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May 26, 2018

Kenya's deep political divisions have never been more clear


It’s not often that something happens in Kenya which receives overwhelming praise globally, and yet is the subject of scorn and derision in some parts of the country.

But that is exactly what has happened over the decision by the Supreme Court to declare the August 8 presidential election null and void.

While the global consensus is that this decision was a landmark advance for democracy in Africa, locally, voices have been raised to denounce what they term as “a decision by four people to overthrow the sovereign will of the Kenyan people”.

And this open hostility towards Supreme Court judges is not just found among well-known extremists whose whole careers have been built on making outrageous statements in support of their political leader. Even mainstream pro-Jubilee political pundits and elected leaders have gone into contortions, trying to explain why this decision was a deep betrayal of the Kenyan people.

In some cases, these are leaders who just a few weeks ago, were urging the “losers” in the presidential election to put their case before the Supreme Court. Yet now that the decision has been made, they regard it as a “civilian coup”.

How do you explain this bizarre state of affairs?

Well, I was somewhat at a loss until I remembered something which made major global headlines back in late 1994, and all the way to early 1995. This was ‘The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson’, generally known as the OJ Simpson murder trial. This demonstrated in the most dramatic manner the power of preexisting narratives to influence how judicial outcomes will be understood and interpreted.

This spectacle, beamed live daily on CNN, this murder trial was about a rich and famous retired football star, the said OJ Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Among those of us who feverishly discussed “the trial of the century” here in Kenya, I seem to remember that the general assumption was that OJ was guilty (the point being, if he had not killed the two victims, then who did, (as he was the only viable suspect).

When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ came down from the jury, the great talking point from that trial was this: That the great majority of white Americans believed that OJ Simpson was guilty, and could hardly believe that he had been set free; while virtually all African Americans believed (as his defence had argued) that OJ had been framed by racist Los Angeles policemen, who could not bear the sight of a rich black man, who had so conspicuously married a beautiful white woman.

Apparently, despite the mass of evidence which pointed to OJ’s guilt, to most African Americans this was simply another example of a deeply racist white power structure determined to bring down a successful black man.

It is this kind of psychology that — in my view — explains the bitterness now being directed at the Supreme Court. What is “seen” depends largely on what was already believed.

For those who passionately support President Uhuru Kenyatta and “know” that he won that election, who dare not even contemplate the prospect that he might possibly lose in a free and fair election,no decision that invalidates his “victory” can be acceptable.

That, of course, is not the view of roughly half the country, who support the opposition NASA: they believe Uhuru was the beneficiary of the most blatant election rigging; and look forward to seeing him “lose again” on October 17.

And so, we head into the presidential rerun, as deeply divided as ever.

The only consolation here is that to remember that Americans continued living together in peace thereafter, despite the deep racial cleavages revealed by the OJ Simpson murder trial. Indeed, an African American was elected president roughly a decade later, by an overwhelmingly white electorate.

So maybe we Kenyans too can in time find a way to move beyond our toxic tribal stereotypes, which actually are the root cause of the campaign of vilification currently directed at the Supreme Court.


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