Majimbo mania in Kenyan poll

Last week Kenya’s newly selected cardinal—and for reasons that are obscure to me, we have not had one in a while—came out to declare that the Catholic Church opposes majimboism.

To its supporters, majimboism is a kind of federalism; to its detractors it looks a lot like ethnic regionalism. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which is leading the polls ahead of Kenya’s December presidential election, has expressed its support for the majimbo system as a “devolution of power”.

And it has come to be, in a season of sudden and frequent coincidences of this nature, that our new cardinal is Gikuyu, and comes from the same district as the President, Mwai Kibaki, who is a Catholic.

We all reacted to the cardinal’s announcement with much surprise: it was tantamount to an announcement that God is against federalism.

Now the ODM presidential candidate is one Raila Odinga, who happens to be Luo. It could be said, with some mischief and some truth, that Kenya’s political poles are not left and right, but Gikuyu and Luo, with the rest of Kenya in between.

And since this announcement, a Catholic bishop from Luoland has denounced the cardinal’s statement.

The Lord indeed works in mysteriously convenient ways.

Kenya’s rich-poor gap is larger than South Africa’s. Larger, actually, than in any other African country. We are usually in the world’s top three. Our political administration is very centralised, and very little serious investment in infrastructure has taken place outside of Nairobi and the former white highlands. Western Kenya has been much ignored, and now they seem to have the numbers to say something strong about this.

In our Constitution, a president is about as powerful as a medieval king. President Kibaki’s new party has gathered around it the billionaire political families who fear what could be trying times ahead as a new generation of power brokers muscle their way to the .

Most Kenyans are aware of this, and this is partly why Raila Odinga is leading in the polls.

Paradoxically, in a survey that came out a few days ago, 68% of respondents rated the present government’s performance as above average. It got high marks for managing the economy, health and education. The economy is growing at about 7%. Nairobi is astonishingly clean. Poverty has fallen by 10% in the past five years. The stock market is on fire.

But more than 50% of Kenyans want Kibaki out.

Everyone in Kenya knows that there is a class of people, most of whose names we know, who are obscenely rich and stealing from us in both direct and subtle ways. Kibaki has not done anything useful to create the impression that this has stopped. Five years ago, most people were probably ready to let those who had stolen money in the past keep the lucre, provided Kibaki’s new government would make a clear break with that past by coming down hard on any new nonsense.

It soon became clear, however, that he was kind of hoping for the status quo to be maintained while making the economy work. Eat, but not too much. Wink wink. Perform well and I will close my eyes to some dipping.

Among the Kenyan middle classes, many of whom have been quite happy recipients of politically acquired wealth, the real offence of Daniel arap Moi was more about the incompetence of his eating. The Moi gang didn’t skim off the top—they dove into the trough! And soon enough there was nothing left for anyone else to eat.

And there is a fear of two terms. We tend to feel that we can manage a government, and most importantly, a president—for one five-year term under the present Constitution. But if he stays in, the fear is that he will get sticky and his kitchen cabinet, like all kitchens, will become harder to clean. We have been there before. We know that in a second term, much unapologetic eating will take place. There is nothing to lose.

It is not clear to me whether the ODM is sufficiently competent to maintain the country’s economic momentum. I suspect it might be, but I have my doubts. It has been making all sorts of unsustainable promises, suggesting that the economy will grow at 22% a year.

Its success will depend on the usually forgotten but increasingly important vote of the youth. More young people have registered to vote than ever before, which may be the real, hidden reason behind the ODM’s success.

Kibaki’s government has been good for those who already had a little: land, crops, property, jobs. Most people do not have any way in. It is these people—many of them youth and people removed from the economic centres—who are quite happy for the way things are structured to change dramatically, so that they can find a way to become Kenyans.

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