Late last month, allegations of vote fraud in Kenya's closely fought presidential election sparked riots and demonstrations throughout the country.
Kenya's crisis, however, "has mutated from an electoral dispute into much deeper problems with a high potential for recurrence," former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told a reporter with Nairobi's East African Standard. Annan went to Kenya to try to mediate the political dispute and calm violent tribal passions.
All too often in the developing world tribes and ethnic groups form the core of political parties. With ethnicity for tinder, minor political squabbles -- much less issues involving the control of national institutions like a presidency -- risk igniting deadly ethnic conflict.
In Kenya, East Africa's "stable nation," ethnic fighting has ignited.
Diplomats and cooler Kenyan leaders are trying to confine the ugly violence. Kenya matters. Kenya has provided a stabilizing political influence in a war-wrecked region -- violent conflicts tear its neighbors Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Kenya has been a reliable American ally, with its port of Mombasa welcoming the U.S. Navy. It is a regional economic powerhouse. Still, the inter-tribal violence recalls impoverished Rwanda and its ghastly 1994 genocide.
Annan may be the best mediator available. A former secretary-general underscores global concern, and his presence appeals to the egos of Kenya's two rival leaders, President Mwai Kibaki (who won the presidential election) and opposition leader Raila Odinga (who claims Kibaki won by fraud). Annan attracts international media attention.
While an intense media spotlight certainly doesn't stop violence in some circumstances, it can have a dampening effect. Kenya, with its comparatively free press and relatively high literacy rate, may be one of those circumstances where shameful images of self-destruction and eloquent pleas for restraint reinforce the sensible.
Charges of cronyism and corruption tag Annan, however, the United Nations' fraud-riddled Oil for Food program being the most noxious case in point. Annan mentioned "deeper problems" and doubtlessly referred to Kenyan tribal divisions. But tribal cronyism and its frequent companion, debilitating government corruption, are also deeper problems that stunt Kenyan modernization and exacerbate the current crisis.
Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) outpolled Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) in parliamentary races, giving both parties a governmental power base. Kenyan's presidency, however, is a very strong institution.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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