POLITICS: Battle lines are drawn
By Matthew Green
Published: June 13 2007 10:41 | Last updated: June 13 2007 10:41
President Mwai Kibaki may have failed to meet dizzy expectations generated at the last election, when voters kicked out a government for the first time since independence, but some policy successes, a better economy and a divided opposition could yet hand him victory.
Euphoric crowds invested Mr Kibaki with a status akin to saviour when he won a huge victory at the election in December 2002, promising to stamp out the graft and tribalism that had blighted one of Africa’s most promising economies.
Within a few years, the coalition that brought him to power had splintered, a British diplomat had accused “gluttonous” ministers of gorging on aid money, and the government looked increasingly like an ethnic clique as intent on helping itself as the country.
“It was such a dysfunctional administration that just normalising it scores points,” says Kwamchetsi Makokha, a columnist with the Daily Nation. “The more significant grouse is that there isn’t significant representation in government. There’s a feeling that a lot of people are being locked out of the centre.”
While the septuagenarian president has yet to formally declare himself a candidate, he is widely expected to vie for a second five-year term in December. Lingering concerns about his health aside, he will have to overcome a legacy of broken promises after a victory that made Kenyan history.
Crippled for years by ethnic divisions, the country’s main opposition parties buried their differences at the last elections to field the first single opposition candidate since multi-party politics was reintroduced a decade earlier.
Mr Kibaki won by a landslide, humbling the chosen successor of former president Daniel arap Moi whose 24-year rule was characterised by graft, ethnic discrimination and economic decline. The win also overturned 39 years of rule by the former ruling party, Kanu, providing Africa with one of its most striking examples of a peaceful handover of power and setting a standard for struggling opposition movements in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.
The first year began well: the government investigated the notorious Goldenberg corruption scandal from the Moi era in which $1bn of public funds was stolen in a bogus import-export scheme, passed legislation to fight graft, devolved spending power and purged crooked judges.
Marketing reforms helped raise the incomes of some of the farmers forming the bulk of the 36m population, while bribe-taking by low-level officials appeared to fall. Free primary school education lessened the financial burden on many families.
A raid by masked policemen on a newspaper’s offices in 2006 reminded Kenyans of the bad old days under Mr Moi, but the press has generally been much freer to criticise the president. On the streets of Nairobi, people are more confident about speaking out on the state of the country.
“The atmosphere’s opened up a lot, and of a lot of good things have happened, but they’ve whetted an appetite,” says James Mwangi, a 30-year-old management consultant. “If India can move from where it was 10 years ago to where it is today, why not us?”
Within three years, the veneer of unity among leaders who had rallied behind Mr Kibaki at the election had peeled away. Accusations that the president had reneged on a deal to devolve the over-arching powers of the presidency by creating a prime minister’s post to reward the veteran firebrand Raila Odinga, one of his main backers, tore his coalition apart.
Mr Kibaki’s tenure reached its lowest point in November 2005 when the electorate rejected a proposed constitution at Kenya’s first referendum, widely seen as a protest vote against corruption and a perception he was favouring a “Mount Kenya mafia” from his home region.
The referendum drew the battle lines for the coming contest. A selection of powerful politicians commanding large ethnic constituencies who had thrown their weight behind Mr Kibaki during the election, campaigned against the charter. Mr Kibaki sacked his entire cabinet after the defeat, marking the final break-up of the coalition that had brought him to power.
As the alliance shattered, the initial impetus for reforms waned. Various ministers were linked to a scandal dubbed “Anglo Leasing” involving corrupt procurements from naval boats to forensic laboratories. Mr Kibaki later reinstated most of the ministers who were forced to resign over the Goldenberg affair after being cleared by the courts. Despite the disillusionment, analysts say the outcome of the election is still too close to call.
In Kenya, voters have traditionally cast their ballots on ethnic lines. The presidency goes to the leader who can rally a selection of tribes representing the biggest proportion of the electorate.
Mr Kibaki can probably count on the support of most of his Kikuyu community, Kenya’s biggest and wealthiest, centred on Nairobi, where the business community has an optimism not seen in years. But pundits say he will need to reach out to others to guarantee victory and the break-up of the original coalition has left a legacy of bitterness that may be hard to overcome.
The president faces a credible challenge in the form of the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya, which groups former coalition partners who can rally some of the biggest ethnic groups behind them. Their biggest problem will be repeating the unprecedented feat Kenya’s opposition performed at the last election – agreeing on a single candidate. The party includes Mr Odinga, who has the support of the large Luo tribe, Kalonzo Musyoka, a former foreign minister, Musalia Mudavadai, an ex-finance minister and Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Moi’s one-time preferred heir, all significant figures who could switch allegiance.
A split in ODM-Kenya would dramatically improve Mr Kibaki’s chances, although, with his party fighting divisions of its own, there is a high chance of more realignments before the polls. Fears of pre-election violence linger, particularly in the most closely-contested constituencies. Land-related clashes this year, in which scores of people have been killed, have served as a reminder of the strife that marred the 1992 and 1997 polls, though the last elections were peaceful. With both the opposition and Mr Kibaki’s NARC-Kenya dominated by faces familiar throughout decades of Kenyan politics, many voters question whether the outcome of the election will have much impact on the way the country is run.
Election authorities are hoping to add a further 2m young voters to the electoral roll, which already stands at a record 13m, and some Kenyans hope national interest will begin to trump ethnicity.
“We’re still in the politics of tribalism and individuals rather than ideology,” says Edwin Macharia, a 28-year-old who studied in the US, and is now seeking to run as a member of parliament on Kibaki’s party ticket. “Part of what this election will tell us is whether people can vote for people because of their ideas, not because of where they are from.”