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If Kenya sneezes next week, the rest of East Africa will catch a cold
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 2 months 2 weeks

Kenyans go to the polls next week to elect a new president and parliament, among other positions. Eighteen months ago, the election was a shoo-in for incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta. The economy was coasting along, powered by investments in transport and energy infrastructure; the Opposition, led by Raila Odinga, was on the ropes, praying for the umpire’s bell.

Now a series of lucky punches, a litany of corruption scandals and a pervasive sense that many of the Jubilee Administration’s claims of success are more sizzle than sausage, threaten to cause an upset. At the very least, the contest is going the distance, the outcome far from certain.

There are at least two ways to read the Kenyan election. The traditional way is to see it in all its dysfunctional glory – and of this there is plenty of evidence. First, politics in the country is unashamedly organised along ethnic lines.

Many middle-class Kenyans will, in an instant, go from speaking of globalisation and borderless innovation while sipping on their caffè macchiatos, to offering blind support to a well-known thug who happens to be from their tribe.

This is neither a peculiarly Kenyan thing nor is it without explanation; take the tribal tag away from Kikuyu or Luo, apply a nationalist tag to the same ‘communities’ and the conversation is no different from Irish nationalism or calls for Scottish independence. The only problem, and a fatal one, is that tribe, denied the respect and open discourse allowed to nations, festers, and provides a warm embrace to the detritus of the political class. They are thugs, yes, but they are our thugs, their tribal credentials pinned to the sleeves like amulets, impervious to reason, indifferent to criticism.

Thus aligned by tribe, the masses are sent forth into battle by faceless power brokers – some sheltering under dubious ethnic gerontocracies, others under their ill-gotten wealth – as pawns in the fight to capture and control the State.

The result is an incestuous political elite and a political contest that could be mistaken for a grown-up version of musical chairs. For instance, the current contest is between the son of the country’s first president and the son of the country’s first vice president, and one of the kingmakers is the son of a former president who ruled the country for 24 years.

But as dysfunction as it sounds, Kenya’s election is both relatively progressive when located in a wider canvas of the Great Lakes region, and a bellwether of the region’s political risk and fortunes.

Even taking the 2007/8 post-election violence into account, political contests in Kenya have, up to this point, been comparatively peaceful since the end of the Moi ‘error’. There has been no attempt to lift term limits from the constitution, no jailing of opponents, no refusal to hold elections and no attempted coup. Politics is a contest, not a conflict.

For all its corrupt ethnic chauvinism, Kenyan politics is not the dystopian mayhem one finds in South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo, neither is it the no-contest of Rwanda or the shifting goalposts in Uganda.

Which makes this election a bellwether. A series of assassinations, including this week of the IT chief at the election body, is a reminder that some are willing to kill for control of the State, while disturbances in opposition strongholds in recent years could erupt into something more serious.

Erupt in violence as it did in 2007/8 and Kenya will slip back into the anarchy of the Great Lakes region, dragging with it shareholder value on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and investor confidence in the country and the rest of the region.

Get it right, however, and Kenya will join Tanzania as one of only two countries in the East African Community that have witnessed the peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another in recent years (Sorry Farmajo but Somalia’s recent election doesn’t really count).

In the event Uhuru is defeated and hands over power to Raila, Kenya would have set a precedent, now increasingly common in West and Southern Africa, that incumbents are fallible, vulnerable and beatable.

Kenya can show that the governance deficit in the region is not down to something in the water and, with Tanzania, set a benchmark for imperfect-but-peaceful politics underpinning economic growth and social stability. Should Kenya sneeze, however, the rest of the region will catch a cold. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst or like they say, trust your god but lock your car.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. dkalinaki@ke.nationmedia.com

Twitter: @Kalinaki.