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February 17, 2019

Zimbabwe and Kenya are cut from the same cloth

Zimbabwe is emerging from a closely fought election, and a post-election crisis has emerged, which pretty much reflects our Kenyan situation last year. At the centre of the crisis is the ageing Emmerson Mnangagwa and the youthful Nelson Chamisa, who are fighting a bitter inter-generational electoral war in a nation torn apart by great inequalities.

Protesters engaged police and the army in running battles in Harare and some have been killed, bringing in memories of Kenya’s post-poll crisis last year that pushed to country to the brink of collapse. This has brought to question perceptions of power, electoral transition and democracy in Africa, and what really causes us to fight after elections.


There are many ways in which Zimbabwe and Kenya are similar. In fact, if Kenya had a twin sister, it would be Zimbabwe. Historically, both were the only two British settler colonies in Africa. Uganda and Tanzania, Malawi and even Zambia were not settler colonies.

Although the White minority got self-rule in Zimbabwe by 1923, Victor Cavendish, the 9th Earl of Devonshire, saved Kenya from a similar fate by declaring that this was a Black man’s country.

Cecil Rhodes began the British colonisation of Zimbabwe through his charter company, the British South Africa Company, and we, too, in Kenya got colonised through William McKinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company. African resistance led by Lobengula of the Ndebele and Koitalel of the Nandi stood in the way of the colonials but their defeat paved way for massive European settlement. The settlers took the choicest lands and left the rest for the Africans who were forced to work for them through punitive taxes and bad laws.

At Kenya’s independence, most of the whites sold their land and fled to Zimbabwe. Still alive in my home village is Ndereba araap Ng’asura, a driver in his youth who took by road departing Kenya settlers to Zimbabwe and South Africa and knows both countries quite well.

Just like Kenya, Zimbabwe began the struggle for independence that became a bitter tussle between the ruling White minority and the disenfranchised African majority. Independence eventually came after a bloody war – theirs was Chimurenga, while ours was Mau Mau. The Independence parties Zanu and ours Kanu did not require much creativity.


Then they had Robert Mugabe, who would not leave power, while we had Daniel Moi, who came to power around the same time and stayed long. Both oversaw the transition to pluralism but retained power through their strong Independence parties and state-led manipulation and disorientation of the opposition.

They had Morgan Tsvangirai and we had Raila Odinga and, in many ways, ODM was really MDC by another name. Both men won bitterly contested elections but did not rule their countries.

Both entered into a government of national unity becoming Prime Minister but with mixed fortunes in their tenure and leaving rather disillusioned. Yes, Zimbabwe is Kenya’s twin sister, same mother and, I dare say, same father. Moi and Mugabe thrived on the politics of fear and repressions. They had a strong ethnic bent in a dire effort to preserve power. Many lost lives in the clamour for more freedoms and pluralism. It was difficult to remove Moi from power until he had to go, and Mugabe, on the other hand, could have easily ‘won’ this week’s poll to extend his hold on power.


Just like Kenya, Zimbabwe is in the middle of a post-election standoff that has caused loss of life and property. After ruling the nation for close to four decades, the military moved in and led a bloodless coup to oust the ageing Robert Mugabe.

The November 2017 coup saw the rise of former Vice President Mnangagwa to the highest office. Requiring international legitimacy, he accepted to hold elections this year as scheduled.

However, the emergence of Chamisa, who was only in his diapers when Mugabe took power, grew up and led the struggle against Mugabe, has brought in sharp focus on the role of elections in Africa and whether we can ever have a peaceful plebiscite and whether we can concede defeat quietly. It is difficult to see the Zimbabwe issue differently from what we went through last year.

Experts can’t agree why exactly we have post-election violence in African nations. Some have opined that the entrenched politics of patronage worsened by what Dr Nic Cheeseman calls ‘clientelism’ are to blame for violence.

Cheeseman (2015) defines political clientelism as the exchange of resources, jobs, or gifts for political support. State power is seen as a means of accessing all these particularly for oneself and members of their ethnic community.

Moi perfected clientelism and in Zimbabwe, his counterpart Mugabe did so too. Both believed in party loyalty and through it one got into the goodies of government. This increased the feeling of exclusion and marginalisation by some, leading to frustrations when elections do not deliver the anticipated changes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe and Kenya are founded on delicate ethno-political balances and the holder of power has a difficult task in managing expectations from government. Then there is the place of corruption and its ability to choke opportunities for the youth drawing them to the streets.


Both Kenya and Zimbabwe have lots of natural resources. However, poor management led to continued social inequalities and wide disparities between the rich and the poor. Besides, the economy of Zimbabwe is beginning to re-awaken after being in the doldrums for so long.

Elections are therefore seen as a means by the poor to change their circumstances but for the holders of power and the patronage networks entrenched in the corridors of power, the people will never have their way. The outcomes are almost always easy to predict, and violence is the only method of expressing frustration.

It is turning out that the removal of Mugabe has created a false dawn for the people of Zimbabwe. The networks he had weaved to keep himself in power only gave way to remove him but quickly resealed to maintain their hold on power.

I personally did not mind Mugabe, despite what many thought of him. He had the spirit of Sekou Toure, who would rather live poor in dignity than to kowtow to imperialist forces of former colonial rulers who are themselves part of the problem the country is facing.

SToure famously said: “We, for our part, have a first and indispensable need, that of our dignity. Now, there is no dignity without freedom.... We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in slavery.”

Increasingly, this is the position that we as Africans need to take with regard to the Western neo-colonialism and now the Chinese economic imperialism. Mugabe caused the British much agony and did not understand why they had so much interest in his country. He famously told off Tony Blair by reminding him that the affairs of the British should be of greater importance to him than those of Zimbabwe.

In the same way Mugabe stood up to the West, our neighbour Rwanda is courageously standing up to the United States over the importation of second-hand clothes, which they banned. To punish them, the US suspended Rwanda from AGOA and other sanctions could be near.

Mugabe stood up to the West and they created sanctions against him that led his economy into a free-fall. To this day, they do not have a national currency having suffered massive de-monetarisation and the resultant poverty.

The heightened anxiety around elections as a means of change is, therefore, understandable and violence in this circumstances would almost certainly follow! Do we then say the people are bad or it is the system that causes them to behave that way?


Colonial land appropriation programmes and even now British multi-national firms and nationals of British descent continue to hold massive land perpetuating the inequalities that breed violence.

While on a visit to Huntingdon in the English heartland of Cambridgeshire, I met a middle-aged British man who had been born in Zimbabwe. As I got to know him better, he told me his father was born in Kenya and left for Zimbabwe in 1963 and he was born there five years later.

His farm in Zimbabwe, however, came under the Mugabe-led seizures and he had to leave for England. In many ways, the prosperity of England was led by its colonial enterprise and if they are today a leading nation in the world, they owe much of that to what they gleaned from the rest of the world in an exploitative empire that left behind lots of unresolved atrocities.

As this man spoke to me in less than glowing terms about Mugabe, I kept thinking about Lobengula and the Ndebele who died trying to prevent the British from taking over their land. Or my own Kalenjin, who, under Koitalel, violently resisted the British, leading to their brutal deaths.

In many ways, my British friend’s socialisation blinded him from what it took for his family to own land in both Kenya and in Zimbabwe. Who will speak for Lobengula and Koitalel? Who will speak for Joshua Maiyo’s grandfather, who was shot in the leg in 1906 by the British and driven of his land with the bullet in his leg for life?

I firmly believe the Colonial legacy of inequality and injustice, particularly with regard to land, led Mugabe to behave the way he did. Even now, the ordinary Zimbabwean does not have much but if you begin to look keenly, you will see the hand of Britain’s colonial legacy very close to his woes.

The story is the same in Kenya. Giant social and economic disparities created by the colonial enterprise and bequeathed to us at Independence persist and today have conspired to make our elections a violent affair. Zimbabwe like Kenya is only following the script that was written when the Union Jack swirled its colours under the African sun.

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