KENYA: Parliament Calms Post-election Conflicts
Thomas Cromwell

News from Kenya has not been good. A December 30 election that was supposed to cement the country’s position as an African leader in democracy, degenerated into riots and killings when the victory claimed by incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was challenged by his opponent, Raila Odinga. Some 600 people have died in the election’s violent aftermath, and some 250,000 have been displaced from their homes.

In an interview with DiplomaticTraffic, Kenya’s ambassador to Washington, Peter Ogego, shared his thoughts on the causes of the post-election conflict and the impact the troubles are likely to have on his country’s future. He spoke to us on January 17, shortly after Kenya’s parliament had voted in a speaker from the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), for the moment putting an end to the worst of the crisis and calming nerves in Kenya and abroad.

Ambassador Ogego pointed out that because the leaders of both parties, President Kibaki and Mr. Odinga, were present at the parliamentary vote, and “all MPs took the oath,” that the situation in Nairobi was finally calming down.

He noted that opposition rallies were continuing, but “they are not very massive” and were being perpetrated primarily by “youthful gangs.”

A stronghold of the ODM is the territory of western Kenya which is home to the Luo people. They have been most vocal in criticizing the election results, claiming that their right to a turn in power was being denied to them through voter fraud.

Fortunately, it is only the presidential election that is being contended. ODM won 99 seats in parliament, to 43 for the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU), in what most observers agree was a fair election. This enabled the parliament to act as a force for reconciliation, even though it took three rounds of voting to select a speaker, mainly because the PNU candidate was supported by other parties.

Kenyan politics in this election cycle fell afoul of ethnic and tribal divisions in the country, which is home to some 40 distinct groups. (Unlike Tanzania and Zambia, whose governments after independence promoted intermarriage among these groups as official policy, Kenya has let intermarriage take place as it will.)

“Politicians are trying to manipulate ethnic and tribal feelings,” Ambassador Ogego explained. He said it is not that the people themselves are angry at Kibaki’s record, for he has presided over a significant economic turnaround for Kenya (see our earlier interview with Ambassador Ogego: http://diplomatictraffic.com/highlights_archives.asp?ID=172).

He noted that this semester will see secondary education provided free to all Kenyans, yet another step in the program of reform and change initiated by Kibaki. (These successes have been tempered by claims of rampant corruption, an accusation that continues to highlight the weak point of the Kibaki administration.)

Ambassador Ogego noted that the political class is playing on ethnic and tribal sentiments to whip up support for their ambitions to power. But their rabble-rousing rhetoric is left at the door when they enter parliament. “When they are in parliament, they are fine… they hug each other,” the ambassador said.

He noted that the political leaders come from a well-to-do political class that has prospered in recent years.

He also said that threats from the European Union to cut off aid to Kenya after the elections were driven by vested interests, and not disagreement over government policies.

But Kenya cannot afford to continue to undergo the sort of turmoil it has experienced in recent weeks. The ambassador said it would be one of the top priorities of the new parliament to fix the election process itself, to avoid opportunities for manipulation of the vote and claims of fraud.

“A major task of the parliament should be to review the election process,” he said. In many respects, the campaign itself set the stage for the post-election troubles, as candidates played to divisive passions. “That grandstanding carried over into the election,” the ambassador said.

In fact the seeds for trouble were sown when a November 2005 referendum for changes to the constitution was defeated by the ODM, the ambassador said. (For information on the disputed issues, see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4438976.stm.)

“In the referendum we had as a nation a good chance once and for all to lay the foundation for a modern Kenya,” the ambassador said.

Fortunately, the ambassador said, religion has not been a factor in the conflict. He said the Muslim-Christian divide in Kenya does not closely follow ethnic or tribal lines, and hence was not something that became a vehicle to increase conflict.

The ambassador said that support from Washington and America in general has been significant. “We have been overwhelmed by the amount of very positive concern and sympathy,” he said.

He said, “It is amazing how many people know the country, have been to Kenya and love the country.” Many of these friends were “shocked” by what happened to Kenya, and their response has been to offer assistance.

“We are very grateful,” the ambassador said.