Can People Power Change Kenya?
Resolving the election crisis of 2007-08 is one thing, argues GRCA Research Associate Stephen Ndegwa, and addressing underlying injustices is quite another. Ndegwa and an engaged UCLA audience debate the likelihood of significant change from below.
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2008
The incumbent government is one that has no problem unleashing the state.
During the question period following a talk on campus this Monday sponsored by the UCLA Globalization Research Center–Africa (GRCA), about five members of an audience of 40 argued that ordinary Kenyans may be poised to wrest the political initiative away from elites, even as negotiations to end a six-week-old post-election crisis continue between the rival parties.
The speaker, however, counted himself a pessimist on prospects for "people power."
"We have to remember the singular brutality of the state," said Stephen Ndegwa, a research associate at the GRCA and a Kenyan. "The incumbent government is one that has no problem unleashing the state," he added, referring to that of President Mwai Kibaki.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga has accused Kibaki of stealing the Dec. 27, 2007, election that Kibaki officially won by a margin of some 230,000 votes. Since then, at least 1,000 people have been killed and 600,000 displaced in clashes with police and between ethnic groups.
In his talk, Ndegwa emphasized not popular resistance, but the role of a "political class that thinks of the state as a set of assets to be captured."
He encouraged the audience to "look beyond" any short-term negotiated settlement to the crisis. Past failures of Kenyan politicians to address underlying issues—including inequalities in the distribution of land and other resources and the method of representing diverse regions and ethnicities in government—make it likely that the present crisis will persist "beyond the violence that captures our imaginations much more quickly." (The mediation process led by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is supposed to address historical injustices in a concluding phase.)
Poverty is starkest in western Kenya in spite of ample resources, Ndegwa said; in general, the benefits of Kenya's admirable economic growth have not been spread widely.
"Agreement is always good until you realize later on that it hasn't taken into account the fullness of the problem," he said.
The profound "disappointment" of the last six weeks, said Ndegwa, feels worse in light of missed opportunities to nurture Kenya's fragile democracy.
In neighboring Tanzania, for example, "they just fired their government, the prime minister and cabinet, for corruption issues, which Kenyans had ample opportunity to do."
In addition to his affiliation with the GRCA, Ndegwa is an analyst at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. His comments do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bank.