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The Pot Calling the Kettle…

I Am Kenyan 4

The author goes beneath the Western stereotypes of African politics to explain what's at stake for women and all citizens in the upcoming elections in Kenya.

Black. Black is really what people mean when they say “sub-Saharan Africa” or rather Black Africa.  In Black Africa people are very unpredictable and the only rhyme or reason to their erratic behavior is tribe. Now, tribe is a euphemism for irrational behavior based on uncivilized bonds.

Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of politics behind an accurate analysis, and words are the beginning of political discourse (check out the title…). For instance notice the sentimental distinction between “tribe” and “ethnicity.” “Tribe” has the old guard Eurocentric connotation attached to it, while “ethnicity” has a more nuanced connotation that could apply to savages and non-savages alike. See, it’s progress!  Nowhere are the politics of language and analysis more obvious than in discourse about Africans.

On March 4, 2013, Kenya will hold national elections across 47 counties with first-time elections for county governors and senators, as well as county representatives and the president. This is the first poll following the nation’s botched elections in December 2007—now under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The March 2013 election follows the historic August 2010 ratification of a new constitution that decentralized political power, creating the current county system for more representative voting and resource allocation, a bill of rights, and many other positive changes for women (increased land rights and representation in parliament) and the diaspora (dual citizenship), for example.

Since national independence in 1963 Kenya, like much of Africa, South America and Asia, has been in the grips of complex and seemingly mutant strains of neo-colonial power struggles within and outside its balkanized borders. Kenyan political maturity is hampered by flagrant class inequality, ethnic tensions, pervasive sexism, elitist cronyism, aid dependency and all manner of corruption. Nowhere are these maladies more evident than in government. However, despite all of this, Kenya has managed to remain a consistently stable nation within the East African region, given past (and some ongoing) instability in Somalia (which Kenya has engaged in an anti-terrorism ground war since 2011), Rwanda, Burundi, Northern Uganda, eastern DRC and South Sudan.

In December 2007 post-election violence strangled Kenya for over two months following deeply flawed ballot counts and the hasty “re-election” of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki over competitor Raila Odinga—widely seen as the president elect. The tumult was unprecedented with an estimated 1,200 deaths, sexual violence against thousands of women and loss of property or displacement of some 500,000 Kenyans.  As the ICC investigation alleges, the powder keg of violence was systemic and involved government actors, as well as private citizens.  Most of these grievances have not been adequately addressed, though some public reconciliation efforts followed the 2008 establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya. Unfortunately, the body is seen as widely ineffective.

Ethnic divisions undoubtedly played a part in that terrible period. However, a myopic analysis of African tensions as consistently “tribal” is an insulting oversimplification of complex factors from a decidedly Western gaze. Nowhere is the adage ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ more applied. A great many modern ethnic tensions, not unlike racial tensions, extend from internal and external constructs of identity enflamed by class inequality and politics. Kenya has 46 percent living in poverty nationwide, and it is not uncommon for a single ethnic group to harbor severe economic disparity within its own community.

Today, years after the horror of Kenya’s very intimate post-election violence, if you survey (as many have) your ‘average’ Kenyan, few are interested in revisiting the violence of 2007 to 2008, though fears remain over unresolved issues of land, class, unemployment, and the like, which portend plausible conflict. What everyone agrees is that the nation needs a free and fair election—a first. Also, citizens are anxious for food security, health care, job security, personal safety, educational opportunity and broader economic development. A great deal hinges on the March 4 national elections at a time when Kenyans openly criticize the authority of corrupt parliamentarians. In fact, determined presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the nation’s first president Jomo Kenyatta and current deputy prime minister, is under investigation by the ICC for crimes against humanity last election cycle. Of the eight presidential candidates, Kenyatta’s main competitor is current Prime Minister Raila Odinga, son of renowned nation-builder Oginga Odinga, who is also accused by some of divisive tactics, though he engages a more broad, proletariat strategy. A reputable poll shows Odinga in the lead, slightly ahead of Kenyatta, arguably the richest man in Kenya with a strong following, both outpacing all other candidates. 

In subsequent elections, one hopes Kenya will follow the lead of Liberia and Malawi and elect a woman head of state. Currently the lone female presidential candidate and parliamentarian, Martha Karua, though an unlikely winner this time, is poised for the post and other women may seek the highest office, as well.

In light of this faltering faith in national leadership many average citizens have taken to social activism and an entrepreneurial spirit.  Community organizing is familiar to many Kenyan communities of the sort exemplified by the likes of the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and emblematic of the success of U.S. President Barack Obama (who Kenyans accept as a distant relative). Small business, though equally familiar to Kenyans through local markets and services, is steadily growing in a nation in search of effective economic solutions. Therefore, terms like ‘peace’ and ‘change’ are part of the national consciousness. In most cases, interest in peace and change is earnest, though the desperation of many people’s lives can easily make ‘peace’ and ‘change’ work a broad enterprise.

In the course of the past five years Kenya has made some obvious strides towards peace beginning with a power-sharing government (brokered in early 2008 by Kofi Annan, former South African First Lady Graca Machel and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa). The nation also has many promising elements going for it: a robust and young journalist community; nonviolent rallies and programs aimed at the many unemployed youth for peace; the emergence of nonpartisan crowdsourcing and informational portals like ‘Ushahidi’  and Google Africa’s Kenya Election Hub, respectively; numerous technological advances in communication with 30.8 million mobile users (in a nation of 40 million people) plus millions on Facebook and Twitter; and internationally recognized arts-based peace activists like Boniface Mwangi, who uses photography and street graffiti to question authority, or projects like ‘I am Kenyan’ peace photography. There are countless other everyday heroes, courageous activists, innovative artists and private citizens who work for inclusion and nonviolence in Kenya. The sum of these parts is what makes me hopeful that March 4, 2013, may not lead to national bloodshed.

On February 11, 2013, Kenya held its first ever presidential debate with all eight candidates, estimated as the greatest single audience of any program in Kenyan history broadcast live on television, radio and online.  The state of the art venue and inclusive atmosphere created an open forum to discuss issues of governance, security, ethnicity, education, and leadership complicit in last election’s violence.  Some criticize the debate for its inability to change the minds of voters, though one should appraise it as a success for non-divisive discourse. A second debate is planned on February 25, 2013. The historic event followed a similarly tempered and very well received open message to Kenya for peaceful elections from U.S. President Barack Obama last week. However, there have already been violent clashes attributed to ‘gang’ violence in Nairobi ghettos that bear all the markers of exploited unemployed youth engaged in complex disputes—usually for hire by corrupt politicians. Plus ongoing militarization, intermittent clashes and deaths between indigenous minorities in the southeast and northern Kenya add an ominous tone. Nevertheless, Kenya’s myriad problems are not for lack of faith from the people (though we may falter) or unachievable solutions, but the pathological failure of our political leaders, institutions and those who protect them at home and abroad.

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