MWANGI: Kenya is about to sneeze, get ready to catch a cold

CORD co-principal Moses Wetangula washes his face to beat off the itch after police lobbed teargas at Anniversary Towers. [Photo/Emmanuel Wanson]

In what could be a precursor of what lies ahead, an opposition protest in Kenya’s capital on April 25th was broken up by anti-riot police, who tear-gassed the demonstrators. While this may seem a normal occurrence in East Africa, its repercussions are likely to be felt far and wide for a long time to come.

Kenya occupies a special geopolitical position in the region. Although this strategic position has been undermined in recent years, especially by the rise of other East African states as viable alternative centres of economic and political influence in the region, Kenya still occupies pole position in many ways.

It was for this reason that the whole region took notice when the country exploded in 2007-8, with the post-election violence ending with the initiation of a coalition government headed by former president Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Apart from the violence and killings, the madness then led to the loss of property and eviction from their homes of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lost, many of whom are yet to be compensated. But the repercussions went beyond Kenya’s borders. Uganda, especially, was badly affected by the disruption of transport on the Northern Corridor when rowdy youths uprooted sections of the rail line. This was to protest Uganda’s alleged involvement in the election dispute in support of Kibaki.

The port of Mombasa also serves Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which were all adversely affected by the violence in Kenya. In addition, Tanzania and Uganda had to shoulder the burden of accommodating thousands of fleeing Kenyans, some of whom have never returned to their motherland.

There are other ways in which Kenya is so significant to the region, too. The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the principal entry point into the region. Kenya’s industrial sector is also the most advanced in the region, providing much-needed goods and services.

Perhaps, it this heavy reliance on Kenya, and the fact that the country’s politics can become volatile and unpredictable, that partly dictated Uganda’s decision to forego initial plans to transport its oil through Kenya and opt instead for the port of Mtwara in Tanzania.

Still, the impact of any instability in Kenya on the rest of the region cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, with Kenya being the most vibrant democracy in the region, none of the other countries has the moral credentials to speak out or intervene.

Following the debacle that elections have become in neighbouring states, the regime in Kenya could easily be tempted to follow suit, with disastrous consequences. The signs of trouble in the coming general election of 2017 are there for all to see: The integrity of the Judiciary is in tatters; the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has lost the confidence of a substantial proportion of Kenyans; low-scale ethnic clashes are an ongoing affair; and war-mongering has become a way of life for tribal chieftains.

In 2013, the biometric voter register equipment malfunctioned, and the opposition now says nothing has been done to ensure such weaknesses won’t be repeated. That, obviously, affects the integrity of elections. The dispute arising from the 2013 presidential election was adjudicated by the Supreme Court, but this seems no longer an option considering the current state of the Judiciary. Yet, there seems to be little urgency, if any, on the part of Kenyan authorities to address these concerns.

What remains, then, is muscle-flexing. A macho game to see who will be the first to blink. In one corner is the government, which is almost certainly looking forward to replicate Kampala’s feat in crushing opposition supporters. On the other side of the ring is the opposition, which has vowed to use mass protests to bring about change.

Caught in between are ordinary Kenyans. Watching from afar, too, are millions of East Africans who have no clue what is going on in their sister state. Many Kenyans, as is customary, are blindly following their leaders in this confrontation that has largely acquired ethnic undertones.

The last time this happened, the country was pulled back from the precipice by a team of Eminent Persons headed by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. History, it seems, has an uncanny way of repeating itself; so, who will be Kenya’s saviours this time round?

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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