Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Kenya Decides

Just a few hours after the polls closed in Kenya's referendum on a new constitution, the results are pouring in. So far, it looks like the "Yes" camp is decisively in the lead . Some bloggers are declaring victory already.
That may be a little premature, but it does seem like a clear trend is developing. If this trend is confirmed, this will be a major victory for the coalition government. And an important personal victory for Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is expected to run for president in polls due by 2012. Approval of the draft constitution would also be a personal victory for President Mwai Kibaki who made passing a new draft his prime "legacy" issue.
If the draft is approved, this will deal a serious blow to Higher Education Minister William Ruto, who spearheaded the "No" campaign with the help of former President Daniel Arap Moi.
Most of all, today's election marks a victory for Kenyans. Everyone (me included!) was worried about possible violence. So far, everything has been peaceful. Listening to voters across the country talk about tolerance and democracy has been very uplifting.
"I was here by 5 (am). I want to be part of this historical moment," Francis Mungai told Reuters, at the Moi Avenue polling station in Nairobi. Read more quotes from Reuters here. 
Of course, there are a lot of questions. Are we seeing the decline of tribalism as a political force in Kenya? Or was this just the nature of the vote ie on a draft constitution rather than a vote on personalities? What will the No team do now? Ruto told Reuters that everyone should accept the results of the referendum. But then, somewhat sinisterly, he warned of a new religious divide in Kenya, between Muslims and Christians.
"God forbid this constitution passes, because there is a clear, serious divide coming. Divisions between Christians and Muslims who have been together for a long time are dangerous for any country," he told Reuters' Richard Lough in an interview.
That's a dangerous and somewhat confusing statement. If he's referring to the fact that Islamic courts, the kadhis courts, are enshrined in the new draft, well that is not new. They have been operating for years. So you have to question his motivation in heralding a new division now. I wonder who exactly he is trying to scare.
Moi, who campaigned strenously against the draft, was asked what he would do if the "Yes" camp won. He said: " I will express my views".
Another question remaining is what will Ruto do? Will he stay in government?
And of course, if the draft is approved, then the hard work of turning what is on paper into practical reality will begin. Odinga said today that the government would form a national post-referendum forum to unite the two sides, and he said the government would bear no grudge against those who campaigned against the draft. So maybe Ruto, Odinga's one-time right-hand man, can carry on.
But those questions are for tomorrow. Today, Kenya can enjoy the fact that the election was peaceful and, it appears, fair. The shadow cast by what happened in 2008 has hung heavy over the country. It may not have gone away entirely, but it is not quite as dark tonight.

Monday, 26 July 2010


With the clock counting down to next week's referendum on a new constitution, it's worth heading over to Kuweni Serious if you want a fresh, thoughtful take on the issues facing Kenya. And more importantly, on what makes Kenya's youth tick. And remember, they make up the majority of the population.
Kuweni Serious -- a website featuring interviews with civil activists and ordinary Kenyans and founded by three young Kenyans in October 2009 -- has teamed up with Just A Band to launch a new campaign to fight the evil forces of apathy in Kenya. (Just A Band are the self-proclaimed experimental boy band behind the Makmende video that has been described as Kenya's first viral phenomenon case you've been living on Mars...)
Among the new content on Kuweni Serious are a series of very witty cartoons by Just A Band's Daniel Muli, which aim to explain aspects of the draft constitution. 
The site also features interviews with young Kenyans -- both the more affluent and the lower middle-class in a city slum. The team asked them what they like about Kenya, what they hate and what they would change. The answers are funny, sad, and always thought-provoking.
The new Kuweni Serious campaign -- which was launched at the iHub last week -- is not just about the referendum though. It's much bigger than that. It's about getting young Kenyans interested in politics, caring about politics and eager to do something to influence their future. 
As Rachel Gichinga, who founded Kuweni Serious with Mbithi Masya and Jim Chuchu, told the crowd at the iHub after a presentation of some of their videos: "We hope we have begun a conversation ... pass on the message. Begin conversations around you."
Masya recognised that their work was probably only reaching the middle classes -- people with Internet access. But, as the 24-year-old said, this is an influential, and large group.
"We are reaching a clique of people that no one could get to ..a very detached group," he said at the launch.
"In Kenya, our middle class is not as small as it may look. It spans a great economic earning divide -- the upper and lower middle class are very far apart but collectively they are quite large and they influence a lot of what happens in the country."
He explained that many people in Nairobi's middle class are originally from other parts of the country, so when they go home , they are listened to. 
 "If we focus on the middle class, and get them, we believe that from there, they will take the response and go out. We are not even trying to spread a message. We are just trying to get people to care."
One of the videos on the site shows a recent protest against MPs efforts to hike their pay. The team interviewed people at the protest, showcasing the anger and frustration felt by many here. 
"It was the first, honest attempt to get a peaceful rally against the members of parliament in our recent history," Masya said. "We were looking at other countries Europe and everywhere and even for the slightest mistake, people are on the streets, conducting protests against members of parliament and here it just doesn't happen. We keep getting slapped in the face and we turn the other cheek, slapped in the face again, and we turn the other cheek again. We just think it's about time that came to an end."
And he thinks that the time is right to try to jolt young Kenyans out of this apathy.
"Before, the apathy helped because you shut out all these depressing things around, but now it's gotten almost overwhelming, where it is crushing us under a weight of just too many things going wrong. Like the economic disparity between different classes -- it's growing wider and wider and that's something no one can ignore ... we actually need to start waking up."
Just A Band's Blinky Bill is interviewed on KuweniSerious and was also at the iHub launch. He was pragmatic about the scale of the team's action, but he said the idea was to offer material that was not abrasive, not didactic, but easily digestible with the aim of seeking explanations. 
And hopefully sparking passion and action in Kenya's youth.
"I think for the longest time we have disregarded what we can do, so I think if people got a little more involved, you'd have more youthful representation in parliament ... and the change starts from somewhere, because right now we have people in parliament who are basically old ... I'm turning 28 this year, and I feel like I have a lot to offer and I feel there are a lot of people who are in (my) age group as well who have a lot to offer. That's what we are hoping for, that people will become passionate enough about their country to get involved."
And his take on next week's referendum?
"Are people going to vote? From the people I've been talking to, a vast majority of them are going to vote ... I don't think this is going to be an election where people are going to fight. It might be closely contested, and that might be where the problem comes in," he said, adding there might be a risk of violence in hotspots if the vote was very close.
Looking further ahead, Masya, who was inspired to set up Kuweni Serious by the post-election violence in 2008 and the way he and the rest of the middle class seemed divorced from it, has a simple hope for 2012.
"No violence where an honest majority vote wins. I don't even care which side wins as long as it's a majority."

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


There's one question that keeps sneaking into conversations in Nairobi these days -- what's going to happen in the Aug. 4 referendum on the constitution? The polls and pundits see a win for the "Yes" team, and the figures, at first sight, look convincing.
The most recent voter survey by Strategic Research, released on July 16, said 62 percent of those questioned said they would vote "Yes". Twenty percent were in the "No" camp and 18 percent said they were undecided. That's a pretty impressive lead. And it's up considerably from the 49 percent said to be in favour of the constitution in a June poll by South Consulting, which works for Kofi Annan and others monitoring the 2008 power-sharing accord.  
The "No" team, which is led by Higher Education Minister William Ruto, has been sceptical of the polls, saying they are biased in favour of the "Yes" camp. Obviously, there are wide margins for error when conducting these surveys. (Do those polled in volatile regions tell the truth, for example? Wouldn't you be a little scared, given what has happened before, of going against the grain of local opinion?)
Macharia Gaitho, a columnist in the Daily Nation, had an interesting take on the figures this week.
"Something seems wrong with the numbers," he writes. "The "No" vote remains constant with all the pollsters, 17 percent from Synovate in April, 21 percent from Infotrak in May, 20 percent from Synovate in early June, 22 percent from South Consulting in late June and now 18 percent. But the "Yes" has swung like a yo-yo. Either Kenyan attitudes are oscillating wildly for no logical reason or some of  the pollsters are blatantly biased."
Gaitho calls on polling agencies and institutes to come together and review their work and their methodology to be sure that they are delivering information that the public can trust.
The winning margin on Aug. 4 could be decisive. If the "Yes" team wins, but with a narrow margin, then this will make dissent and possibly violence more likely. If the win is emphatic, there will be less room for disappointed leaders of the "No" camp to wind up their supporters into challenging the result. People worry about violence on election day -- that may be less of a risk than a slow simmering of discontent that could get a boost from a less-than-convincing win by the "Yes" camp (because they seem the likely leaders).
A report commissioned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, says the victors must lead by a big margin.
"The margin of a Yes win will weaken the forces of resistance to reforms but (a slim margin -- my insert) may give the losing incentives to dig," said consultant Duncan Okello.
Some market analysts are already raising the red flag about the potential effects of a tight vote.
Isaac Njuguna, an investment analyst at Zimele, tells the Daily Nation that a "Yes" vote will favour businesses and investors, but the real effects of the vote will depend on how rival groups take the results.
"We are unlikely to see a lot of activities at the bourse, but after the vote is taken then we shall be in a position to judge. But as things stand now, if the proposed constitution goes through, then we shall see more activities," he says.
That the potential for violence is real is no longer in doubt. A grenade attack on a Church meeting that doubled as a "No" rally in Nairobi in June killed at least six people. As far as I know, no one has yet been charged with the attack. Last week, a pastor and another man were arrested in Nairobi with some kind of ammonium nitrate, a detonator and a safety fuse. They have denied charges of being in possession of explosive materials and are due back in court on Aug. 24. And on Monday night, police searched Ruto's offices after a bomb threat was made. They didn't find anything and Ruto was in Mombasa so it was probably a hoax, but it's a reminder of the passions on both sides.
The Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights and the Truth Commission have also raised concerns about voter intimidation. The two organisations said they had received reports that some communities in the volatile Rift Valley had been threatened with eviction if they vote for the new law (this, of course, reflects the crux of the issue: One of the main bugbears of those leading the "No" campaign is the new constitution's provisions on land. They say these are unfair, and will lead to people being forced to give up their land. The "Yes" team says those who oppose these articles do so because they have acquired land illegally and face having it seized.) The wananchi in some hotspots are already on the move,, upping sticks to get out of contentious zones ahead of the vote. If the people who witnessed first-hand what happened before are moving, then I think there is at least valid cause for concern.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


In the northeast of Kenya today, Kenyan security forces clashed with Somali al Shabaab rebels -- a timely reminder of how vulnerable this country is to being caught up in its neighbour's chaos. Al Shabaab rebels have been flitting across the border for some time -- this, in itself, is not new, or particularly surprising. But the gun battle today is a reminder of the desire of some of al Shabaab's fighters to expand their activities beyond Somalia, or at least to fire warning shots across the bows of nearby countries. After today's incident, both sides are said to be sending reinforcements to the area, northeast of Garissa,  although it must be said that this kind of incident has happened before and it has not escalated into major conflict.
A clan elder in the Somali town of Dhobley told Reuters that two dead al Shabaab fighters were brought there and buried on Tuesday.
"Here in Dhobley, al Shabaab are calling people to jihad against Kenya and deploying more militias to the border. Local people fear more fighting between the two sides," said elder Yusuf Ali Mohamed.
The provincial commissioner of Kenya's North Eastern province said last month that security services here were ready to tackle any threat to Kenya from al Shabaab. But, as Ugandans learnt, it's hard to tackle a threat which is posed by organised, trained fighters, determined to wreak havoc and ready to die in the attempt. And that's even if your security services are the best, the most transparent and the least corrupt. As this story from the Daily Nation showed today, this is not necessarily the case in Kenya. The newspaper
says that its reporters found that contraband, weapons and illegal immigrants were being smuggled into Kenya with the help of corrupt police officers and border and customs officials. The mayor of Garissa, Mohammed Gabow blamed security agencies and said, fatalistically: "We all know what is happening but there is nothing we can do." More worryingly perhaps, North Eastern police boss (the paper does not give his exact title) Abdul Maka Mzee admitted that corruption was rife and that his officers had not succeeded in stamping it out. He pointed out that the entry points were also staffed by immigration and customs agents. Whoever is to blame, and you can probably bet there is a little bit of everyone in there, it's not a great situation on a long border with an anarchic country where Islamist rebels have said they want to attack Kenya.
In another development, a top U.S. general said today that the U.S military was preparing to step up assistance to the African Union troops (mostly Ugandans and Burundians) holding a very thin line in Mogadishu. Gen. William Ward, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said this could include additional equipment, training, logistical support and information-sharing. We know that Obama is not that squeamish about getting involved in Somalia -- well, at least from the air. Remember the U.S. commando raid that took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan last September? Nabhan was one of Africa's most wanted al Qaeda suspects and he was believed to have built the truck bomb that killed 15 at an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa in 2002. If, as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni wants, the African Union troops take the fight to al Shabaab, they will need all the help they can get.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Kampala bombs

The bombings last night in Uganda's capital Kampala provide a frightening reminder of how vulnerable east Africa is to attacks. The police in Kampala and many analysts are already pointing the finger at Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab militia. 
This is why: Uganda has thousands of peacekeepers in Mogadishu as part of the African Union AMISOM force; al Shabaab has threatened Uganda before; coordinated attacks are a hallmark of al Qaeda – in February, al Shabaab and a smaller southern miltia joined forces and swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s group; one of last night's targets was an Ethiopian restaurant (Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group from Mogadishu. The troops later withdrew but Somali insurgents have repeatedly accused Ethiopia of meddling in the blighted country’s affairs); and al Shabaab and the smaller Hizbul Islam banned Somalis in the areas they control from watching the World Cup (Last month, Hizbul Islam killed two people and arrested dozens of others who defied the ban).  

In the past few days, there has been a flurry of new warnings about the presence of foreign fighters in Somalia. Last week, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told the AP that fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan  were relocating to Somalia. Then on Saturday, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told Reuters that he was worried aobut the growing number of foreign jihadists in his country. 

The presence of foreign fighters in Somalia is old news. The anarchy there makes it a perfect spot to train fighters from other regions. But perhaps the numbers are rising or, more worryingly, the training is done and these fighters are ready to spread the chaos beyond Somalia's borders.

IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development which includes  Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti) agreed last week to send 2,000 more peacekeepers to Mogadishu. But the 6,000 already there are not making much headway against al Shabaab and its allies so it’s not clear that putting more boots on the ground is really an effective answer.

It seems that until there is a comprehensive strategy (military and political) with a very large budget behind it, the conflict in Somalia will drag on. And it looks like African nations need to step up to the plate and really make this happen. For now, the international cavalry is not coming, and in a way, why should they? Their domestic populations are not at risk. One could try to argue an international financial interest:Uganda and Kenya are finding more favour with international investors seeking good returns in a global downturn that corporate Africa seems to have weathered relatively well. But at the end of the day, bombs in bars won’t keep investors away, especially in the case of Uganda, which is expected to start pumping oil next year.

The next few years are potentially dangerous ones for East Africa. There is the risk of political instability in Kenya with the run-up to the next elections, expected in 2012, and ongoing efforts to bring those responsible for the 2008 violence to justice at the International Criminal Court. Uganda has presidential elections in February next year, with the promise of oil raising the stakes. South Sudan is due to hold a referendum on independence in January next year. And there are rumblings of political discontent in both Rwanda and Burundi. This is a fragile region, with big challenges and an expanding threat from Somali Islamist militias could be the spark that lights the stacked gunpowder kegs.

Reuters recently reported on a massive recruitment drive by al Shabaab in Kismayu in southern Somalia. “They are getting hundreds of volunteers who are joining them because there is no work and they (rebels) pay some money,” resident Ali Yusuf said. There are more stories about this here.
In an opinion piece written for Foreign Policy, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke makes the case against “constructive disengagement” and in favour of more international financial support. 

If you turn the Somali problem on its head, you could see war as a symptom of poverty, desperation and need, rather than the cause of these things. Tackling the latter might be a more effective way of halting the conflict by robbing the militias of the one thing they need more than anything else – young desperate fighters with nothing to lose.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Quiet before the storm?

As the countdown to the Aug. 4 referendum on the constitution continues, there has been some unsettling news from a monitoring team that reports on Kenya’s political progress to Kofi Annan, who helped to broker the 2008 power-sharing deal.
The report, produced by South Consulting for the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Monitoring Team,  is due to be released today, but the Standard newspaper says it has seen a draft. 
First of all, the poll shows support for the “Yes” camp  falling to 49 percent, with 22 percent saying they will vote “No” and 22 percent undecided. This seems to confirm a slight decline of support since April, with the strongest opposition coming from the Rift Valley, according to the data in the Standard.
The report’s authors are worried that even if the “Yes” campaign does win the referendum, the margin could be so small that it would call into question the legitimacy of the poll. 
"It is significant that this decline in the number of those supporting the Proposed Constitution has not led to a significant increase in the number of people rejecting it. A point to note, nonetheless, is that the political legitimacy of the new constitution would require a high approval rating, beyond the legal benchmark of 50 percent plus one," the new report says, according to the Standard.
The report says the “Yes” camp is still likely to win, but wonders if the new draft will have enough support to guarantee stability and unity. In other words, what will the losers do? Will they accept the will of the majority (and again, this is where the winning margin may be crucial) or will the result be challenged in a way that brings to the fore the old political, ethnic and, possibly now, even religious rivalries.
One of the features of the pre-referendum debate has been the way it has focused attention on divisions between Kenyan Muslim and Christian communities. Many Christian churches are basing their opposition to the draft on articles on abortion and the kadhis courts, that rule on matters like divorce, marriage and inheritance for Kenya’s Muslim community. No matter that kadhis courts already existed under the old constitution or that abortion is only allowed when a mother’s life is in danger. This is not the narrative being spun by some opponents of the draft, who portray the new constitution as a grave threat to the integrity and indeed identity of the Kenyan state.(this story looks at these tensions).
There is also the danger that the referendum could widen splits in the fragile coalition despite the fact that one-time rivals President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga are both campaigning for a “Yes” vote.
Some have said there may be a danger that dissatisfaction with the referendum result could lead to the collapse of the coalition, although other
analysts say that is unlikely because the government can only be dissolved if Kibaki or Odinga pull out.
The monitoring team's report says that one reason for the indecision among voters is the failure of senior politicians to commit to the “Yes” camp, symbolized by the colour green. Politicians who say they are in favour of the draft but are secretly pushing for a “No”, symbolized by the colour red, are now known as watermelons – green on the outside and red on the inside.
One of the most tireless campaigners for the “Yes” camp has been Odinga, but he had an operation last week to relieve pressure on his brain caused by internal bleeding. He is at home now, but doctors are only allowing him light duties for the next, crucial, two weeks. 
The monitoring team’s report urges the political leadership to become more aggressive in campaigning for the passage of the draft constitution.
"The journey to a new Constitution in Kenya has been a long and tortuous one, often frustrated by individual and ethno-political interests. The President, PM and Vice President must step up joint campaigns and reach out to everyone and everywhere," it says.
But is Odinga up to this? He is the most visible member of the “Yes” campaign with the frail Kibaki taking a very secondary role. And also, what does Odinga’s operation and health worries mean for the 2012 election? Maybe nothing. But it might be something to keep an eye on.
And finally, check out Kuweni Serious’ Soma Hiyo Something, a series of very funny and very smart cartoons meant to encourage people to read the constitution before that Aug. 4 vote. 

Friday, 2 July 2010


Kenyan lawmakers’ decision to vote themselves a pay increase is not particularly surprising. They have already lost much credibility among the wananchi – until now, they have not paid tax on most of their earnings, they are perceived by many as overpaid timewasters and they have done little to rein in corruption.
The BBC said the pay hike meant that Prime Minister Raila Odinga (recovering in hospital after minor surgery to relieve pressure on his brain) would take home one third more than Britain’s David Cameron, and 10 percent more than Barack Obama. That’s eyebrow-raising. What’s probably more galling to Kenyans is how much more he, and other more lowly lawmakers, would be taking home compared to the people who voted for them. Xan Rice in the Guardian makes this very clear. 
MPs did agree to finally pay income tax – their exemption provoked huge public anger – but the proposed rises meant they would still take home more than when they did not pay tax.
The MPs’ decision, predictably, sparked immediate fury.
"Yet another drastic pay hike for MPs ... is the most outrageous, insensitive, immoral and intolerant abuse and impunity by Kenya's officialdom the country has ever witnessed," umbrella body Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations told Reuters.
The pay rise has however hit a snag after Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta said there was no money to fund the proposed increases, which would have brought an MP’s monthly salary to 1.1 million shillings (a boost of about a quarter). Kenyatta reminded the MPs that they had warned against excessive borrowing and increasing the tax burden.
"The actions taken by Hon Members are not supportive of these noble objectives because they will trigger demands for salary increment by other sectors. Consequently, these will lead to a wage spiral, hence creating inflation and weakening our competitiveness," he warned.
So the raises, which sparked such anger, may not go through. Let’s see.
What is more shocking than the pay rise proposals themselves is the cynicism involved in MPs voting these in now. And what is really worrying is what it tells you about the future, with or without a new constitution.
Under the draft constitution, which is to be put to a referendum on Aug. 4, MPs will no longer be able to set their own salaries. So it seems the pay rise was intended to circumvent or at the very least contradict the constitution before it even goes to a public vote.
At the end of the day, a new constitution will be worthless unless the political will exists to implement its articles in their entirety. It is after all just a piece of paper – an important piece of paper of course, but what will count is its implementation. You have to be able to believe that it will not be manipulated or misinterpreted for the benefit of one group. To be able to believe that, you have to have faith in your lawmakers and in your judiciary. While the constitution contains articles that will change the way these officials are appointed, there may also need to be a change in the political culture to ensure that those appointed under the new system are as altruistic and independent as the document envisions. Some Kenyan analysts argue that a modern constitution is being imposed on institutions that are simply not ready for it.
Given this, perhaps efforts to bring those responsible for the post-election killings in 2008 may have more effect in terms of changing the political culture. That is why Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s drive to indict six of those believed to be most responsible for fomenting and financing the violence is so important. And so sensitive. And so potentially destabilizing. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. 
Some Kenyans think the ICC process will be cathartic – by removing some big names and proving that impunity can only go so far. But many others are scared about how those big names will react if and when they are indicted. And how their support bases will react. That is the great unknown. The ICC process is probably still a bigger risk to political stability than the referendum.
Constitutions tend not to be written in stone. Just ask Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Niger’s Mamadou Tandja or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who all managed to change their constitutions to extend their rule.