Kenya is the wrong example

I am one of many Kenyans shocked to learn that Zimbabweans are looking at recent events in my country as a possible way to approach an election outcome they may not like in their own country’s elections at the end of the month.

I suppose, given the state of Zimbabwe, which has been ruled by the last of Africa’s Big Men for close to three decades, its citizens are beginning to believe that “doing a Kenya” is the only way to bring about fundamental change.

Some have argued that a country has to go through violent conflict in order to emerge as a better nation.
Shortly after the violence broke out in many parts of my country, I attended a meeting in Dar es Salaam where participants seriously debated whether the violence that Kenyans experienced in the weeks following the elections was a necessary prelude to fundamental reforms.

A stunned delegate from Rwanda was even asked whether the genocide in Rwanda had been worth it as it had paved the path to a more democratic and open society based on progressive, egalitarian laws. He responded by saying that the price Rwanda had paid for its democracy was too high—not just because of the high cost of reconstruction, but because it was paid in the blood of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and -women.

When churches and houses were burnt in Kenya, the international media were quick to make comparisons with Rwanda. They often referred to what was happening as “ethnic cleansing”. But ethnic explanations for conflict in Africa obscure the root causes of our problems: historical injustices perpetuated by post-colonial governments whose laws and habits are inherently elitist.

It is now no secret that, despite its reputation as a peace-loving nation, Kenya is deeply divided ethnically and economically. It ranks among the top five most unequal countries on the continent. Nairobi’s deeply deprived slums border on some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Africa. Inequalities manifest themselves at all levels—in income, in employment and in access to land and housing.

The constitutional, legal and institutional reforms needed to reverse these trends were never instituted, not even after Kenyans peacefully voted out their own Big Man, Daniel arap Moi, in 2002. These inequalities have become worse under successive regimes, and often have ethnic dimensions.

As elections in 2002 did not bring about reform, it has been argued that violence became necessary this time around. It is tempting, too, to believe that without the violence which engulfed Kenya in recent months, the two leaders, Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki, might never have agreed to form a coalition government or pursue constitutional changes.

But when all is said and done, it was not the blood and tears of the Kenyan people that brought Odinga and Kibaki together. It wasn’t the deaths of more than 1 200 people or the hardship endured by the 300 000 internally displaced, it was international pressure from Western governments and foreign donors that played the biggest role.

These outside pressures were intense—not because foreign governments were deeply moved by the violence and its aftermath, but because Kenya is strategically important to them. The crisis in Kenya has the potential to spill over into all of East Africa and the Horn, regions which depend on the port of Mombasa as a crucial transport link.

The United States considers Kenya a useful ally in its war against terror. Its borders include Somalia and Sudan, two countries that have been thorns in the side of the US government for more than a decade. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is landlocked, and has no significant ally among the world’s most powerful nations.

Nor, since the end of apartheid in South Africa, can Zimbabwe—mired in economic collapse—be said to have much strategic importance. It has no oil and relatively small reserves of other minerals. A violent civil war there might attract concern—even, but improbably, intervention—by Britain, South Africa or the African Union. But such turmoil will barely elicit a yawn from the US or continental Europe.

Even if, by some miracle, the world did unite to liberate a strife-torn Zimbabwe, the price of violence would be too high. It would take years to recover. Kenya’s two months of violence not only cost lives but hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues, destroyed property and jobs. The first week of violence alone is estimated to have cost the country $1-billion.

Tourism, one of Kenya’s biggest income earners, dropped dramatically as bookings were cancelled and holiday-makers left in droves. Inflation soared as vital road links were cut, making it difficult for farmers to reach markets. Flower farms located in the worst-hit areas failed to send roses to Europe in time for Valentine’s Day. Exports collapsed. Seven landlocked neighbouring countries suffered severe shortages.

The real cost of the crisis was borne by the people of Kenya, who are still reeling from the trauma. Ethnic militia groups killed or forcibly evicted people from their homes and neighbourhoods. The incidence of rape is believed to have tripled in the months of January and February, with the majority of victims under the age if 18. Some of these groups are still operating in parts of the country.

Almost every Kenyan has been affected. We all know someone who was killed, raped, maimed or made homeless during the mayhem. Our nation has been traumatised: it will take us a long time to trust again. If that is the price of freedom and democracy, it is a price many Kenyans are not willing to pay again. Zimbabweans should take note.

Rasna Warah is an editor with the United Nations and columnist for Kenya’s Daily Nation. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the UN

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