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Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

Former Carrier of Hope in the Chaos

How could Kenya come to the Verge of Civil War?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2008, P. 154-158
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    At first glance the outbreak of archaic violence that has shaken large parts of Kenya after the elections at the end of December 2007 seems hardly explainable. The real causes belong to the past. In this serious political crisis the voice of the churches remained strangely weak, hesitant and divided.


That Kenya after the elections on 27 December 2007 slithered to the brink of civil war was for many an terrible surprise. The East African country was in many ways the carrier of hope for an open, modern society. The economy is booming with growth rates of more than five percent and a gross domestic product of about 20 billion dollars. An educated middle class has become established in the rapidly growing cities. A highly professional press and independent radio and television stations enjoyed a freedom of which journalists in other African countries can only dream. The number of citizens who have via phone or Internet access to information has since the year 2000 increased more than tenfold. Kenya fulfilled many conditions for a healthy development on a democratic basis. So how can this macabre outbreak of archaic violence shaking large parts of the country be understood?



Elections Always Mean Violence

For most Germans Africa's history begins with its discovery by Europeans in the 19th century. But already 2000 years ago a trade route between India and the East African coast existed and you find Africans on medieval Indian paintings portrayed as military commanders and rulers. It is also unknown to most people that Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India with the help of a navigator from the town Malindi. And what then do we know about the people and societies in the pre-colonial era? And yet, today's developments can often be explained only by the social structures and cultural conceptions of a pre-modern world. Some phenomena of modern Africa could be interpreted as a failure of the modern paradigm in Africa, and as disappointed, partial retreat to original models. Where the modern state fails in the protection of citizens, ethnic bonds become again the guarantee for survival. "Failed States" are indications of the failure of the Western development model.


All African Countries are Artificial Objects

All African countries that sprung from the Berlin Conference of 1884 are artificial objects. Peoples which had neither language nor culture in common and often regarded each other as archenemies were pressed into a political unit by colonization. Kenya unites in one state Bantu peoples in Central Kenya, Nilotic groups in the west, nomadic Somalis in the north, and Arabized Swahili at the coast. Julius Nyerere, the first State President of Tanzania, by his personal integrity, his political ideology resulting from the Christian social doctrine, and by Swahili's swiftly taking roots as spoken medium of national communication was able to produce for all citizens a national identity. The first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, did not succeed with that.

In contrast to the neighbours Tanzania and Uganda independence did not just fall into Kenya's lap. It was bloodily won by the Mau Mau uprising of the Kikuyu against the British colonial government. In a five-year guerrilla war, which on both sides was led with great violence and cruelty, 7800 Mau Mau fighters died. 90.000 Kikuyu had spent years in British concentration camps. It is understandable that on the Independence Day on 12th December 1963 they saw themselves as heirs of the colonial government and claimed the political leadership. What is more, their leader, Jomo Kenyatta showed human greatness and political wisdom when he on the day of the takeover reached his hand of reconciliation to the British archenemy. It is equally understandable that the Kikuyu used their political supremacy to strengthen their economic position, also opposite the 100.000 Kenyan Indians who dominated the economy and trade.

But what other ethnic groups did not accept was that Kenyatta just as his successors got rich beyond all measure - also at the expense of other ethnic groups, which they at the same time kept away from political leadership positions. This is especially true for the second largest ethnic grouping of the Luo, whose leader Oginga Odinga admittedly was Vice-President under Kenyatta but was prevented from founding a party of his own.

After Kenyatta's death in 1878 Arap Moi, who came from the less influential grouping of the Kalenjin tribe and had previously been Vice President, took over the presidency according to the Constitution. He skilfully juggled with alliances between different ethnic groups. He too was by no means averse to political violence. His Foreign Minister Ouko, the Catholic missionary John Kaiser as critic of the government, and also the current opposition leader Raila Odinga, who took over the opposition flag from his father and was repeatedly arrested under Moi by the secret police, belong to the victims.

During the Cold War the United States and European countries supported without scruples many totalitarian regimes in Africa, as long as they did not form an alliance with the Soviet bloc. This changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The West exerted massive pressure on African governments to introduce democratic elections.

But in Africa political parties are different from those in Europe. They are characterized by their relation to ethnic groups and the absence of political programs. Opportunistic politicians change parties as often as one changes one's shirt and often give their loyalty to the highest bidder. Election campaigns consist - apart from unrealistic promises - in buying votes by cash or gifts and in intimidating the opposition. Thus democracy was for Kenyans no unrestricted blessing, and the people faced each election with fear and trembling, for elections always meant violence. When Moi was able to stay in power for two decades, this was possible by the opposition's current inability to agree on a common candidate.



A Ticking Time Bomb

Africans expected from the democratization not only a greater political participation but, above all, a way out of the poverty trap. Admittedly, the simultaneously by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund pursued forced liberalisation of the economy released a certain economic dynamism. But essentially only a small elite benefited of it, whereas the mass especially of the rural population visibly became impoverished. The youth saw no opportunities in agriculture and streamed by the thousand into the cities. Within 10 years Nairobi's population grew from 1.9 to 3.5 million.

In order to understand the force of the first outbreaks of violence you must know that 60 percent of Nairobi's inhabitants live in slums. Since these are seen as "Squatters", as illegal settlements by the city administration, slums appear in the Nairobi city plan only as blank spaces. The city fathers do not feel obligated to guarantee a basic supply of water and electricity. A sewage system does not exist, so that the mud paths in the slums become cesspits. Two million people live there. When the media daily report on how their politicians raise their own diets, build dream villas next to the slums, and treat themselves to a fleet of most expensive luxury limousines, this meets with the indignation of the poor - especially within the army of unemployed youths who see for themselves no prospects for the future. "Nairobi's slums are the largest of the African continent and full of young people. They are unemployed and have no training (...) and the feeling to have no future", Kenya's Nuncio, Archbishop Alain Lebeaupin commented on the situation. Such young people are an easy prey for unscrupulous politicians, who recruit among them their tough gangs.

Raila Odinga in the election campaign succeeded in gaining status as the advocate of the poor, although he and the politicians around him have also not kept their hands clean. For the inhabitants of Nairobi's slums Odinga was nevertheless the embodiment of the hope that with his election victory at last something would happen to improve their living situation. When on 30 December Kibaki staged his electoral fraud all fuses were blown and - spurred on by Odinga - the pent-up rage of decades turned against his tribesmen, the Kikuyus. If a well-trained riot police had not kept in check the angry crowds with tear gas and live ammunition, half Nairobi on Sylvester would have become a giant firework.


Soil has in Africa an almost Mystical Value

For Africans the soil on which they live is more than an economic resource. Soil is closely linked with one's own identity, with the ancestors, with security. Since soil has an almost mystical value, land conflicts are settled with great passion and are of a tragic importance in Kenya's history.



The independence struggle was so cruel because the white settlers had taken the best land away from the Kikuyus and Kalenjins. The post-colonial politicians often did not return the colonial land to the original owners, but appropriated the large farms and over the decades further land. The land issue becomes still more complicated by different common laws.

Traditionally land is no private property but is owned by the community. Modern legislation makes land a commercial commodity, which can be bought and sold by individuals. Often a corrupt upper class appropriated communal land through bribery of the traditional Chiefs, formally legally, but illegally in the understanding of the local population. In addition the since ancient times countless land conflicts exist between nomadic pastoral peoples, which know neither borders nor landed property (our country is where grass is for our livestock) and the farmers who must defend their crops against the herds freely moving around.

Kenya's population increased from 2000 to 2007 from 30 to 35 million. The tremendous population pressure and the fact that only 18 percent of Kenya's land are fully usable as farmland, makes the land issue even more serious. So it is not surprising that "land clashes" just in the context of elections always come up, also in the chaos of January 2008. The collapse of public order offers the opportunity to settle old accounts and to drive away by force the "foreigners" who have appropriated the land of the ancestors. Rightly the Archbishop of Mombassa, Boniface Lele called the land issues the cause of many ethnic clashes since 1990 and called for "a clear land policy taking into account historical injustices".


The Voting out of the Moi Regime was a Democratic Revolution

That the Moi regime in 2003 was voted out was a democratic revolution. The ruling party KANU and its superannuated politicians (Politikgreise) saw themselves in the "rainbow coalition" confronted with a revolt of the younger generation and of discontented ex-ministers. The old Mwai Kibaki was for the Kikuyu politicians the right man. As former Vice-President he had under Moi very early moved to the opposition. With his age and a poor health he served as the ideal figurehead and could easily be manipulated by the younger Kikuyu politicians. While Raila Odinga, who had for five years studied engineering in Magdeburg, was the undisputed champion of the Luo and had strong support in the slums of Nairobi.

Kibaki and Raila agreed on a power-sharing after the election: with Mwai Kibaki as President and Raila Odinga on the newly created post of Prime Minister. The plan worked out and Moi was ousted from office. You could have talked of a victory of democracy, if Kibaki had not cancelled his agreement with Odinga, denied a constitutional amendment, and launched his own Kikuyu clique, the so-called "Mount Kenya Mafia", into the important positions. That Kibaki at that time tricked his rival Odinga lets understand why he does not want to get once more involved in a "grand coalition" with Kibaki.


One could have spared Kenya much Violence

In the election campaign the Kibaki-Odinga coalition had declared war on Kenya's bottomless corruption. But once in power the "Rainbow" politicians carried on worse than all their predecessors. Threats with the monitory finger on the part of the "donor community" were as a rule defused by a further investigating committee, the results of which as a rule were never published. Massive corruption does not allow the men behind Kibaki to give up the control of power. They risk to be held responsible for misappropriation of government funds.

On 27 December 2007 the Kenyans stood in a well-disciplined way like Prussians lined up in formation in front of the polling-stations and waited many hours in order to put their ballot paper into the ballot box. Representatives of all the parties were present, both during the electoral process and the vote count. That is election fraud at the local level was relatively difficult. The people on the spot knew the results in their constituency.

On the day after the election Nairobi was deserted. The whole nation looked spellbound at radios and TVs and cheered each time when another corrupt politician fell victim to the ballot. Raila's candidates had won a majority in parliament. Then the coup happened. When the opposition candidate Raila Odinga was slightly in the lead the counting was stopped, a news blackout imposed, and the head of the Electoral Commission was forced to pronounce Mwai Kibaki as winner. The Attorney-General was also on the spot in order to swear him in at once.

Technically, that was a coup dīétat without bloodshed or a civil putsch - as the former Secretary of State in the Federal Ministry for Development and Cooperation (Bundesministerium für Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit BMZ), Uschi Eid called it.



When the head of the Election Commission then still said that he actually knew exactly who had won the election, it was obvious for everybody what had happened. The head of the EU election observers, Alexander Graf von Lambsdorff, could also only bring himself to speak of "irregularities", and the renowned BBC repeates like a mantra that it was Raila, who felt cheated out of his victory. If Kibaki's government had immediately been declared illegal and massive pressure had been put on him, Kenya would probably have been spared much violence. But we must not overlook that many Kenyans, politicians, businessmen and ordinary citizens applied all their energies to check the violence, to restore the respect among the ethnic communities, and to succour the victims of the riots.


The Voice of the Church Remained Weak

In this most serious political crisis since the Mau Mau rebellion the voice of the churches remained weak, hesitant and divided - though the Catholic Church in Kenya has strongly been politically committed since the beginning of the democratization process. In regular pastoral letters the bishops repeatedly analysed the state of the nation, criticized the government, and spoke up for a new constitution which would have granted less power of disposal to the President and more to the Parliament. With elections the churches established joint programmes for a democratic education of the citizens and trained and deployed thousands of election observers.

Why, then, did it take the bishops so long to react to a national crisis? Why did they not find the right words to give in concrete terms a clear political orientation? Why did Nairobi's new Archbishop, Cardinal John Njue, think he had to congratulate the usurper? These are painful questions.

One reason is certainly that the Bishops' Conference too is not unanimous. Even bishops are subject to the temptation to identify with their ethnic groups, and to forget the criteria for a reasonably objective analysis. At the end they agreed on appeals to stop the violence and on pious exhortations to sit down at one table, but without clearly stating the injustices on both sides.

Unfortunately the change at the head of the Church's leadership occurred at the time of the elections. The press commented on the different statements of the old and the new Archbishop of Nairobi about a much discussed theme of the election campaign: "Majimboism", the question of how far a new constitution should be designed in a centralised or federal way. The outgoing Archbishop Mwana N'zeki declared himself in favour of federalism, a position that is also held by Raila Odinga's ODM. When in an interview shortly after his inauguration Cardinal John Njue supported the opposite political position this was interpreted by many Kenyans as attempt to influence the party political scene.

After other church dignitaries too had party-politically positioned themselves, the church was by many Kenyans no longer seen as a neutral authority and lost much of its moral authority. Late calls went unheard in the storm of violence. The same is also true for other churches. In an analysis of the ecumenical All Africa Church Council (AACC) we read: "In the perception (of the public) some, if not most of the church leaders had identified with positions of political parties and so robbed the church of its authoritative, collective and independent moral voice, which could have kept up the concern of peace and national unity."

As so often, the strength of the church is with the ground troops, and less in the leadership guard. Catholic parishes and institutions became shelters for the thousands of people who had to flee from the violence. Parishes spontaneously give first aid; the Caritas supported them. In Nairobi a team of trauma healers forms, who listen to the internal refugees, give consolation and relieve first needs. Buildings are destroyed, the material damage is enormous, but it will take longer to heal the mental wounds and to restore a basic trust in fellow citizens of the other ethnic group. And just there the Church faces a huge task.


The Beginning of a Civil War Cannot be Ruled Out

Comparisons with Rwanda are inappropriate - despite the 1000 dead and a quarter million internal refugees. But if the tensions continue to escalate the beginning of a civil war cannot be ruled out. Apart from the countless human tragedies an internal war would set back the country for decades. Already now the tourism industry has come to a standstill, and also the neighbouring countries, which are supplied through the port of Mombassa, are severely affected. Western threats to end the development aid are ineffective. For China is in the background, which would so much like to exploit the recently discovered oil fields before the Kenyan coast and in principle does not interfere in internal problems of its partners (see HK, February 2007, 104ff.).

So you can only hope that the international mediation efforts after many failures in the end reach a political compromise that must include a firmly guaranteed power-sharing and in the end also new elections. But power is a more dangerous drug than heroin or alcohol. And already many a power addicted politician has driven his country into ruin.


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born in 1938) is since 2001 head of the Network Africa Germany in Bonn ( From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).


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