March 31, 2009 1 Comment
rom now on, African Bullets & Honey will be located here.
I think I am going to start blogging again. Yes, definitely. I feel the urge strong upon me, alas.
February 11, 2008 5 Comments
(This piece first run in the East African of February 11, 2008)
The ongoing negotiations between Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki’s administration and the Raila Odinga-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) should consider as one of their immediate aims a political settlement aimed not at making the militias lose their appetite for destruction but rather at ensuring that the security forces, and especially the army, are united enough to act effectively.
They have so far wrongly assumed that they are the sole actors in the ongoing drama and that the singular aim of their bitter contest is the taking or keeping of State House. Their hardline positions in the negotiations assume that time will force the opposite side to concede defeat, that other actors are stationary and have little part to play in the outcome.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. They are fighting over control of a state that presides over a Kenyan nation that is now threatening to split into opposed nationalities.
The prize of the state will be hollow and short-lived since the split in the nation undermines the very basis of state authority, which is significantly derived from the ability to deploy effective and obedient security forces.
THE INVISIBLE ELEPHANT AT Kofi Annan’s mediating table is the fact of the state so far failing to maintain a monopoly on the means of violence against ragtag, ill-equipped militias, and its constrained ability to call on its armed forces to enforce order due to the very ethnic calculus that is driving so much of the violence. If the state cannot function, then the Kenyan nation will not survive the forces tearing it violently apart.
If there is common ground shared by the Kibaki and Raila camps, it is their need to remain the primary drivers of events on the ground and for the political arena to maintain the shape it has had since independence. This ground is threatened.
President Kibaki and his key supporters will only remain relevant to their political base provided they can deliver order. This will be especially true as businesses continue to close in the unrest and refugees from Rift Valley stream into Central and other provinces. Yet their ability to deliver successfully is dependent on effective command and control of all branches of the security services. This, as has been noted earlier, is an increasingly fragile capability in the present atmosphere of ethnic animosity.
It creates a power vacuum now being filled by violent militias that are gaining legitimacy and material support from the administration’s political base by promising to deliver security and order. The stronger these militias, the more detrimental they are to ODM’s aspirations since they make it tougher for the Kibaki team to cede ground during the negotiations for fear of becoming politically isolated. The same applies to the militias in Rift Valley and Western Province that have so far identified themselves as pro-ODM.
They too expect order to be delivered. They differ from their pro-Kibaki counterparts in expecting the ODM leadership to deliver State House by following through on its tough negotiating stance. Any substantive retreat at the Annan table, as is normal in all such processes, will only lead to the militias acting ever more independently of their putative leaders.
THE DIMINUTION IN THE ability of the Raila and Kibaki camps to drive events on the ground is matched by their reduced prestige and support in the international arena. Already, 10 Members of Parliament from both parties may be barred from visiting the United States. This falling off in legitimacy has disturbing and far more important local implications.
Legitimacy is the lifeblood of successful civilian control of the armed forces. The current split threatens to give birth to opposed nations, all fighting over control of the resources and mantle of the state. The inability of the security forces to act against the violent forces tearing the nation apart undermines the positions of both Kibaki and Raila.
The more their teams are doubted, questioned and censured abroad, the more tarnished they become in the eyes of the Kenyan soldier. There is a further erosion of their authority if violence continues to be unleashed by militias in the name of ethnic solidarity.
This will only deepen the existing chasms within the ranks so that soldiers increasingly react to the chain of command in similar fashion as their civilian counterparts. In this part of the world, a divided force of well-trained and equipped men and women leads logically to a Pandora’s Box.
TO PEER INTO IT IS TO SEE security personnel both aiding and abetting ethnic cleansing or so paralysed as to cede their mandate to protect to hyper-violent militias. Either possibility means the Kibaki and Raila camps will find it difficult if not impossible to forge a settlement that is comprehensive enough to isolate the violent militias in Rift Valley and Nairobi. For the political status quo on which the two camps depend to survive, there must be unity among the personnel of all the security agencies.
That unity will only come if the leadership of all the branches of the security forces (and even organs such as the National Security Advisory Committee) become a part of the ongoing negotiations. Junior security personnel must be convinced that the chain of command is diverse and inclusive enough to keep them focused on their professional duties and not on their ethnic affiliations with embattled and bitter civilians. This is a more modest but critical goal of the Kofi Annan mediation process compared with a settlement that is Solomonic enough to please all sides.
IT IS HIGH TIME THAT THE Kibaki administration and ODM understood that militias and a divided security force are a threat to them both. They should not believe that the violence will automatically stop because they have come to an agreement, since reaching it involves making fundamental compromises that largely go against the grain of their core supporters’ sentiments. Rather the violence, which has now travelled far past the scope of the anger at the election results, will only cease once it becomes clear that Kenya’s security personnel can act effectively irrespective of their ethnic and political differences.
Reaching an agreement that strengthens the civilian command and control will take the worst case scenario — soldiers turning against each other violently or supporting militia campaigns — off the table.
This aspect of the agreement can be hammered out separately and quickly so that it effectively buys time to fashion a more lasting and widely supported dispensation.
February 9, 2008 4 Comments
Accra is my new favorite place. Got here yesterday morning and instantly fell in love with the place. The warmth, the openness, the constant positive references to Africa, it’s too much so now I must find some way to spend more time here. On Thursday evening I went from the airport in Nairobi to a dinner in the course of which a mad plot was hatched to get up the next morning and go to Jomo Kenyatta Airport and buy a ticket to Accra. In the last 48 hours I have been to Johannesburg, Nairobi and now Accra. Verdict? Accra is so much easier to enjoy and the people – seriously and not just to throw around cliches – are just so friendly and open to outsiders – very different from my experience down South and of course in the ‘new’ Kenya. More stuff coming up on this visit if only as an interlude from the bleak posts on Kenya that have dominated lately.
February 4, 2008 4 Comments
(This post originally run in the February 3, 2008 issue of The East African.)
Watching television news the other day, I was struck by how many of the pictures of the rioting youth showed them apparently in good cheer. This despite the anger in the country about the presidential election results, at the lack of economic opportunities and at the violence being meted out by both rioters and the security forces.
When the cameras roll they capture among the perpetrators of violence is one of euphoria and carnival despite the suffering and destruction that the country has experienced in the past month.
They were rolling recently when a group of young men stopped a car, forced out the driver, and stripped it of whatever was easily carried before setting it aflame.
They laughed and celebrated, holding their machetes and clubs aloft, a few pranced around the car’s burning hulk. In another scene, a crowd, again mostly of young men, uprooted a section of a railway track. Others chased children from school and burned down government offices.
These young men, especially the ones in spontaneously formed groups as opposed to well-organised ones, are in the grip of a moment of intense fellow feeling. They are experiencing euphoria at their shattering of moral and material boundaries.
Power, the power to destroy what seemed so unassailable, so permanent, they are increasingly realising, is like a drug that you need in ever greater supply. The burning and the maiming, and especially the increasing instances of rape when combined with the pictures of euphoric expression combine to suggest that some of the country’s youth are part of a gruesome festival that can potentially engulf ever larger parts of the country.
These bands of young men on television are like young men everywhere in the world and, throughout history, who have been caught in the periodic joining of political rage and the licence to transcend normal social limits. They are unmaking their world.
THE BURNING OF SHOPS AND homes, the destruction of transport infrastructure and government property and the taking of life, is not chaos as so many of us term it. Rather it is the flipside of order.
Their destruction overturns, if only momentarily, the normal order of the Kenyan universe. However, as many of their elders would like to believe, their violent actions do not eject them from Kenyan society. Rather, they are an intimate yet alienated part of it that has decided for the moment to defy the normal laws and morals of their upbringing.
To transgress a boundary you must first believe in its existence and its importance. Burning chiefs’ houses and destroying infrastructure paradoxically confirms how important these are to their destroyers.
By trying to unmake the hold of the law on themselves, they are confirming its policing of the bounds of a society that they now believe deserves rupturing and remaking.
If the high politics practised by elected leaders does not address past injustices and does not heed the anger and alienation of the young, then it will be replaced by the politics of the street. This is a politics of fire that seeks to destroy all in a desperate and very rarely successful attempt to justly remake society and re-establish its shattered moral bounds.
Why are there so many fires? The obvious and correct answer is that they are being started to send a message to politicians and their supporters about the widespread opposition to the election results — or support in some areas.
A more speculative answer is that they are a kind of political pyromania, a fundamental rhythm that dictates the life of euphoric violence; and they will only increase the more the political realm continues to withhold a good reason to return to the status quo.
I am saying here that violence and war have their own logic, which is not shared by those who set them in motion.
The violence may have its architects or patrons and those who benefit from it in the tit-for-tat of politics, but it owes to none of them its intimate rhythms, its joys and excesses. The mistake is age-old: leaders believing that they can switch the rage of their supporters on and off at will. But if they ever had any control of the situation, then this is power that is growing more distant by the day.
The reason such atrocities as we have suffered in Kenya are possible is that the perpetrators believe that they are engaged in just actions. The anger at the election results has morphed into a state of festival: a period when normal laws and habits are suspended.
This feeling of living in a world or a time outside society’s normal bounds accounts for the euphoria experienced by the youth around those bonfires and riots. According to them, they are quite literally destroying their world in order to save it.
If there is a lesson in all this to the political elites, it is that if Kenya’s morals and laws excuse injustice for too long, as is the case with our history, then there will come occasions when enough people will feel the need for a radical change.
If this happens outside the normal political space, due, for example, to a failed election, then all that is needed is for a spark to allow for a violent reaction.
Too often, Kenya’s political analysts and writers insist on believing that politics is a secular affair governed only by material means and ends.
Yet even as they believe that about politics, the rest of their lives are suffused with belief in the transcendent.
We go to church on Sundays and intersperse our day with prayer. But politics too is a realm of charismatic belief. Our politicians understand this intuitively. Their promises are akin to promises to be Moses leading their constituents to the Promised Land.
POLITICS IS A REALM THAT STRA-ins toward the transcendent, which is to say it periodically makes a dash toward its boundaries and retains the potential to breach them. These young men in the Rift Valley, Central Province and elsewhere destroying and causing so much suffering, are exploring moral spaces beyond the frontiers that have up to now governed their everyday lives.
The longer the political impasse continues, the more the society they left behind will seem less real than the violent and unjust one they are creating.
There is still time to douse the fires and stop the deaths. The leaders whom Kenyan citizens have given the responsibility to police the precincts of this moral community we call the Kenyan nation have failed more often than they have succeeded.
If they do not stand tall for once, or move aside for those who can, then politics will indeed move from the halls of government to the streets.
For now, the young men causing so much suffering still believe in the existence and importance of the boundaries they have violated. They believe that violence will lead to a new season that speaks to their aspirations and hopes.
They are mistaken. All around Kenya are examples of countries that have fed on the flames and now need decades to recover what they built so laboriously.
It is a simple choice for those who are in positions of political and adult responsibility: either move decisively to enthrone just rule and a political and economic system that is broadly believed to be fair or face the flames that will pulverise Kenya and leave nothing standing but the memory of your failed leadership.
February 3, 2008 1 Comment
With all respect to the Kofi Annan mediation effort, perhaps it is time that the region’s leaders visited Nairobi as a group and insisted on some movement toward a political settlement. In the same way that the Lusaka and Arusha peace agreements, aimed at Congo and Burundi respectively, were crafted from tough negotiations led by the region, Kenya too should follow this path. The difference being that the region has very real interests in a stable Kenya and that it has leverage against both sides. How much longer for instance can Rwanda and Uganda seat on the sidelines and watch as a major trading and investment partner – not to mention a thoroughfare for their imports and exports – go up in flames?
February 2, 2008 7 Comments
I am going crazy. I am blogging seating at a table with a small group of Kenyans here in Johannesburg. One of them is visiting from Nairobi and he is filled with the smug knowingness that characterises our country’s elite and is the biggest reason why the flames are up and may stay up for much longer. I am so sick of this Kenyan feeling that the normal laws of violent conflict somehow do not apply to us because we are different. We are special and peaceful. That the guy burning and killing just wants to fill his belly and will soon calm down. What nonsense and what really is it going to take for us to get it through our heads that our country is disintegrating while we fiddle around and believe that it is 300 shs cocktails as usual.
January 30, 2008 1 Comment
For those of you who understand Swedish and want to hear some Kenyan ranting on Sveriges Radio, please go to the Konflikt page and tell me what it is being said other than the parts in English. Same applies to this much shorter interview also in Swedish.