Mr and Mrs Kibaki at White House in 2003Kenya’s post-election violence and the subsequent humanitarian disaster have grabbed world headlines for almost two weeks. It was, after all, the Christmas holiday season and, apart from events in Pakistan, not a lot was happening. Then again, Nairobi is the vibrant communications hub for this part of Africa, which has facilitated excellent coverage of events. Most importantly, however, Kenya had been considered a focal point of peace and stability in the region and, it was hoped, a democracy in which the president could be voted out of power — and go.

Polls showed that, although ruling president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga were neck and neck in the presidential race, Odinga was the favourite. Yet, if Kibaki lost, it would be the first time in this part of Africa that an incumbent head of state had been voted out of power by the opposition. Political analysts in the West and the rest of Africa waited with bated breath.

Kenya is seen as being ahead of the rest of Africa in many ways, having
had 45 years of comparative peace, and yet its vital example could be
lost.

The rest is known. There is abundant evidence to show the presidential poll was rigged. Foreign diplomats have even said as much. As soon as signs of foul play were suspected, parts of the country erupted in violence, which quickly spread through the whole country except for the home area of the president and his trusted men, and that of the newly-appointed vice-president, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka. The official number of dead is given as 600, though the final figure will be much higher. At least 250,000 people are displaced, some 10,000 of them sheltering in the Catholic cathedral compound of Eldoret, a multi-ethnic farming area and home to many Kikuyu settlers. Thousands from the sprawling Nairobi slums are camped in parks and other open spaces waiting for food and medical supplies. The suffering of the displaced is somewhat mitigated by the dry, hot January weather.

The media have been asking: is this another African genocide? Since Rwanda’s one hundred days of slaughter in 1994, it is easy to label outbursts like this "tribal war" or "ethnic cleansing". These are harmful stereotypes. Rwanda’s case was very different: 99 per cent of the population consisted of two tribes — the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi, the latter culturally dominant thanks to the Belgian colonisers and resented by the Hutu. Hate messages broadcast over time prepared the way for massacre. Besides, Rwanda was poor and backward, and of no strategic importance to the super-powers.

Kenya has some 40 tribes, a dozen of them quite large. The different groups have spread out due to the high birth rate and intermarriage is becoming ever more common. The population is generally well educated and the younger generations less likely to think of themselves in tribal terms. Tribal differences, perceptions and prejudices do exist, as happens between any two European nations you can name, but it is unlikely the current troubles will turn into a full-scale civil war.

Why has much of the country reacted so forcefully, making thousands of families of the "winning” Kikuyu side flee for dear life? People wanted a change; instead, they were short-changed. They saw victory within their grasp, only to have it stolen from them brazenly and in broad daylight. The people who stole their victory were the very same ones they had become increasingly unhappy with, and who proceeded to give their theft the appearance of spotless legality.

Dissatisfaction had been simmering, stoked by a litany grievances: unfulfilled electoral promises; unpunished instances of grand larceny and corruption on a monumental scale; huge social problems unaddressed, except by the faith-based groups and some more reliable NGOs; a worsening of poverty in the urban slums and the poorer rural areas, despite the touted 6 per cent annual GDP increase; official arrogance and rulers quite out of touch with the needs of the ordinary man, woman and child. Father Daniele Moschetti, a Comboni missionary who has worked for 15 years in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s toughest slums, has called it the "war of the poor”. The writer-journalist, Michela Wrong, agrees that rather than an ethnic clash, it is privilege opposed to oppression, the rich-poor divide. 

Kenya is strategically important — to the United States, for example, in its fight against al-Qaeda. It has good communications, a robust economy and good relations with East, West and the rest of Africa. The coastal port of Mombasa is the gateway for all goods moving into the land-locked countries of the interior, such as Uganda, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Congo. Oil has been discovered in western Uganda; eastern Congo is mineral-rich. Kenya cannot be allowed to go up in flames.

This may explain why four past African presidents, Chissano (Mozambique), Mkapa (Tanzania), Kaunda (Zambia), and Masire (Botswana) have been in the country seeing the current situation for themselves and speaking with political leaders. The chairman of the African Union, President John Kofuor of Ghana, has spoken to Kibaki and Odinga, separately, and not together, as he had hoped. The US sent in their top African diplomat, Jendayi Frazer. This flurry of diplomatic activity is in stark contrast to what happened in Rwanda, where everyone was intent on saving his own skin.

Kenya’s case is crucial for Africa. If Kibaki's regime digs in its heels and gets away with it, there will be more justification for other African presidents to follow suit. Kenya is seen as being ahead of the rest of Africa in many ways, having had 45 years of comparative peace, and yet its vital example could be lost. That is why younger Kikuyus, the tribesmen of Kibaki, those who are doing well for themselves, have urged him to "rethink his position”. They blame him for turning the rest of the country against their ethnic group. This split in the ranks is in itself an interesting development.

Politically the country is at an impasse. Kibaki refuses to step down. The opposition will not recognize him as president. Attitudes have hardened. It is only fair there should be a re-run of the presidential election, preferably once tempers have cooled, but with the intransigent lieutenants Kibaki has surrounded himself with, this will be little short of a miracle.

Now is a critical, delicate moment in the history of Kenya, and for the future of democracy in Africa.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.