Kenya dances near the brink of dissolution
Kenya has arrived at an impasse, and there is no easy way out. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court, dismissing legal challenges to Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election, paves the way for the incumbent president to be sworn in next week. Even with the court’s approval, the second term of his presidency will be dogged by a deficit of legitimacy. He will have little hope of reuniting a dangerously polarised nation.
Using brute force to impose authority — which, on recent evidence, is likely to be Mr Kenyatta’s default tactic — will only exacerbate tensions. When his rival, the former prime minister Raila Odinga, was greeted by thousands of supporters on his return from abroad last Friday, members of the security forces set on his convoy with tear gas and water cannons. Policemen oblivious of the cameras were filmedhurling rocks. At least five people died in the melee. The deaths come on the heels of sinister recent killings in the slums.
Mr Odinga appears undeterred. A veteran of the pro-democracy struggle, he thrives on gladiatorial contests. He is determined to sustain his campaign for new elections on the streets, having successfully called a boycott of October’s repeat polls. These were ordered by the Supreme Court after it deemed initial elections to have been marred by “irregularities” and “illegalities”.
To his credit, Mr Odinga has been urging his many supporters to demonstrate peacefully. But there is an ever-present danger that state-sponsored violence will provoke a retaliation that could spiral out of control.
Britain might once have provided effective mediation. But when Boris Johnson, the foreign minister, made an unseemly leap to congratulate Mr Kenyatta in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, he entrenched the opposition’s suspicion that the UK is partisan. The US has been equally clumsy in revealing its support for the status quo.
Yet neither the endorsement of foreign powers, nor the court ruling, will settle doubts about the credibility of an election process that delivered Mr Kenyatta 98 per cent of the vote. The turnout in the re-run was just 38 per cent. Little if anything was done to put safeguards in place to prevent the kind of skulduggery that took place in the initial polls, in August. Mr Odinga’s supporters voted the second time by staying away.
They have good cause to feel that the democratic process has been hijacked. Successive elections since 2007 have been marred by fraud. If public faith in the electoral system was to be restored, it was vital that this time there were no flaws.
Instead, large swaths of the population have been left feeling disenfranchised. If they continue to feel so, they will doubtless find other means to make their voices heard. Already there are signs that a commercial boycott of companies linked to the Kenyatta family is taking hold. More ominously, talk of secession is gathering steam in Mr Odinga’s strongholds in the west of the country.
The risks that this stand-off degenerates into something worse are real. There is no obvious political solution that would halt momentum in the wrong direction. Yet a settlement, that reassures all of Kenya’s ethnic groups that they have an equal political opportunity, and that future elections will be genuinely free and fair, is the only alternative to chaos.
Britain and America may have squandered their neutrality. But all of Africa has an interest in ensuring that east Africa’s pivotal state does not fall apart. The time to step in to prevent disaster is now.