Time to stop play-acting nationhood

My country is in turmoil. We voted on December 27 and the voting process was the most peaceful in our history. The voter turnout was higher than ever. For the past few years, the most disenfranchised—the poor, those far from the metropoles, the youth—have registered to vote.

There has been a sense, across Kenya, that unprecedented things will happen. That old powers will be removed, that one’s vote has power.

But like South Africa in the Nineties, all these aspirations have been carried in an old and leaky political structure. We have all known this, since the Nineties, when we started to agitate for a true multiparty democracy. In 2002 we deliberately voted for a coalition of parties so they could shepherd us through the process of change. We wanted a new constitution, a more decentralised economy, a more accountable government. These aspirations were dashed as the coalition fell apart. Raila Odinga, became the leader of one faction and Mwai Kibaki, the president, became the leader of another. The bad blood began because there was a sense—among most people who were not Gikuyu—that Mwai Kibaki had hijacked the country and broken the promises in the memorandum of understanding that Kenyans had pinned their hopes on.

Things did not get out of hand at the time because Kibaki’s technocrats began to deliver a functional government and the constitution was still being negotiated. The economy was growing.

But, then already, Kibaki would show the tendency to put his head in the sand, as he is doing now. A kitchen Cabinet developed around him with the growth of power blocs more hardline than he was. Only cosmetic changes were made to stem corruption.

Kibaki was clearly uninterested in rocking the national boat. He had a referendum, a rather mean-spirited one, for a constitution—and the majority of the country voted NO. He realised suddenly that he had alienated a large part of the country and that the Kikuyu were mostly isolated behind him.

Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) moved in to fill the gap and began to present themselves as the People’s Party. Part of his motives were equally cynical. He too, after all, is like Kibaki, a member of one of the dynastic families who have ruled us since the Sixties.

Fast forward. Six days after the voting began Kibaki has locked himself inside State House with his cronies, too terrified to stand up and say anything meaningful to stem the violence. They, and the Gikuyu, have become the immovable object to Odinga’s irresistible force. The country is divided 50-50, and no one will give.

Although Kibaki was sworn in as president half the country has refused to accept him. Both he and Raila have decided to wait and see who will blink first: Raila has the baying crowds on his side, and Kibaki has the instruments of the state.

Both are banking on the fact that they can stop the violence when the other blinks.

The problem is that if the violence continues into the weekend, they will both have lost control. The police and army may split into their respective sides, especially if there is silence from State House, and if State House continues to be perceived as a Gikuyu Nation defending itself—turning itself into an Israel facing the Orange.

ODM supporters are burning killing and looting Gikuyu and other property across the country. Gikuyus are preparing to retaliate. On Thursday, Nairobi was dead silent.

The political cynicism on both sides has shocked us all and is the strongest fuel in the battles raging in many parts of Kenya.

The state as we know it has run out of steam.

The winner-takes-all Westminster system we have cannot carry our aspirations. As blood is shed in Eldoret, and Mombasa, Kenya’s various ethnicities are now stranded in their own paranoia for lack of a viable national structure and process.

Kenya is 45 years old this year. Like many nations, this is our moment of truth. There is a triumphant way out of this. Both leaders should act like statesmen, sit together and do what is necessary, legally, to have an interim power-sharing arrangement with the sole task of creating a structure that can carry us to a new election—with a new or amended constitution that ensures all minorities and interests are represented.

We are a strong economy on this continent. We have a well-trained army, police force and civil service. We have some of the most competent technocrats in any developing country. We even have a lot of goodwill across ethnic and class lines, and if we act now, things can get better quickly.

All the foreign correspondent hyperbole about “atavistic hatreds” and the like is not true.

We all want peace and all civil leaders should speak loudly to their constituencies. Baying from across the bridge does not do much.

Nations are forged through situations like this. Leaders are made. We have been play-acting nationhood.

Do we want to be a Kenyan nation? Do we really want this? The time has come to decide.

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