Election season in Kenya started in January when the Jubilee and URP parties announced that they were merging into the Jubilee Alliance Party. This announcement caught observers by surprise. Many were impressed that the leadership of the two parties had managed to keep the machinations behind the merger secret for so long. It demonstrated cohesion and discipline. However, before long it became apparent that JAP was not an idea born of wide consultation and quickly ran into choppy political waters. It has additionally become clear that on the political front the strategy is to hold to power by any means necessary, primarily to loot public coffers and avoid accountability. In this context tactics change every day.
In 2005, the Kibaki administration faced a constitutional referendum that it lost heavily. This was not because Kenyans opposed the new constitution but rather that the opposition as it was constituted then mobilised to ‘punish’ the President and elite around him for reneging on a number of promises made prior to the 2002 election.
First, was to form a tribally inclusive regime; second was a promise contained in a Memorandum of Understanding that would have seen Raila Odinga appointed Prime Minister. Both promises were broken immediately and the bad blood infected the Narc administration right up to the fiercely, violent-rigged election of 2007. Kibaki had proven himself an able economic manager but a disastrous nation builder. Kenya emerged from the 2008 near meltdown with its collective nerves frayed and the sense of exceptionalism that said meltdowns that had afflicted other African countries in the past did not happen in Kenya, was gone forever.
The run-up to that referendum in 2005 saw some of the most virulent campaigning in our country’s history. Political leaders mobilised along tribal lines in the most parochial manner they could muster. Their language was full of violent threats and fulminations in the vernacular that were pregnant with narratives of ethnic cleansing and genocidal proclivities. The language of war in Africa imitates the culture of the political tribesman vomiting the hatred. Agriculturalists talk of ‘weeding’ farms; pastoralists hint at ‘driving away’ unwanted vermin and clearing cattle routes that have been blocked, etc.
The next time we saw this kind of talk was in the run-up to the 2007 election, which collapsed into a near-death experience for Kenya. The international community led by Kofi Annan and the African Union jumped in to pull Kenya out of the fire leading to a government of national unity that held power until the last controversial election. Imagining that the International Criminal Court would take forever to charge anyone, the elite, genuinely supported by the majority of Kenyans, chose to take the crimes committed by leaders at that election to the ICC. The court moved more quickly than anticipated, indicting key members of the elite and forcing them to remobilise their tribal troops against the very institution they had screamed support for saying, “Don’t be vague, let's go to The Hague”. More sober minds and advice not to go down this route were set aside.
Partly as a result of the ‘ICC effect’ on our politics and a massive mobilisation by the private sector, churches, civil society, media and international community for a peaceful election – the 2013 poll, though extremely tense, was pulled off with relatively little violence.
It is 2015 and ‘the ICC effect’ has waned. Our elite has shown it can ruthlessly manipulate an international judicial process – “the thing can be managed”, as one told me, “ICC has become like HIV, it’s just a chronic illness”. Partly as a result of this but also because the Jubilee regime spent its first year intensely rallying the African Union and other international friends against the ICC, even President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan – also an ICC indictee - whose travels before 2013 were limited to nearby countries ran by autocrats, can increasingly crisscross parts of the globe that seemed out of reach just a couple of years ago.
On the home front, the season of reckless, tribal, inciteful and venomous talk is upon us again as if the ICC never happened. On October 10, the former Mayor of Nairobi and chairman of the ODM party in the city was filmed making the wild statement essentially that people should be ready for blood to flow for Raila to become President. On October 25, the Governor of Kiambu, ostensibly defending the President’s honour, essentially declared readiness for battle. He then went on to describe how the foreskin reduces ones IQ in language that has profound vernacular and cultural resonance!
Both politicians have been charged but their confidence is indicative of the fact that deep down they know they are speaking the real language of the political season that is upon us and to their respective bases. They are clearly not conversant with the idiom: “Beware what you wish for.” It is the tongue and not guns that start wars and our leaders are demonstrating an irresponsible recklessness with the future peace and stability of Kenya.
John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. Email: [email protected]