FOUR MONTHS AGO, I WAS CHEWING miraa with two friends at a disco in Westlands, an upscale yuppie neighborhood in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. Miraa, or Catha edulis, also known as qat, is a bush that grows in East Africa. Chewing the leaves gives a stimulant effect that is a little bit like Ecstasy, a little bit like speed, only milder, and it is legal. Suffice it to say, if the three of us weren’t baring our souls that night in Westlands, we were coming pretty close. Somehow the conversation turned to soccer.

“There are no players from the coast on the national soccer team,” Abdul said.


“Well, there’s one guy. The Kikuyu choose their own people. It’s just like law, business, government jobs. If you’re from the coast, you have to be the best soccer player in the world to get on the national team.”

He looked over at our other friend, Gabriel, who was once a professional player for one of Kenya’s regional teams. “He’s right,” Gabriel said, nodding solemnly.

Since independence in 1963, two tribes, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, have dominated Kenya’s political and economic life. Although the country has experienced an economic boom under incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, the 77-year-old Kikuyu economist now at the center of Kenya’s constitutional crisis, little of that affluence has trickled down to most of Kenya’s 40 ethnic groups.

I remembered the above conversation as I watched the situation in Kenya worsen this week. After the country’s disputed December 27 election, in which Kibaki is widely believed to have wrested re-election through vote tampering, nearly 500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced when disenfranchised voters lost hope that the country’s corruption and pervasive economic inequities would be addressed. Last week, as envoys from the African Union and the U.S. rushed in to try to broker a deal between Kibaki and his rival, 63-year-old Raila Odinga, the violence ebbed.

But on January 8, Kibaki abruptly changed his tone. Casting aside efforts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, a recount, or another election, Kibaki acted as if a second term was a fait accompli, or, as some put it, a coup d’etat. He appointed 15 cabinet members, including several former political rivals, a divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at isolating his rival. The dismay felt by most Kenyans after Kibaki’s power grab had less to do with tribal loyalties than most news reports would have us believe, and more to do with the struggle to maintain constitutional government, a struggle that has been seen of late everywhere from Pakistan to the United States.

Many people are expressing shock over the violence in Kenya. The country is a regional hub: Commodities for East and Central Africa are funneled through the port of Mombasa, along with supplies for U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. Many of the continent’s journalists and aid workers are based in Nairobi and Al-Qaeda terrorists have occasionally made Kenya a home base too. They all come for the same reason: The phones and ATMs work. For Americans, Kenya is Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa, the African country where you can take your children to see elephants and lions without worrying about whether little Jason will be conscripted into the Lord’s Resistance Army.

But when postelection violence broke out, the U.S. media lost no time in pounding the Heart of Darkness tom-toms. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times took the lead, describing “gangs from opposing tribes hacking each other to death” in a Nairobi slum, and virtually every major news outlet followed suit. Unlike their counterparts in Britain and Canada, American reporters seemed to be missing the real story. This is a constitutional moment for Kenya, a country where the literacy rate is 85 percent and people have embraced a strong national identity. Whether they are Kikuyu like Kibaki, or Luo like Odinga, or Swahili, or they identify with any of the dozens of other ethnicities living here, Kenyans were horrified by their leader’s power grab, just as Americans seated in front of their televisions watched in stunned disbelief as Tom DeLay’s thugs shut down the presidential-vote count in Florida in 2000. The vast majority of Kenyans are not hacking their neighbors to pieces with machetes, but talking about the need for clean elections and constitutional government. Often they are doing it on Internet bulletin boards, which have been deluged with postings expressing outrage over what many are calling “a civilian coup.”

But all cliches are a little bit true. Kenya’s politicians have a long and sordid history of manipulating ethnic tensions to amass power, starting with Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who advanced the interests of his Kikuyu political cronies. Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin who fostered resentment against the Kikuyu to deflect attention from his regime’s massive corruption. Kibaki, elected in 2002 in the second free election in Kenya’s history, was considered an antidote to his predecessors’ corruption.


While the U.S. press is fixated on tribalism, leftists tend to blame Africa’s problems on colonialism. The most striking incident of the past few weeks occurred in the central Kenyan town of Eldoret, where 50 people were burned to death after taking refuge in a church. As Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, pointed out, Eldoret is where the British took land for white farmers and drove off the local Kalenjin in the 1940s and 1950s. At independence, the whites sold to the highest bidders, who happened to be rich Kikuyus. They moved in other Kikuyus to work the land and the Kikuyu “occupation” is deeply resented.

“Land in Africa is not real estate to be bought and sold. It is sacred, where the ancestors still live, part of a person’s blood and soul,” Dowden wrote in The Observer, the sister paper to Britain’s left-leaning Guardian. “Ever since the white man left, there have been periodic clashes over land in the Rift Valley; Kenya’s population has doubled since then, so competition for land intensifies.”

But tribal resentments only come to the fore when government fails. As Nairobi-based record producer Tabu Osusa put it, in the absence of a government they can trust, “people depend on their tribes for survival.” The real issues in Kenya are the same worried over by soccer moms everywhere: roads, electricity, education and health care. Although Kibaki is credited with shepherding the country’s economy to a growth rate that is close to 7 percent, 10 percent of the country’s 35 million people control 42 percent of its wealth, leaving nearly half of its population below the poverty line. The inequities are apparent even to the casual observer: The road from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru, in the home district of former president Moi, is as well paved as an American highway, while the 12-hour bus journey from Mombasa to Lamu Island on the country’s Swahili coast is a bone-jarring ordeal.

Kibaki’s opponent Odinga gained the support of many Kenyans because of his promise to represent historically disenfranchised groups. Odinga is no saint. An engineer who drives a red Humvee and who named his son Fidel Castro in a burst of youthful radicalism, he is thought by many to have the makings of a big man himself. Odinga or his adherents appear to have participated in election fraud, although not on the scale of Kibaki’s supporters. But there is no question that Odinga appealed to the desire of ordinary Kenyans to move beyond tribal politics.

Since the early days of independence, African leaders have presented their countries with a choice between constitutional freedoms and economic growth. To many, this is a false dichotomy. But Kibaki, who studied at the London School of Economics and helped to write Kenya’s first constitution, is old-school, from a generation of postcolonial leaders accustomed to acting with impunity. Kibaki’s views seem to be shared by Colin Bruce, the World Bank’s country director in Nairobi. In a January 1 memo leaked to the Financial Times of London, Bruce recommended that the multilateral lending institution support Kibaki. The World Bank has $1 billion in outstanding projects in Kenya, and has been criticized for overlooking widespread corruption. Bank officials warned that withdrawing from the country would have an unduly harsh effect on Kenya’s poor. But some say that Bruce has become too close to Kenya’s president: the Financial Times also reported that Bruce lives in a mansion owned by the Kibaki family.

The U.S. funnels at least $1 billion annually to Kenya, which it considers a key ally in the fight against terrorism. So far, however, the U.S. seems unable to wield its usual influence. Jendayi E. Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, shuttled to Kenya after the election, but failed to persuade Kibaki and Odinga to enter negotiations. “There is a certain poison in the air,” Frazer said in an interview broadcast on Kenyan television. If the impasse is not resolved, she warned, “Kenya will have a long future of instability.”

Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s provocative political commentary, along with his girth and well-tailored look, has earned him the label of Africa’s Gore Vidal. Wainaina has taken a somewhat longer view of Kenya’s troubles, and a more hopeful one. He told a reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail that this election was a “seminal” moment for Kenya. Under the repressive Moi regime, most Kenyans wouldn’t have known that an election had been rigged, Wainaina said; the current uproar is a sign that Kenyans are determined to hold on to constitutional government.


Pride and hope galvanized Kenyans in the early days of independence, and much of that feeling has been revived by the country’s recent prosperity, at least among the urban elites. But even those people, whether they are Luo or Kikuyu, seem unwilling to sacrifice democracy, even for the promise of continued economic growth. Osusa, who founded his Nairobi-based music label, Ketebul Music, to raise the profile of traditional Kenyan music, says the streets of the capital are safe except in the slums, where much of the violence was actually gang-related. But he called the situation “very sad.” Indeed, sadness rather than anger seemed to be the country’s dominant mood.

The Economist was the first to call for the U. S. and Europe to impose strict economic sanctions if Kibaki doesn’t agree to measures that would revive Kenya’s civil institutions. While this remedy may seem too stringent, it may be the only way to force Kibaki towards a settlement. If the Kenyan people care enough to riot and, in some cases, to commit murder over a constitutional crisis, the world should take their concerns seriously. After all, our country’s founding fathers once did the same thing. Dismissing the country’s problems as “tribal”— a word that makes Kenya’s problems seem insoluble — only makes the situation more perilous.

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