Earlier this week, on the eve of Madaraka Day, history paid Kenya another visit. Online photos of CORD principals, Raila Odinga and Moses Wetangula in a jovial meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, at State House, Nairobi caused a bit of a stir. But it shouldn’t have. As I explained last week, we have been here before.
Political crises have been a near-constant feature of Kenya’s post-colonial history, and especially since the agitation for electoral and constitutional reform began in the 1980s. Politicians have perfected the art of taking the country to the brink of the abyss of violence and anarchy and pulling back at the last minute. It is a callous calculation, where violence and death are used as negotiating tools. If, as Carl von Clausewitz asserted, “war is the continuation of politics by other means” in Kenya, crises and bloodshed signal not a breakdown of the political process, but how it is inaugurated.
The script is always the same: Opposition demands talks on reform or a redress of grievance. The government refuses. Demagogues on both sides polarize public opinion, mostly along ethnic lines. With few options, the opposition appeals to the street to force the government to give in. The street demonstrations are met with police violence and after enough Kenyans have bled and died, the government gives in and agrees to talks.
This is politics reduced to a staring contest, where the goal is not to avoid crises but to ignite them. It is a politics that is managed via crisis, in which Kenyan citizens are not the end, but as the means of contestation. It is a politics obsessed with the problems and welfare of politicians, not so much those of the people who are reduced to pawns in a game of elites.
There is no true animosity between the main protagonists, despite the hateful rhetoric employed to galvanize their supporters. In the end, the politicians remain friends and business colleagues and country club mates. The politics they have created and perfected eschews permanence and commitment, whether to principles, policies, friends or enemies. The only defining characteristic is ambition.
Of necessity, in rejecting permanence, it also rejects history. Who, after all, wants to be reminded of their hypocrisies? Or that their current BFF was the declared mortal enemy of all Kenyans in the last election cycle? In kowtowing to the politicians, Kenyan media also reflects much of this aversion to history and context. Political events and crises thus seem to spring out of nowhere, without history or context, and just as quickly disappear into nothingness without actual resolution once the politicians have gotten together to rearrange their seats at the table.
This is what is happening with the current dispute over the fate of the IEBC commissioners. Despite the fiasco witnessed in the 2013 election, there has been little discussion about it in the last three years. Neither the opposition nor the government have shown much interest in addressing the failures witnessed during the election or the problems highlighted by the subsequent petitions filed against the 2013 results, especially the petitions against the Presidential poll. Now, with just over a year to the election, precipitating a crisis appears the only means our politicians can imagine to address the issue.
Historical amnesia is apparent in the way they have proposed to drive the talks forward. Apparently, a deal has been reached in which each side will nominate five people to a 10-member committee, composed solely of Parliamentarians, to conduct the talks. This would be little more than a resurrection of the 1997 Inter Parties Parliamentary Group process which, as I discussed last week, then President Daniel Arap Moi used to blunt the push for reform by excluding all other interested players, especially those from civil society.
So today, as the country breathes a sigh of relief, the politicians have put yet another one over us. Once again they have successfully gotten us to bleed over their problems and ignore our own. No wonder they seemed so giddy at their State House get-together.