Fighting for the state while the nation splits apart
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.