestrating “genocide,” analysts say competition for land and resources is driving the violence. Tribes in Kenya’s lush Rift Valley, where many of the bloodiest attacks took place after last month’s vote, including the burning of a church outside Eldoret that killed more than 30 people, have been feuding for decades over land.

“The truth is that the clashes in the Rift Valley are only the most recent example of ethnic clashes over the ownership of land,” British sociologist and author Frank Furedi wrote Friday in Kenya’s Standard newspaper. “The last thing Kenya needs is for its problems to be transformed into a Western fantasy about ‘another Rwanda.’ ”

Despite the risks, others expressed optimism about Kenya’s prospects, saying the recent turmoil was a natural part of any democratic transition.


“We have to keep what is going on in perspective,” said Joel D. Barkan, senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Democracy is not built overnight. You take two steps forward and one step back. We might look back at this and just say it was a bump in the road.”

But he warned that much will depend on how Kibaki and Odinga manage the crisis. So far both men have adopted hard-line positions that leave little room for compromise.

“Both sides are playing a risky game of chicken,” he said. “There is a real risk of throwing away about 15 years of progress.”

Already the unrest has cost Kenya’s economy about $1 billion in lost productivity, the government estimated. The country’s famed white-sand beaches are largely deserted now as tourism has vanished. The U.S. State Department recently strengthened its travel advisory for Kenya, urging Americans to avoid travel here. Investors who have been eyeing Kenya as a prime location for industries such as call centers are likely to have second thoughts.

Far worse, activists say, has been the cost to Kenya’s democracy. In the aftermath of the violence, the government has banned live broadcasts and imposed new media restrictions. Attempts to protest the election have been met with deadly force by police. Human rights groups say many, if not most, of the deaths in the last two weeks came at the hands of police.

“The clock has been turned back to the early 1990s,” said Gladwell Otieno, executive director of Africa Center for Open Governance. “It will take a long time for people to forget what has happened and for them to be able to trust again.”


Juma, the human rights director, said public outrage and passions are higher now because Kenyans have had a taste of democracy and are loath to return to the old days.

“Kenyans aspire for greater democracy and freedom,” he said. “People are not willing to roll back.”