African Writers speak out on Kenya

Publié le par hort

African Writers speak out on Kenya

Mildred Barya

Many people now say Kenya needs a few good men who want to serve without applause. Do we have them? Given the post-election violence in Kenya, it takes a sober, courageous person to look into the eye and the camera to say:  “I am sorry…we are sorry, we made a mistake…”

And yet, most times, these are the only words that those who have been wronged need to hear in order to return to the humane. The Kenyan situation during and after the elections warranted such words from the leaders. Instead, hollow-sounding words were spoken and we all know what followed: Loss. Death. Devastation. Shame. Greed for power, not service, did it. It destroyed the pride of the people and the humility within individuals. How can we gather the broken pieces to run a connecting thread through them? How can Kenya be whole, again? And perhaps the bigger question is, was there a ‘whole’ in the first place or it has always been splinters seemingly presented as one whole? A few African writers, in their own words, have something to say about Kenya’s elections and
Africa’s political structures.


The sort of thing happening in Kenya happened in Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and will happen again in Cameroon, in fact, every time there's an election under the present system. The problem is structural, not circumstantial. This is not only about elections: as long as we wish to remain within colonial political structures, the source of government legitimacy will remain what it was at the Berlin conference: force plus fraud. We shed blood during elections because we serve deities made in Berlin, and they have always needed human sacrifice. Part of the Berlin political deal was that massacres of the population were routine whenever they demanded democratic rights. If we want to end the bloodshed surrounding elections, we'll have to shift to a different organizational system. It is possible, but structurally, it cannot be Ugandan or Ghanaian or Kenyan. These are Berlin constructs, even if we pretend they are African. They are not. An African system is possible and feasible. It will cost nothing in human blood, and be less expensive to maintain than the present "state" system that drinks so much blood.


Politicians ought to see themselves as the midwives of people's hopes and aspirations. Sadly by far their greatest crime must be their compulsive disorder to take the new baby, throw it down the pit latrine and then stand around poking each other's faces: I declare it a boy and not a girl! No it was a girl I saw it! No it was a boy! So why did you throw it away? No I didn't, you did. Ok let’s hear it from the mother? No, I will punch her face if she gets involved in matters that are beyond her grasp! And so on and so on. Hopefully, among Kenya's political elite there is someone who is brave enough to go wade through all the crap, recover the baby, reunite it with its mother and restore faith in our politics.


In 2004, I travelled to Kenya for a writing workshop and stopped off for a few days in Kisumu to visit with my sister-in-law and her family. I loved Kisumu at first glance. I remember describing it to a friend as serene. Like the sea. It reminded me of Enugu, the city where I grew up in Nigeria. Not too big. Not too small. Just the right size. The people I saw seemed to exude the same sort of calmness the city itself gave. I felt if I could live anywhere else in the world, Kisumu would be it.

I carrried that image of Kisumu in my mind until towards the end of December 2007 when the civil unrests which followed the "landslide victory" of Kibaki began. Kisumu became unearthed from its sweet calm to inhabit front-page news all over the world. Kenyans became split, not along party lines, but along cultural groups. Neighbours began to call up hatred for each other. Everyday I switch on the radio to listen to the news, there are more people, ordinary people being killed. Police dispersing protesters with machine guns. People hiding in their homes, too scared to get out.

Like Ngugi Wa Thiongo pointed out recently, this has gone beyond the rigging of elections. That is not fixed by burning churches with people in them. It is not fixed by killing children hardly old enough to vote. This has mutated into ethnic cleansing. And if we are not careful this could escalate into something more monstrous, more odious than the genocide that decimated Rwanda in 1994 and from which the nation still trills.


Total abuse of the Kenyan people's confidence in themselves; distortion of the African people's faith in their future; blind daylight robbery of our trust, our self-worth. This is criminal.


Kenya snatched the baton of electoral violence. Today, she flees with that old dog, Tribalism, snapping at her heels. Escalating deaths, fractured lives and a gloomy déjà vu: we have seen this race for life a dozen times before. It is a case of ‘two fighting’; except that the main pugilists will not draw their own blood, they draw the blood of pawns. Presently one combatant will blink and the other will cart away the prize. Then (relative) ‘peace and stability’ will return to allow the venal dogs (far preferable to these blood-thirsty hounds) to return to their haunts at the Kenyan trough.

Yet, ethnic nations (tribes if you prefer) are not the core problem any more than can be a problem to be Kenyan/Tanzanian/Ugandan. It takes a leader of Hitler’s persuasion to convert German/Aryan/Jewish identities into issues of life and death, of genocide. Across the board in Africa it is past time to criminalize recidivist leadership with the potential for genocide. Across the continent, a new fad, the ‘Blanding of Africa’ is gaining currency: the effacement of ethnic nations (Kikuyu, Nupe…) in favour of nation-states (Mali, Sudan…). It would be another signal mistake in a long sequence. Rather than erase the ancient personalities, languages and cultures of our ethnic nations, I’d far rather erase the Kenyan, Nigerian, South African borders and spill their nations and peoples into their geographic envelope…

So much for dreams!

Yet, we do have a problem when armed zombies take to the streets, seeking innocents from other tribes. Without for one moment exculpating those monsters, we need to ask who sustains, channels, manipulates, and benefits from tribalism? Those masterminds behind the machetes are the focal enemy. It is well and good to crisis-manage Kenya by seeking which of two should rule, or how the twain may share power. But the larger issue—beyond election rigging—is: which leaders are worthy of the seat of power.

In these days of geometric escalations from tribal tension to genocide, truth is, beating the tribal drum is much more inimical to the national fabric than the crime of stuffing more ballot boxes than the other chap. The first thing a national leader does, on the day after he ‘wins’ 51% of the vote, is to make a speech wooing the 49% who campaigned and voted against him. How on earth does a ‘leader’ bring on board the survivors of people he has vicariously run through with a spear?

Leaders who have blood on their hands should simply walk away. Leaders who have pounded the tribal drum should not mount the National stage. Kenya—Africa—deserves far better.

For their part, opposition leaders, like many an incumbent, often fail the Solomon Test. (When King Solomon ordered that a disputed baby be cut in two and a bloody half given to each of the contesting mothers, one of them relinquished her claim to the baby in order to save its life. The other  insisted that the baby be divided. Instantly, Solomon knew the real mother.) Too many African leaders would rather burn their countries to the ground than walk away. They would rather blow up nations with the dynamite of tribal tension than articulate the policies, and invest the truly hard work of building national consensus. We should put them out of business. It is not an act of courage to fight incumbent dictators by appealing to a tribal caucus. It is an act of moral cowardice; it says: ‘I cannot win this nation, and I have no ideas, no clue, as to how to wrest power, so I’ll just knock over the barrow.’ The tribal rhetoric is now quite passé, the hallmark of leaders bereft of ideas.

Unfortunately, once a party plays the ethnic card it becomes quite hard for others to avoid getting sucked in. Tribalism is the ultimate slippery slope, greased with tragic history. Even today, it peppers European war and politics. We need leaders with a new language, a new vision and a new toolkit for power. Kenya should stop in its track right now, turn around, and stare down that dog, Tribalism, and its sundry demons. This circuit she is running is a loop that descends into hell.

From the writer’s perspectives, it is clear no party is going to govern peacefully anywhere in Africa in old wineskins. Sagging wineskins. It would be like characters playing parts that do not suit them in a drama. Would they go on forcefully to play or they would have to stop, question the fitness, and write their own script? This is where we are. Why in this century would we be condemning our brothers and sisters to cheap deaths? We need to re-invent ourselves and redefine where we live but first, we must put aside fat egos and lust for power before we can design and embrace an all-inclusive newness.

* Mildred K Barya is Writer-in-Residence at TrustAfrica (

Publié dans contemporary africa

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