The Big Question: What's gone wrong in Kenya, and is the peace deal unravelling?

Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Wednesday 17 February 2010 01:00

Why are we asking this now?

Kenya's President, Mwai Kibaki, and Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, have had a very public falling out over the latter's attempt to suspend two cabinet ministers suspected of involvement in serious corruption. The duelling partners in Kenya's peculiar power-sharing government have been squabbling nearly constantly since their shotgun marriage in early 2008. The newspapers in Nairobi chart the daily theatre of scandals, arguments and reconciliations in the bloated unity government.

But this time it's serious. Mr Odinga suspended two cabinet heavyweights on Sunday over corruption investigations but was almost immediately over-ruled by the president, who accused him of over-stepping his authority. The prime minister has responded by calling for the return of peace envoy Kofi Annan and threatening to boycott cabinet meetings.

How did Kenya arrive at a power-sharing government?

As 2007 became 2008 the island of stability in the Horn of Africa slid to the brink of civil war. A crudely rigged election divided the country along ethnic lines and in the bloodbath that followed as many as 1,500 people are thought to have died.

Mr Odinga appeared to have beaten the incumbent Mwai Kibaki comfortably in the December poll but electoral authorities cut short the count and announced the sitting president the winner. While rival gangs fought and died in the city slums and the towns of the Great Rift Valley, the political elite stage-managed the chaos, distributing arms and cash to strengthen their own positions at the bargaining table. The fighting was stopped after marathon peace talks brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan. The deal saw both sides join an expanded government committed to a raft of reforms and a proper investigation into the fighting.

What's happened to that investigation?

A report identifying the culprits was promptly drawn up and handed to the government to establish a local tribunal to try the suspects. That tribunal was blocked last year by Kenya's parliament in a blatant example of looking after their own, with several members reportedly on the list.

Mr Annan has instead handed the Waki Report to the International Criminal Court in The Hague which is now deciding whether to proceed to indictments. At least two current cabinet ministers are believed to be among the "architects of the post-election violence" being sought by the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has vowed to make an example of Kenya.

What are the allegations?

Grand corruption has blighted East Africa's biggest economy from the Goldenberg scandal of the 1990s, which cost the country at least 10 per cent of GDP, to the Anglo Leasing affair during the first term of President Kibaki. The latest graft scandals are equally venal with US$26m disappearing in a maize scam that stole food from the mouths of starving Kenyans; the other saw up to US$1m embezzled at the education ministry from funds meant to support free schooling for young children. As usual, investigations have been launched but neither agriculture minister William Ruto nor education minister Sam Ongeri saw fit to resign.

Is this about corruption?

While corruption is arguably the issue in Kenya it's not the reason that the unity government marriage is on the rocks. Behind the scenes it has become increasingly clear that an informal deal between the two protagonists – that Mr Kibaki would endorse Mr Odinga for the presidency at the next elections, expected in 2012, in return for his support now – has been reneged upon.

At the least, the prime minister would demand that the president not actively support anyone standing against him but it's now clear that will not happen either. The battle lines between Mr Kibaki's PNU party and Mr Odinga's ODM have been drawn and corruption happens to be the chosen issue.

Who are the opposing sides?

Afro-pessimists dismiss Kenya's politics as tribal and national polls have functioned as periodic ethnic censuses, but the reality is more complicated than that. Each election in Kenya is different and the alliances that win or lose them are shifting. Mr Odinga drew support last time by rallying Kenya's smaller tribes into an anti-Kikuyu bloc that sought to end the dominance of Kenya's largest tribe, of which Mr Kibaki is a member. The prime minister, who like Barack Obama's father hails from the Luo tribe, is fashioning a new alliance to break up the status quo and reshape it in his own favour. His main opponents look like being Mr Ruto, whose numerous Kalenjin tribe were previously allies, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the finance minister, Kikuyu millionaire and scion of the family that led Kenya at independence.

What is the PM up to?

While he comes from a political dynasty and has been steeped in high politics since birth, Mr Odinga is phenomenally adept at recasting himself as a man of the people. Throughout his career he has landed on the right side of the key issues – sometimes with the help of a complete U-turn – just at the right time. He appears to be doing so again. His advisers understand that the election in 2002 was about getting rid of the reviled Daniel arap Moi, who had overseen a brutal one-party state.

The 2007 poll, they know, was reduced to identity politics. Now, some analysts believe Mr Odinga is trying to shape the terms of the next vote and trying out issues like the environment, corruption and probably constitutional reform next to see what works. When that becomes clear he will likely resign from the government and campaign as the leader of the opposition.

How serious is the crisis?

While it is unlikely to prompt a return to street-fighting, the current impasse practically guarantees that nothing constructive will get done in Kenya before the next election. The East African nation has been ravaged by drought, its economy was pounded by the post election crisis and is only slowly recovering, and life for ordinary Kenyans is still appallingly hard.

Key reforms in the police, judiciary, constitution and economy that are widely understood to be vital will sit on the shelf. In a country with so vast an underclass as Kenya any assumption of stability is complacent. Because of the importance of its markets, ports and roads, when Kenya sneezes the entire region catches cold. Anything that hurts recovery in Nairobi will be felt from Rwanda to South Sudan.

Is Kenya increasingly a failed state?

This newspaper said as much in July last year after the country was listed by the US-based Fund for Peace as 14th from bottom of their failed states index. If a state exists to provide security, maintain its borders, provide food and a functioning judicial system, then Kenya presently fails on all those counts. Corruption watchdog Transparency International yesterday said Kenya was sliding towards failure and warned of "political meltdown".

The lack of serious weaponry for a sustained civil war means it doesn't resemble a failed state like its neighbours Somalia or Sudan, but guns are not in short supply in the region. Many believe that the international community's investment in Nairobi, which is the regional hub for aid agencies, the UN and Western diplomatic missions, makes the state too big to fail.

But those institutions were, almost without exception, blind-sided by the post-election killing spree and powerless to do much about it. Kenya could be coming apart at the seams or simply getting ready for the next election campaign – or both simultaneously.

Is Kenya on the verge of political meltdown?


* The African vogue for unity governments has been an unqualified failure as Kenya and Zimbabwe show

* The political parties are nothing more than tribal gangs building up war chests for the next round

* Failure to prosecute the architects of the post-election violence has reinforced the dangerous impunity


* Kenya has been to the brink and has neither the guns nor the appetite for a fresh fight

* Kenyans have seen through the ethnic politics after seeing the unity government united in greed

* The next election campaign has begun and a free and fair vote is the only solution to a flawed government

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