At Large

Trouble in Paradise

Kenya is on the verge of civil war -- in a story that goes back to 1964.

By 1.3.08

Kenya has been a favorite tourist destination for many years, but visitors never saw anything other than the beautiful scenery, quaint tribal people, and exotic animals. Everything is changing, for the country now is close to civil war.

The story goes back much further than most people realize -- back to 1964, shortly after independence the previous year. The great Luo tribal chief and deputy prime minister/president of Kenya Oginga Odinga visited New York City much to the consternation of the U.S. State Department and his boss, the legendary Jomo Kenyatta , the first prime minister/president of that new East African nation. Jomo (Kenyans then used the informal) was Kikuyu, and it was strictly through a traditional political deal that his Luo rival was ushered in as his deputy.

Oginga (his true first name was Jaramogi, but he preferred the alliteration of the other two names) made it clear from the beginning of his visit that he was not there for official business. At a cocktail party in his honor at the St. Regis Hotel and later during a visit to the United Nations, he left no doubt that he was not about to play second fiddle in the international environment as he had been forced to do back home.

"Double O," as he was sometimes referred to by journalists, let it be known privately that he had accepted some substantial gifts from, among other East Bloc countries, the Chinese, who were just beginning to show an interest in Africa. He wondered why the Americans didn't offer the same courtesies in a challenge to the British who, he said, were "paying" Jomo. It was an excellent insight into the practical political thinking of an African tribal leader.

Some forty years later the Kikuyu sitting president, Mwai Kabaki, was opposed in last week's election in Kenya by Raila Odinga , the son of Oginga. One of the principal charges brought against President Kabaki has been corruption throughout his administration. Raila stated that the president solicited and accepted gifts from business and political sources. This is an ironic claim in view not only of his father's forthright admissions, but Raila's own experiences in returning to favor in Mwai Kabaki's government after his own release from prison. He had been convicted for, among other things, allegedly arranging financing of an attempted coup against the criminally venal President Daniel Arap Moi.

By 2002 the left-leaning, East Germany-educated Raila Odinga had catapulted to the forefront of Kenyan politics by successfully leading the campaign for Mwai Kabaki's first presidential election while the latter was recovering from an auto accident. By any custom, African or not, this should have meant the highest possible political payback.

The generally accepted understanding that Raila would become PM never happened. Instead he was given the insignificant post of Minister of Roads and Public Works. No matter how far non-tribal Kenyan politics was supposed to have come, a Kikuyu does not do that to a Luo.

THE RESULTS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL elections last week were clearly rigged in Kabaki's favor, and he was sworn in with unseemly haste. The Luo supporters of Raila Odinga's party rushed to condemn Kikuyu malfeasance; this time supported by many other tribes. Idyllic Kenya, the stable sub-Saharan model, erupted into violence. Paramilitary police were brought in to protect Kikuyu areas and punish the Luo rioters and their allies.

The Kenya Army is a questionable commodity as far as tribal allegiance is concerned. The Kikuyu have never taken to the discipline of army life while the traditionally aggressive, though smaller tribes, the Kalenjin and Luhya, who hold no favor for the Kikuyu, predominate the ranks. The potential for a military rebellion is the greatest fear of the foreign community. Meanwhile it has received the less than encouraging guidance from the British Foreign Office that " are happening in the residential areas rather than in the tourist areas, so everyone seems safe."

At first Raila Odinga called for the Luo to march on Nairobi, but later amended his orders by adding "peacefully." This was done to satisfy foreign diplomatic representatives who had joined the American embassy in reversing their support of the legitimacy of the presidential election. The European Union's election observer announced timidly to the press that the voting count process had "fallen short of key international and regional standards." What regional standards he meant were not clear, but the international ones certainly were.

The anti-Kikuyu response seemed relatively unaffected by the niceties of Odinga's changed statement and even less by foreign fears. Reports have come in from all quarters speaking of hundreds of murders, village burnings and destruction of businesses. The 30,000 European residents and tourists are staying indoors while embassies are inundated with frantic calls for advice and assistance.

IT WOULD APPEAR THAT NOTHING short of Mwai Kabaki stepping down from his stolen presidency will satisfy the anti-Kikuyu electorate. But then it will be only a short while before the Kikuyu, who make up 22% of the population, rise up to demand their perceived role as the dominant tribe of Kenya.

The wily elder Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta could have worked this out, but the later generation just doesn't seem to have the same traditional understanding or, indeed, finesse. An outside instrument will have to be brought into play, and paradise will never be the same.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.