Weighed Down by Old Ethnic Baggage, Kenya Races to Another Historic Election
June 22, 2007
Kenya has made remarkable progress on its own in the last five years. But as always happens close to election time, ethnic baiting is back, putting at risk some of the recent gains in governance and the economy. The problem arose when one party in the ruling coalition short-changed its partner in implementing a power-sharing formula negotiated prior to the 2002 election. By the time Kenya went to a referendum on a new constitution in 2005, the conflict had blown into the open as the aggrieved party campaigned against an alleged conspiracy of Kikuyu-ethnic domination by the current government. Now the contagion has spread deep into the ranks of the inter-ethnic opposition that once doted on its ability to cooperate across ethnic lines. The most dangerous component in the resurgent ethnic tensions is a highly effective economic populist campaign for equitable inter-ethnic distribution of “national resources”— a term repeatedly confused with the national tax revenue which amounts to only 20 percent of the national income — rather than with the remaining 80 percent of Kenya’s wealth, which is earned through the market or small-scale family farms. In the confused quest for perfect equality of outcomes, some foreign donors have joined the campaign. Kenya is not about to break apart from ethnic rivalries, as Afro-pessimists often predict; its institutional framework has been robust enough to survive worse than this before. But a continuation of Kenya’s remarkable economic recovery since the current government came to power in 2003 now looks less assured.
Debate over resource distribution – rhetoric and reality
It all started with an innocuous statement by the country’s most distinguished populist leader, Martin Shikuku, who joined politics in his twenties in 1958, and is now fighting the current government in his late 70s. In mid-2006, he claimed to have information that some of Kenya’s poorer regions were paying more in taxes than the richer ones, while the latter hogged all the benefits from the public purse. On July 22, 2006, Barrack Muluka, an opposition-supporting columnist for the Standard newspaper, gave what he claimed were the facts backing up Shikuku’s case. Tax collection by province in the previous year, he wrote, was as follows: Nyanza, 6.9 billion Kenya shillings; Rift Valley, 5.56 billion; Western, 5.5 billion; Coast, 2.7 billion; Central Province,1.8 billion shillings; Eastern Province, 0.9 billion; and North Eastern Province, 43 million. Citing two roads projects in central Kenya, he claimed that most of the benefits have always gone to Central Province, among the lowest tax contributors by his reckoning. “Who is cheating who,” he asked, demanding federalism (majimbo) to ensure “equal distribution of national resources”. Other Standard columnists followed suit. Presidential opposition candidates, Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, William Ruto, and Najib Balala, and their supporters in the press took it from there, pledging to fight for regional economic equality and advocating an immediate constitutional amendment for a socialist-sounding “national commission to ensure equitable distribution of national resources.” On May 15, 2007, the Standard gave splash coverage to a report by the Kenya Chapter of the Rome-based Society for International Development (SID) purporting to show tribal and regional economic inequality caused by deliberate ethnic discrimination by the state since independence. The report was funded in part by the Swedish government.
For anyone familiar with Kenya politics, this is potent stuff. Regions and provinces in Kenya are political code for ethnic groups: Central Province, home to the Kikuyu, has the best private enterprise and social development indicators in the country; Nyanza, less developed, is predominantly Luo and Kisii; Western Province is mostly Luhya; Rift Valley, mainly Kalenjin and Maasai; Coast, Mijikenda and Swahili; and the least- developed North Eastern Province is Somali. In time-honored populist rhetoric, people from the most economically-advanced group in the country now stand accused of cheating and fleecing the rest of the country.
The problem with this divisive line of argument is that the tax revenue figures making the popular rounds at the political rallies and on the Internet are all contrived. The total tax collected in Kenya according to Muluka and company amounts to 23.7 billion shillings. In fact, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) reported total tax collected in 2005 as 315 billion shillings—thirteen times more. Moreover, KRA does not keep records by provincial origin of tax payers. In economics, most indirect taxes fall on consumers. If KRA had kept tax figures by regional origin of the payer, they would have shown that trade-based taxes (value-added tax, excise, and custom duties) account for 55 percent of revenue and are levied predominantly on businesses in the most economically-active parts of the country—Nairobi, Central Province, Mombasa and Central Rift Valley. This applies to income tax as well which accounts for the balance of revenue. Similarly, even the data adduced by SID cannot withstand rigorous scrutiny: a road just outside of Nairobi for instance, is used less by the locals than traffic coming from other regions (and countries), leading to the capital and to the port of Mombasa. The political slinging match, therefore, is not about the objective truth. It is about ethnic power. As Muluka stated in a later column (on January 6, 2007), “It’s ethnicity stupid,”—meaning that ethnic mobilization for or against the offending center of the country will decide the next election.
On that Muluka may be right. Kenya holds its next general election in December, and the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki (aged 75 and Kikuyu) is up for re-election. Speaking at public functions in mid-April and mid-May, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, urged Kenyans to vote on the basis of issues rather than “tribe” or ethnicity. Ranneberger was repeating a plea made by the U.S. presidential candidate, Senator Barrack Obama, when he visited Kenya, birthplace of his father, last August. And indeed, none of the problems confronting Kenya and the other newly democratic countries in Africa is as menacing as the failure to manage ethnic pluralism and the problems associated with it, including regional inequalities. Though not wholly mistaken, a moral change of heart of the sort urged by Ranneberger and Obama (and by some social scientists and conscientious Kenyan leaders like Shikuku over the years) is unlikely to be as effective in addressing the problem as time-tested institutional innovations suited for ethnically-divided democracies, such as India, South Africa, Belgium, Switzerland, and others. These innovations include an electoral system based on proportional representation of political parties in parliament according to the share of votes received. This is preferable by far to the current “first past the post” voting formula under which, in multi-ethic districts, candidates enjoying a plurality or simple majority win on the strength of one or two ethnic groups – excluding the others, more or less permanently. Federalism, with ethnic cleansing within provinces strictly forbidden, would also be a key solution; as would grand coalitions among parties accompanied by minority veto; a two-chamber legislature; and ethnic power-sharing of the kind that brought the Kibaki government to power in 2002. It has been Kenya’s (and Africa’s) misfortune to stick to centralized post-colonial constitutions, with winner-take-all electoral competition, avoiding innovation along lines more suited to social realities.
A hopeful new beginning at risk
In December 2002, Kenya held a historic general election, which witnessed the peaceful exit of the corrupt dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), whose singular achievement had been to bring what was one of Africa’s most promising economies to its knees. While average annual GDP growth rates in the pre-Moi years (7.4 percent between 1965 and 1979) were similar to those of the East Asian tigers, his government managed to bring them down gradually to 0.6 percent in its last year in office. Average incomes per capita fell throughout the 1990s as the percentage of the absolute poor (those living on less than a dollar a day) increased from an estimated 28 percent in 1973 to 56 percent in 2002. Rising penury and political repression, including torture, ethnic cleansing in the Rift Valley, Moi’s home base, and killings by government-backed death squads, affected nearly all ethnic groups and drove the middle class and the poor alike into opposition or exile.
All that changed after the December 2002 electoral victory of a broad inter-ethnic coalition of anti-Moi reformists, the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) led by Kibaki, and last-minute defectors from Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, all of whom combined to form the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Respect for individual liberties and associational life subsequently rose to levels not seen for decades. On a scale of 1 (U.S.A. and Canada) to 7 (North Korea and Burma), Freedom House ratings for Kenya improved from 5.5 (“Not Free”) in 2002 to 3 (“Partly Free”) in 2003, about where Turkey and Thailand were. The news has been even better on the economic front. From the poverty-generating downward spiral of the Moi years, the economy is on the rebound thanks to tight macro-economic management, market incentives, and renewed investor confidence. Growth increased from 3 percent in 2003 to 6.1 percent in 2006, despite a minimal (5 percent) donor contribution to the budget, as donors protested the government’s failure to tackle high level corruption past and present. Nairobi and other towns are being spruced up, and tourist arrivals are at a record high. With less corruption, tax revenues have gone up by 80 percent—enough to fund universal free primary education and a raft of new development projects in each electoral district. Better paid, small scale farmers of tea, coffee, sugar-cane, milk, and beef have increased production. Google, Microsoft, Virgin Atlantic, General Electric and other multinationals are now investing in Kenya. At the end of April 2007, a combined government and donor survey on the conditions of living in the country found that poverty levels had fallen from 56 to 46 percent, and they continue to decline.
But as the 2004 election in India demonstrated, a good economic record is not enough to win the incumbents a victory. The negative passions created by perceived ethnic exploitation of the kind now doing the rounds in Kenya have already produced violent conflict over community land rights in the Rift Valley Province again. In a campaign of terror, an outlawed Kikuyu sect (Mungiki) recruiting predominantly from angry, unemployed youth has murdered policemen and innocent civilians. The government’s outstanding economic record lacks a sophisticated political strategy to complement it, and to respond to ethnic-based accusations.
On the ethnic question, the Kibaki government missed the point in 2003 by ignoring the formulas for successful governance in ethnically-segmented democracies mentioned above. It came to power under a power-sharing memorandum meant to distribute cabinet positions equally between the NARCs two wings: Kibaki’s NAK and the defectors from Moi’s KANU who re-branded themselves as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, the president and his political advisers ignored this agreement and proceeded to pursue the pipedream of a new national party with a multi-ethnic following all over the country. A determined whistleblower, John Githongo, then the government’s anti-corruption czar; the press; and a parliamentary investigation in 2004 — itself testimony to Kenya’s new open democracy gains — soon revealed that to fund the new party, at least three ministers had been involved in defence contract scams that came to be known as the Anglo-Leasing scandal. With that, the funds were quickly returned to the government, but the damage had been done. The new party initiative was attempted over the heads of LDP ministers with a firm regional following — Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, and Najib Balala — who had been most vocal in demanding that the 2002 power-sharing pledge be honored. This split the cabinet down the middle, and the country along ethnic lines.
Impact of the constitutional referendum
This tussle between Kibaki and his opponents climaxed in a bruising campaign over the referendum on a new constitution in the second half of 2005, pitting Kibaki’s supporters against the dissident LDP ministers who soon made common cause with Daniel arap Moi and his rump-KANU party stalwarts. The new alliance styled itself the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), after their symbol, an orange, on the ballot, with Raila Odinga as its de facto leader. Ostensibly, what separated the parties were differences over a presidential system, backed by Kibaki and his allies, versus a split executive composed of a president and a prime-minister; over federalism, supported by the ODM, versus unitary government; and over fiscal devolution, with the ODM advocating that most public expenditure be done at regional and local levels. In practice, the referendum was won by the ODM’s skilful exploitation of other issues: fears of violation of ethnic land rights among pastoralists by a proposed land commission; cultural and sexist antipathy to the supposedly un-African idea enshrined in the draft constitution of equal inheritance rights between sons and daughters; appeals to Muslims, who felt short-changed by the absence of tough constitutional guarantees for their traditional kadhi courts; and a contradictory appeal to Christian evangelicals who were offended by the mildest reference to Islamic justice in the draft constitution. But the mother of all trump cards in the ODM’s victory was a cultivated fear in other ethnic groups of Kikuyu domination. For in many areas, the electoral system in the draft constitution was peddled, wrongly, as one that would guarantee perennial Kikuyu rule.
In November 2005, the government lost the constitutional referendum by a decisive 57 to 43 percent vote. Kibaki accepted the verdict. But the results polarized the country on ethnic lines, with the bedrock of the government’s support being confined largely to heavily Kikuyu Nairobi and central Kenya, the Kikuyu heartland to the north of the capital. This is the economic hub of the country, accounting for more than half of Kenya’s GDP; though it is still poor, with average personal incomes of about $600 per year. The ODM’s vote came from communities in the outlying and less developed areas, in a bizarre politics of the poor being mobilized against the less-poor by the stoking of ethnic passions.
The bogus ethnic tax share debate is but an extension of the cleavage that grew out of the constitutional referendum. At least until a few months ago, the next election looked like it could degenerate into a bare-knuckles ethnic campaign between the offending central Kenya region, President Kibaki’s birthplace, and the ODM. That line of cleavage, however, is no longer so clear. No sooner was the referendum over than Moi denounced ODM as unnecessary now that it had served its purpose, insisting that his KANU party must stay out of it. After warming up to Kibaki for a while, Moi now seems intent on rebuilding KANU to run its own presidential candidate. In the meantime, the ODM leadership has been severely weakened by internal wrangles and a vicious whispering campaign from within against its dynamic front-runner, Raila Odinga, suggesting that he is unlikely to win the election against Kibaki because of his Luo ethnicity, stereotyped as overbearing.
President Kibaki’s remarkable economic record, which continues to be pooh-poohed by the opposition as well as the columnists in the Standard and others in the press, has won him greater approval ratings, now in the range of 55-61 percent, than any of his potential opponents. Few objective Kenyans now deny the evidence of economic recovery and the gradual though uneven gains from growth. Kibaki’s laid-back and non-confrontational style is the very opposite of the pugnacious lot in the opposition, some of whom are so tarnished with grand corruption and abuse of office in the Moi years that they appear ludicrous posing as champions of democracy and clean government. The Kibaki government’s Achilles’ heel, as in the immediate post-2002 phase, continues to be its lack of a workable inter-ethnic political strategy, aggravated by the high-level presence of unpopular and aged Kikuyu ministers, who are prone to repeated blunders and gaffes that feed into the charges of Kikuyu domination. An attempt by the president’s younger acolytes to build a new inter-ethnic and nation-wide political party, the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition of Kenya (NARC-Kenya) in 2005, ran into problems primarily because the remaining ethnic power brokers in the ruling coalition were reluctant to buy into the new party without a clear understanding of what was in it for their ethnic constituencies after the elections. Gradually, the president and his more enlightened advisors have come full circle and now seem to have decided to try to forge a broad inter-ethnic coalition of parties of the very kind that NARC originally was. Whether Kibaki will remain president after December depends on how appealing this omnibus political vehicle will be outside his central Kenya bailiwick, and on how the vicious internal test of wills in ODM will be resolved.
As long as the ODM remained united, there was a strong chance that it could give any pro-Kibaki coalition a run for its money, come the election. With a 33 percent popularity rating last December, it remains the most popular party in the country. The gerrymandering of Kenya constituencies before and after independence gives a clear advantage to the sparsely-populated outlying districts where ODM is strongest. In electoral votes, it would be possible to translate that 33 percent into a majority or near-majority in the parliament. The result could be a hung government with a president and parliamentary majority in different parties. This is a perfect recipe for an unstable government, and it would be the nightmare equally for the local small scale farmer and the large corporations now trooping into the country.
But in mid-2007, ODM is but a shell of the juggernaut that won the 2005 referendum. No sooner had it lost the support of ex-president Moi than ODM luminaries, eyeing the party nomination for the presidency, began making regional ethic calculations of their support, speaking about the strategy openly. As ODM leaders lined up for presidential nominations, they became badly split on personal and ethnic lines. The most prominent of them were maneuvering for a part of Kikuyu vote to give them an advantage over their rivals. The dilemma was that nominating a candidate with even a partly-Kikuyu base would deprive the party of the ethnic trump card that won the 2005 referendum. The mooted third force around KANU will complicate matters further. But it is still early days, and between the two coalitions the vote could go either way. As in 2002, it would seem that the winning coalition of the next election will be cobbled together in the immediate run-up to the election.
In The World on Fire (2004), one of the most widely-hailed books on the global democratic experience after the end of the Cold War, Amy Chua pointed out the danger posed to new democracies by a majority united by common resentment of “economically-dominant minorities.” She specifically noted that this danger was present with respect to the Kikuyu and ethnic Asians in Kenya, south Asians elsewhere in East Africa, the Chinese in South East Asia, whites in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and in other parts of the world. She failed to recognize that experience in the older democracies has proved that the problem could be handled with adequate safeguards against political abuse of economic power, affirmative action, increased economic opportunities to communities lagging behind, and strict prohibitions on ethnic hate-mongering. In that manner democracy can coexist with entrepreneurial groups with overall gain by all. This is the first challenge Kenya needs to address if the gains made over the last four years are to be consolidated; for it is the same populist economics now on the rise in Kenya that lay behind the disastrous development record prior to 2002.
The second challenge lies in recognizing the supreme relevance to Kenya of elite-based consensus in the interests of achieving ethnic power-sharing through proportional representation, devolution, and broad-coalition democracy. Kikuyu leadership in particular must internalize this. The majoritarian, winner-take-all politics of the kind competing politicians now seem wedded to must be replaced by constitutional innovations in this direction. This was perhaps the biggest lesson from South Africa’s remarkable transition from apartheid in 1994.
After decades of economic decay and authoritarian government, Kenya today is a promising democracy with an economy pushing ahead on its own steam. Her challenge now is to address the problem Chua points to, and to deal responsibly with economic inequality without undermining the sources of growth. Ethnic-baiting and economic populism driven by specious debates about supposedly unequal gains from public revenue should cease. Like populist economics elsewhere, such arguments will bring the country to grief, causing more harm to the economy — and to the poorest of the poor — than their purveyors might dare to imagine. _____________________________________________________________________
Michael Chege taught most recently at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where he was the Director of the Center for African Studies. He is now a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) policy consultant in Nairobi, based at the Ministry of Planning. The views expressed here are entirely his own and may not be attributed to either institution.
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