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Kenya’s Politics of Exclusion

Author: Stephanie Hanson
January 8, 2008


The campaign for Kenya’s presidential election, which included candidate “branding” and the widespread use of text messaging (WashPost), seemed to herald a new openness in Nairobi’s politics. Postelection mayhem turned that perception on its head. Following accusations that President Mwai Kibaki had rigged the December 30 vote, the government suspended news broadcasts, hundreds of Kenyans were killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Jendayi Frazer, the top U.S. State department official for Africa, said: “The people of Kenya have been cheated” (FT). At best, Kenya now faces the prospect of a government that has lost the confidence of its people. At worst, the country faces a protracted political stalemate or further outbreaks of violence.

Pressure from the United States, Europe, and the African Union has yet to yield a solution from either Kibaki or opposition leader Raila Odinga. Analysts are now discussing the possibility of a power-sharing arrangement between the two. But any such solution could leave a host of problems in its wake. At their root is the common perception that the government primarily helps its cronies, not the general population. Although Kenya has enjoyed strong economic growth under Kibaki, over half the population remains under the poverty line. Anger at this fact is reflected in an election slogan of Odinga's party: “It’s our turn to eat” (ISN). Some experts say that to address social and economic inequality, Kenya needs to change its constitution (VOA). Kenya must “introduce systems that entrench the politics of inclusion,” writes Jaindi Kisero in the Nairobi-based East African.

The urgency of the situation is only magnified by the critical role Kenya plays geopolitically. Like Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya is considered an “anchor state” by diplomats. It is a relatively open society with a history of multiparty politics and an economy that serves as a regional hub. Due to its proximity to crisis-stricken countries such as Somalia and Sudan, it also houses the headquarters of significant humanitarian operations. Twenty percent of Kenya’s foreign exchange comes from UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

While much has been made of Kenya’s cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in East Africa (WashTimes), Nairobi also serves as a strong political partner for the United States. Kenya has facilitated regional diplomatic efforts such as the peace process between north and south Sudan and attempts to reconcile Somalia’s warring factions. Kenya’s U.S. embassy is the largest in Africa, and U.S. aid to Kenya (AP) totals about $1 billion a year (of roughly $5.6 billion for the entire continent). It is “America’s indispensable partner,” writes Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College. In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, he suggests that Washington should threaten economic sanctions if Kibaki does not agree to a power-sharing government.

Experts say keeping Kenya stable will require focusing on its demographics. Lost in much of the media coverage of Kenya’s postelection upheaval is the young age of those who have taken to the streets. More than 70 percent of Kenyans are under thirty. These youths, many of whom are poor and unemployed, present specific challenges. “They have no commitment to the current system, because it has excluded them,” Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government tells Newsweek International. He points to an “intergenerational conflict” that will outlive the current political crisis. Indeed, research shows that countries with a “youth bulge” are particularly vulnerable to civil conflict. But policymakers should resist the tendency to view the youth bulge in Africa as simply men with guns or tools of political elites, writes CFR International Affairs Fellow Michelle D. Gavin. Youth have the potential to lead positive political change, she suggests. To facilitate this, policymakers should spur job creation and education opportunities.

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