'Tribal' smokescreen

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The media reports surrounding recent events in Kenya have tended to portray it as yet another "tribal" clash.

While ethnic violence has flared since the election of 27 December, a closer analysis shows how this is a symptom of the fight against poverty and corruption, and for democracy, with the ever interfering fingers of imperialism never long at rest.

The election officially returned the president, Mwai Kibaki, following a ballot almost universally seen as rigged. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) lost. Kenya's electoral commission was appointed by the Kibaki regime. Media representatives suggest that all the authoritative studies, by the EU and others, show consistent disparities between the count tallies and the figure reported by the election commission.

Even the US, which at first congratulated Kibaki on his re-election, has called on him to negotiate with the opposition. Kenya is a key ally in the "war on terror" and has received $600 million from the US since 2003. Meanwhile, China has become the largest investor in Kenya. Stability, and openness to foreign markets, are essential to neoliberalism.

The current crisis was bred from extreme disillusionment among a poverty stricken population hungry for democracy. In 2002 the first free elections took place following 24 years of dictatorship. Kibaki won that election, in alliance with Odinga to beat Uhuru Kenyatta, dictator Daniel arap Moi's choice of candidate. The ODM broke with Kibaki when he pushed for more constitutional power, but lost the referendum on its adoption. The ODM united a bureaucratic leadership with a working class membership, and grew strongly as further corruption tainted Kibaki. Odinga portrayed himself as the "people's president", and became a focus for discontent.

But the current crisis has exposed the political failings of Odinga. His various calls for discussion with Kibaki are mixed with calls for protests and consumer boycotts, and his lack of a base in the working class has meant a leadership vacuum.

Nationally, the Kikuyu make up some 22 percent of Kenya's population, but they are no less oppressed or poor than other ethnic groups. Ethnic violence is on the increase because Kibaki is Kikuyu, as are the majority of the ruling class and the dreaded general security unit (GSU). Additionally, the Mungiki, a Kikuyu militia outlawed before the election, has now been co-opted by the ruling elite to act as a Mafia-style terror squad, smashing democratic movements in collusion with other state forces.

This makes it easy for the ruling class to divide and rule, with Kikuyu set against other ethnic groups, rather than the poor set against the ruling elite. The ODM has failed to challenge this misdirected anger.

But there may be hope. Many in the ODM are rightly calling for a general strike, to force Kibaki out of office, and there is a growing divide inside the party between the neoliberal leadership and the working class base. Kenya has a large working class, with the slums emptying every morning to fill the factory floors. And the regime is relatively weak. If the police and armed forces were to break from Kibaki as part of a general upsurge, the opportunity could arise for radical change. Were the ODM to split, there would be the possibility of a genuinely grassroots alternative which could unite the poor and build a different society altogether.