A country created by grand theft, ruled by a clique
January 30, 2008 2 Comments
A country created by grand theft, ruled by a clique
(Originally printed in the East African on January 14, 2008)
Robbery has thrived in Kenya for many decades now. The very creation of Kenya a century ago was an act of grand theft. Our country won its independence but has never broken free from the idea that political power is a license to rob by means fair or foul.
For decades as colonial subjects we were not allowed to vote freely. When we finally won the right to vote, most of the subsequent elections were stolen from us. The 2007 poll thus found a people rooted in a history whose course, twisted by the machinations of brutal thefts and shady backroom deals, had meted out injustice and indignity to more people than it enriched or empowered.
Yet Kenyans, despite this chequered history, had in the years since the early 1990s become bigger than their circumstances. They had begun believing that they could indeed change their country for the better. The ballot had become, despite the best attempts of their erstwhile leaders, a way to impose their will on a political elite whose most prominent members had been part of the old boy’s club that ruled with an iron fist for decades.
The election results, when they were announced by Samuel Kivuitu, the formerly much-respected chairman of the Election Commission of Kenya, rather than appearing to express the will of a large section of the electorate, seemed to many to be one more act of robbery. Others who had rallied around President Mwai Kibaki, who was now quickly sworn in to a second term, felt that justice had been done. Yet Kenya in 2007 is not the Kenya of 1987.
Young men who felt that their vote had been rigged turned on their neighbours who they believed had been supporters of the president’s Party of National Unity. They thought that they had been witness to an act of robbery that released all their latent resentment over other perceived past injustices.
They burnt down houses, they beat many and killed some, they looted and destroyed shops — most belonging to Gikuyus who as a bloc had been solidly behind the president.
Machetes swung, rapes happened, a church containing dozens of people seeking safety within its premises was torched, cars were burnt, and roadblocks manned by angry, bribe-demanding young men peppered roads across the Rift Valley province.
Now you hear it said boldly, no longer whispered as it was before the election, that ethnic cleansing or even genocide is underway. Senior members of the government have publicly stated that they have evidence that the attacks were planned by people associated with the opposition.
The truth of these claims or their counter-claims will become apparent with time. But the allegation alone, coming as it does in an atmosphere of rumour, innuendo and conspiracy theory is a danger to the country.
If there is a repetitive pattern to mass violence through history, it is that victimisers usually begin as the victimised or at least perceive themselves as such. We should beware our fears because they can turn us into monsters. This is especially true among those with a great deal of power, since their fear can lead to a worse conflagration than any we have witnessed so far.
Returning to the young men who have burnt and killed in the Rift Valley and elsewhere in the belief that they were acting to right the wrongs of stolen lands, ethnic chauvinism, government neglect and a rigged election, their acts of violence, rather than bringing them closer to gaining justice, have only driven them to join the great Kenyan tradition of robbing and dispossessing the perceived enemy. They have raised a mighty fear in the moneyed classes, especially in Nairobi.
What do you own in the elite neighbourhoods of Kileleshwa and Lavington when violence erupts in Kibera’s slums? The large screen television remains in its usual spot, except that this time it is reporting fire and death in Nairobi and not the Gaza Strip. Cars stay in their driveways.
The bank vaults holding the billions of shillings that the government had proudly proclaimed were the creation of its policies stay unopened for the days while Kenya burns. The expensive paintings in Nairobi’s luxurious malls are seen by no one and the imported designer clothes remain undisturbed on their hangers.
The only things that spread are fear and rage. They fill all spaces. The violence is dispossession by remote control. The political and economic elite that had celebrated the steady rise of the Nairobi Stock Exchange Index, which marched alongside their fortunes, cower and wonder whether their security guards will protect them or join the rage coming through the radio and television.
Paranoia rules. Streams of refugees leave the Rift Valley and Kisumu and Mathare and Kibera. Violence is a form of language, one that speaks the world into two camps: the merchants of violence and their victims. The results of the election were being invoked as a reason by the rioters but their point went deeper.
They were screaming to the world that they too could rob and take as so much has been taken from them; they were rendering the objects of power and privilege impotent. They succeeded for some days before a lull set in. But the anger and frustration remain present.
Those young men are watching for the backroom deal. They have their eyes focused on men and women in suits meeting in secret places and whispering secret things and agreeing on how to keep that Nairobi Stock Exchange Index continuing its happy rise to the heavens.
They see a lot more than the politicians believe they do and now that they have had a taste of the paralysing power of violence, they will man their powder kegs waiting for the betrayal that has always issued out of the backrooms where power has been cobbled together and distributed among a very small group of people.
Yet because the rich and powerful, especially those who are in possession of the reins of state, have been scared by the violence, they may become even less partial to sharing power.
It would do well to heed the fire, for it has only been damped down for the moment.
It will not go out at the orders of government spokesmen. Rather, real peace will only come from acknowledging our history of betrayal and robbery and heeding citizens’ demands that a fundamental change be made in the way the country is governed.