Stealing elections has been a common practice in Africa for more than 40 years. African presidents and the ruling elites that surround them have routinely colluded with loyal officials to stuff ballot boxes, intimidate opponents, distribute bribes, monopolise the state-run media, muzzle the independent press and manipulate the outcome, to ensure their grip on power. The spoils of office are too great to resist. Political power means personal wealth, contracts, quick profits and rewards for supporters. Time and again, African politics have been reduced to a game of winner-takes-all.
Kenya, so often spoken of as a model of stability, has been no exception. Its first President, Jomo Kenyatta, started the trend, favouring Kikuyu businessmen and allowing his inner circle of Kikuyu advisers to make fortunes; his young fourth wife, Ngina, became one of the richest individuals in the country, building a business empire that included plantations, ranches, property and hotels. When a populist politician, JM Kariuki, attacked the ruling elite "We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars" he was murdered on the orders of State House. Kenyatta's Luo opponents, led by Oginga Odinga, were also crushed.
Kenya's second President, Daniel arap Moi, plundered state funds at will to satisfy himself, his family and his entourage of Kalenjin cronies, accumulating over a period of 24 years a personal fortune estimated at $3bn. He maintained his grip on power by harassing and imprisoning dissidents, condoning torture, curtailing the autonomy of judges, turning the civil service into a party machine and allowing corruption to run rampant. A prominent Luo politician working on a dossier on high-level corruption was murdered. One of Moi's own ministers was implicated in the murder but he was released from arrest "for lack of evidence". Elections during Moi's tenure were little more than a sham. Only when Western donors insisted in 2002 that proper elections should be held was Moi obliged to stand down.
His successor, Mwai Kibaki, a veteran Kikuyu politician, spoke of inheriting "a country badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude" and pledged to root out corruption. "Corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya," he declared. But no sooner had Moi's inner circle of Kalenjin politicians departed the "Kabarnet Syndicate" as they were known than they were replaced by Kibaki's "Mount Kenya mafia" of Kikuyu politicians who moved swiftly to set up their own lucrative deals.
After little more than a year in office, the corruption had become so noticeable once more that it provoked the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, Edward Clay, to remark contemptuously that the names of honest ministers and senior officials in Kenya would fit on the back of a postage stamp. Clay accused the elite of gorging themselves on corruption until they "vomited over the shoes" of foreign aid donors.
While Kenya's rulers have wallowed in the trough of state funds and Western aid, the ranks of the poor have swollen into an army of discontent. Most Kenyans survive on $1 a day. Two-thirds of Nairobi's population live in fetid slums. The Luo of western Kenya feel especially aggrieved, having been excluded from power for 40 years.
In December's election campaign for both parliament and the presidency, the Luo politician Raila Odinga emerged as a self-proclaimed champion of the poor and other disaffected groups, vowing to get rid of the corrupt elite. The son of Oginga stood in a Nairobi constituency that includes the sprawling Kibera slum where one million people survive in shacks amid open sewers.
The result of the parliamentary elections showed how deep the well of disaffection was. Kibaki's cronies were thrown out by the score. Anti-Kibaki parties swept the board, with Odinga's party capturing 95 out of a total of 210 seats, making it the largest single party.
In the presidential race, Odinga won in six out of eight provinces. But, with unmistakable signs of rigging, Kibaki was declared the winner by 200,000 votes and sworn in for another five years.
The explosion of anger at a stolen election turned instantly into inter-tribal violence, mainly involving Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin. Even though large numbers of Kikuyus voted to oust Kibaki's corrupt cabal, Kikuyus in general, their property and businesses, became the target for revenge attacks. The scars of this violence will last for years.
The damage to Kenya's reputation will also be long-lasting. In one reckless manoeuvre, Kibaki has destroyed his country's record of political stability. In a region plagued by conflict, Nairobi has served as a haven for United Nations agencies, multinational companies, banks and a host of international organisations, gaining income and employment. Its spectacular wildlife parks, mountains, lakes and Indian Ocean beaches have attracted a million tourists a year. But even if Kenya's politicians manage to patch up a compromise, the country will no longer be regarded as such a reliable base for business and tourism.
Thus Kibaki, at the age of 76, joins a long list of ageing African leaders who have refused to submit to an orderly transfer of power, regardless of the disasters that ensue. It is an ominous start to the new year in Africa. Other elections are due that will be equally contentious. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, whose tyranny has led to economic ruin, has vowed that the opposition will never be allowed to win power in his lifetime. In Angola, where oil revenues have made the ruling elite one of the richest groups in Africa, they have no intention of letting anyone else near power.
All this poses serious dilemmas for the British government. Britain pumps vast sums into Africa each year to prop up a score of regimes, including Kenya. The aid is given in exchange for promises of good governance. Yet few African states keep up their end of the deal. Time and again, the economic potential of African states has been disrupted by the predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, as Kenya's example readily shows.
Martin Meredith is the author of 'The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence'. His most recent book is 'Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa'