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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kenya's political class and missed opportunities

This surely must rank as one of the saddest, most disgraceful conversations in Kenya’s history. It was October 1965 and Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial governor who had presided over the brutal crackdown on the Mau Mau, had returned to the country two years after the British were suddenly forced by circumstances to surrender the colony.

Sir Evelyn decided to visit the new President, Jomo Kenyatta, at his former office in State House. This is how the conversation went, as recorded in his biography, Evelyn Baring: The Last Proconsul. Sir Evelyn told Kenyatta: "By the way, I was sitting at that actual desk when I signed your detention order 20 years ago."

"I know," Kenyatta said. "If I had been in your shoes at the time, I would have done exactly the same." Both men burst out laughing. Then Kenyatta added. "And I have myself signed a number of detention orders sitting right here too."

That neatly summarises the cynical nature of Kenya's political class.

Mzee Kenyatta, for whom untold thousands had died in the liberation struggle in the hope he would be the principled and idealistic African leader who would lead Kenya to the promised land of independence and self-government, turned out to be a cynical leader, just as despotic as the colonial administration he replaced.

He was not joking when he told Sir Evelyn that he would not hesitate to sign detention orders for people he saw as a threat to his hold on power. Among those he sent to Kamiti was Achieng Oneko, one of the five nationalists detained with him at Kapenguria by the colonialists.

This little story is only one of many examples of the legendary selfishness of the Kenyan political elite. That is why it is so sad that the new constitutional order has, by law, to be agreed through deals cut by MPs in the Grand Coalition. The Naivasha Accord will go down as yet another major missed opportunity in Kenya's history.

The tension that has informed politics in Kenya since the 1950s was the fear by smaller ethnic communities that independence and the introduction of competitive politics would lead to a perpetual era of domination by the bigger ethnic groups. This narrative has not changed more than half a century later, and is the key reason why the referendum in 2005 and the 2007 General Election were essentially referendums pitting the Kikuyu on one hand against the other communities, which banded together to resist domination by a Kikuyu presidency.

The drafters of the Bomas constitution suggested tackling these ethnic tensions through two key remedies: a parliamentary system that would give all communities, however small, a feeling that they are represented in key decision making processes at the Executive level, and a robust system of devolution that would tackle the perception that the regions which produce the president are unfairly favoured in distribution of resources.

Such an approach would help give Kenya what John Githongo in a Newsweek article last year called a "software upgrade" to "save Kenya and its neighbours from future convulsions driven by resentments not captured by World Bank statistics".

With the conservative draft that emerged from Naivasha last week, that opportunity has been lost. Cartoonist Gado put it best when he suggested that the preamble of the new constitution should delete the word "people" and read: "We the MPs of Kenya... accept this new constitution...”

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