Uganda waits with bated breath as Kenya goes to the polls tomorrow (Monday). And with good reason.
The last time the Kenyans voted in 2007 they caught us all by surprise with an orgy of bloodletting that official figures show, saw more than 1000 killed and tens of thousands more displaced.
Some gunboat diplomacy by the George Bush administration brought sanity to east Africa’s largest economy and forced a political settlement which has managed to keep up appearances thus far.
But just as is the case with most political contests once the leaders shared the spoils there was nary a crumb leftover for the rest. The relatives of the dead have not found justice, thousands continue to be displaced and millions of Kenyans remain traumatised by an event whose explanation continues to elude the chattering classes.
What was clear after the event is that below the veneer of calm and advancement lies deep seated tribal and ethnic grudges that fester and can be taken advantage by opportunistic politicians.
So no one should be surprised that we look east with apprehension as the Kenyans line up to cast their votes.
Unlike Uganda which fell on the wrong side of the cold war divide and paid for it, Kenya pandered to western capitals, did not disrupt the cozy arrangement colonial capital has set up – in fact the local elite jumped into the trough with both feet, and for most of the 70s and 80s was the one eyed man among the blind.
The prototypical big men who held sway since independence in 1963 first Jomo Kenyatta and then Daniel arap Moi, who surprised everyone by first succeeding Kenyatta and then hanging on for two decades, made no pretensions at being democrats, dealing ruthlessly with dissent and encouraging crude capital accumulation at the expense of the small man managed to maintain a semblance of peace, keeping ethnic tensions down to playful bar banter.
The close of the cold war in the late eighties meant that priorities changed and the “big man” became a expendable ally with the new fad of democracy and economic liberalism. Kenya was forced to open up to multi-party democracy and it has taken some learning to operate under the new arrangement.
Once the political space was opened up the parties that led the fight have since moved on, merged or morphed. Just as at independence the independence movements found they had little ideological ground on which to stand once the colonialists had been shipped, so too did the Kenyan parties with a regression back to tribal politics as the only way elites could see to create usable alliances for the political advancement.
Kenya’s saving grace is that there are more than a handful of tribes. While the Kikuyu and the Luo are the major tribe by numerical strength there are enough tribes to around to put the brakes on an out-and-out bloodfest like occurred in Rwanda.
However, decades of uneven economic growth means that Kenya has got huge income inequalities, which override transient tribal differences. Kenya more than its neighbours has real class divides with the poor majority held at bay by a wealthy elite who control the instruments of power and violence.
Recent commentaries have boiled it down to two possible outcomes of this election.
One, that Kenyans still shell shocked from the events of six years ago will exercise restraint, have a peaceful election and move on with their lives. A scenario they argue is realistic given that the key antagonists of last times bloodiest clashes in the rift valley the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin are allied on one side of the contest.
This last thought is where the second group of commentators derive their biggest concern.
That with main contender Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto – alleged kingpins in the last post-election violence, with possible indictments by the International Criminal Court hanging over their heads, their desperation to get to state house will know no bounds.
If they lose the election they will have no leverage over a Raila Odinga administration and hence the real fear of being hang out to dry. The international community has already voiced unease at a Uhuru victory.
But if Uhuru and company win the election they would have much more leeway to run rings around the ICC a la Omar Bashir in Sudan.
The stakes are high.
Beyond the national consensus to have a peaceful election, look to the huge commercial interests – international and especially local, to prevail on the situation and nip any hanky panky in the bud.
At least that’s what we all hope.