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Kenya deeply divided

Martina Schwikowski
November 30, 2017

After the inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta, many Kenyans are hoping for peace. But it seems unlikely that the government and opposition will be able to start any kind of meaningful dialogue.

Kenya's vice president Wiliam Ruto swears in as Uhuru#s deputy
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/Kenyan Presidency Press Office

In Kenya, the newly elected President Uhuru Kenyattachose exactly the right words for the main task in his second term of office: He wants to unite the nation. The country is deeply divided and the political divisions seem, at this point, to be almost insurmountable. Following Kenyatta's swearing in on Tuesday in Nairobi, reality is now taking hold. On Wednesday — one day after the inauguration ceremony in the presence of many African leaders — the streets in the capital remained quiet. Kenyans are disillusioned after the election debacle. Dozens of people were killed in violent clashes over the past few months after the annulment of the first presidential election in August. Kenya now faces the challenge of finding a united and peaceful way forward.

Lack of trust

According to political analysts, many Kenyans do not have confidence in the government, which has been elected for a further five years. Only 39 percent of the electorate took part in the second election on 26 October after the first presidential election failed due to alleged electoral fraud.

"The entire electoral process has further divided the nation," Ulf Terlinden, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Nairobi told DW.  The opposition boycotted the second election out of protest, but has not been able to gain anything from this, he said. They are now only able to assert their importance by cementing division, or even escalating the conflict, he added.

Crowds of people scamper after police fires teargas at the entrance of the stadium
Police fired teargas at crowds who tried to force their way into the stadium for the inauguration of UhuruImage: Reuters/B. Ratner

This appears to be exactly the path that opposition leader RailaOdinga is taking. On the day of Kenyatta's swearing in, Odinga announced that he would swear himself in as president on 12 December.

"Swearing in a second president is certainly an act of provocation to which the government will respond," said Terlinden. Odinga wants to set up a kind of national convention that will elect him as president. By so doing, he would risk being accused of treason.

No reconciliation in sight

The country is facing a dilemma. The second election on 26 October was legal but not credible. "An election without an opposition puts its legitimacy in question," Terlinden said. Negotiations alone cannot resolve the historical conflict in the country. For Terlinden, the question is whether a dialogue is possible that could renew the basic social consensus and do away with old injustices, for example the land question. Kenyatta and the Kikuyus are accused of appropriating land unlawfully. The recommendations of a commission of enquiry have not been implemented. "Only by resolving the land issue can Kenya move forward, but the prospect of this happening is not very good," Terlinden said.

Kenyan political commentator Martin Oloo sees dialogue as the only, albeit difficult, way to a conciliatory future. With Raila Odinga refusing to recognize the government, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current situation. But the opposition is moving on slippery ground with their plan for creating a national assembly.

Men hold placards of Kenya's opposition leader
Many supporters of Raila Odinga boycotted Uhuru's swearing ceremony Image: picture-alliance/AA/B. Jaybee

"If the opposition continues to behave like this and the government does not try to reduce the political divide in the country, the division will deepen and the tensions around the different ethnicities will increase," said Oloo.

According to Oloo, the political division is about much deeper issues that are based on old ethnic conflicts rooted in issues of exclusion. Since independence in 1963, most of Kenya's presidents have come from the country's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu — for example, Jomo Kenyatta, and now his son Uhuru. According to experts, members of other groups, such as the Luo, to which Odinga belongs, feel marginalized.

Shifting political struggle

"It takes a lot of humility from the winners and courage from the losers to come together with the goal of healing the nation," Oloo told DW. "We hope that those who work with the leaders will say: ‘The land is bigger than you. Let us reconcile and postpone the struggles until later.'" He pointed out that serious consideration must be given to renewing the electoral system. Everyone has lost confidence in the electoral commission, which has been proven incompetent, he said.

President John Pombe Magufuli with her vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan.
Tanzania's Magufuli, an old friend of Odinga was unsurprisingly absent at Uhuru's inaugurationImage: DW/Said Khamis

The division between the supporters of Kenyatta and Odinga is now having flow-on effects to neighboring countries. While Kenyatta's inauguration was attended by all other heads of government of neighboring states, Tanzania's President John Magufuli was absent. Magafuli is an old friend of Raila Odinga. A trade row has affected ties between Tanzania and Kenya and exports in both directions have fallen. During his election campaign Odinga promised to negotiate an opening of the border with his friend. The controversial re-election of Kenyatta could add to the burden on ties between the two countries. If Odinga does indeed proclaim a parallel government, then he would have, at least behind the scenes, a possible ally in the person of Magufuli.