There was a dramatic rush in Nairobi last Tuesday to beat the deadline for registering coalitions for the March 4, 2013 General Election.
When the dust settled, the rest of East Africa, which had been worrying itself to death about Kenya having another violent election as it did in 2007/2008, thus throwing the region over an economic cliff, had reason to breathe easier.
Not only did the sometimes shockingly cold-hearted Kenyan political deal-making remove the risk of violence, but long-term regional stability also got a lift from Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn gave a hint that he might be more flexible than his successor, the late Meles Zenawi, when he said he was willing to hold talks with neighbour Eritrea.
Ethiopia fought a bloody border war with Eritrea that ended in 2000, with nearly 100,000 people dead. This would be the first time an Ethiopian leader held talks with Eritrea’s strongman Issaias Afeworki since the end of that war.
"The most important thing for us is to fight poverty ... to have regional integration. If we two do that, it will be much more productive," Hailemariam said in a statement Wednesday.
Not only will a return to a less hostile relationship between Addis Ababa and Asmara allow Ethiopia to pursue its increasingly deeper political ties with Kenya, it will improve the chances of securing the gains that the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom, made in helping stabilise the country.
Eritrea has been accused by Kenya, and more loudly by Ethiopia and the UN, of providing backing to Al Shabaab militants in Somalia, a charge Asmara denies.
For the region, then, with South Sudan and Sudan finally getting businesslike and agreeing on how to share the oil in the south and manage its export through the north; and the government of the DR Congo agreeing to talk to the M23 rebels, the remaining possible party-wrecker of the next few months was the Kenya election.
The region has been biting its fingers over the possibility of violence, and beyond that the prospects for continuity of the generally pro-regional integration policies of President Mwai Kibaki.
Uhuru, Ruto and Mudavadi
The main key to preventing violence lay mostly with two men: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, and former minister and wily political operator William Ruto.
The two men formally sealed a coalition, the Jubilee Coalition, bringing together Uhuru’s The National Alliance (TNA), and Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP). They were joined just as the curtain came down by Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi’s United Democratic Front (UDF).
Uhuru and Ruto were among the four Kenyans indicted by the International Criminal Court in January for their alleged role in the deadly 2008 violence, which killed nearly 1,400 people and displaced about 600,000 people.
Kenyan opinion is deeply divided about whether they should stand in the election or not, with the country’s economic establishment worrying that it will damage Kenya badly to have the president and his deputy, should the two men win, being tried for crimes against humanity. Or, if they put on the kind of defiance that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has displayed, then Kenya would be slapped with sanctions and become a pariah state.
Thus, the only worry that Kenya poses to the region is a repeat of the 2008 post-election violence that had the economies of Uganda, Rwanda, eastern DRC, South Sudan, and northern Tanzania reeling.
Yet, even here there is a glimmer of hope. The ICC ruled that Uhuru and Ruto had a case to answer for their alleged involvement on opposing sides of that violence — Ruto having led the Kalenjin Rift Valley attempted purge of Kikuyu from the region, and Uhuru the Kikuyu revenge fightback.
Though the outcome of that was slaughter, the uncomfortable counter-narrative is that for that reason, each of the men is seen is a leader of a native liberation movement, and therefore a hero.
It is the story of many African liberation movements. Their alliance, commentators argue, has significantly reduced a replay of the ethnic violence of 2008.
The other issue that would concern the region is if Uhuru were to run with Ruto as his running mate, win the election —and then be found guilty by the ICC. Kenya would then be led by two war criminals, who would probably not be able to travel far outside East Africa.
While Kenya would become a “leper” nation, life would not come to an end. Other East African countries would pick up the slack, in the way Uganda took advantage of the period of the ostracised Daniel arap Moi regime in the 1990s to become the regional economic star.
Uganda was pushed back into the shade by the freer and more innovative Kenya of the Kibaki years, and finally succumbed to its own orgy of corruption and rigged elections.
However, as the region’s largest economy, the collective damage to the East African Community of a Kenyan under sanctions would be felt deeply. That said, recent examples have shown that the Kenyan political class is as shrewd as it is greedy and selfish.
With Mudavadi’s UDP joining the TNA/URP alliance, many believe it is a grand orchestration of a plan where he will be the presidential candidate with Ruto as his running mate, and Uhuru Kenyatta in the background as the grand puppet master.
Uhuru and Ruto would then deal with the ICC charges, and the former would step back into glory as a victim of an international conspiracy in 2018 to reclaim his crown.
It is a prospect many in TNA oppose. If a politician ever baked a cake, Uhuru baked TNA. Rarely has a new party been formed so exclusively through the sweat and personal fortune of one man. The withdrawal symptoms would be massive, if he were not to be its flagbearer in March.
Uhuru and Ruto have a rich opportunity to influence how their ICC trial plays out next year with this election.
Most of the violence in 2008 took place in the populous and fertile Rift Valley, where many Kikuyu people from Uhuru’s Central Province region have settled over the past three generations, acquired lots of land, and become successful farmers and entrepreneurs.
The Rift Valley folks have felt hard done by, alleging that they have been treated shabbily by the Kikuyu, and also that they acquired the land unfairly through the patronage of the first post-Independence government of Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father.
The source of Uhuru and Ruto’s political clout, is this competing narrative. The ICC accusations against Ruto turned him into a hero among sections of the Kalenjin, who saw him as the fighter for their birthright.
The accusation against Uhuru is that he masterminded revenge attacks mostly by Kikuyu militias. To the Kikuyu run off their lands in Rift Valley, and those who survived the slaughter, though, Uhuru is a protector.
Now that the two have come together, they can work to avoid — or at least significantly reduce — any election violence in March, as they have said they will.
And this could be their ticket to walking free. If they succeed, and Uhuru gives up his presidential ambitions for the sake of a stable transition, they will have created an environment in which it would be close to impossible to convict them at the ICC. There would be little support for it inside Kenya and East Africa, except among human-rights purists.
Exonerated, and having exhibited an act of selflessness rare in Kenya politics, Uhuru would go into the 2018 election with the election half-won. The next few weeks to nomination will be critical, but however briefly, there was a glimmer of hope last week that Kenya could dodge the bullet in March.
The second concern for East Africa, and internationally, about the next Kenyan poll is whether there will be a committed continuation of the Kibaki-era policies; especially in respect of economic integration and peace and security.
Kibaki has a detached professorial air, is not given to chest thumping, and has a bumbling way about him that often clouds just how much he delivers to the table.
Rwanda and Kenya are the only two East African Community to remove stringent work permit requirements and ease labour conditions and travel for all citizens from partner states.
In the past few days, Kibaki has outdone even gung-ho East Africanist leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. At the formal opening of the new EAC headquarters complex in Arusha, Tanzania, on November 28, Kibaki was very much in attendance. Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, were not, but sent representatives.
Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete couldn’t miss it, and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza also attended. However, it must have been perhaps the only high-profile EAC event that Kibaki attended and Museveni and Kagame didn’t.
A few days later, Kibaki was in Mombasa to deal with a problem that has vexed countries like Uganda and Rwanda, which rely heavily on the port for their exports and imports. He presided over the groundbreaking ceremony of the Mombasa Port’s Second Container Terminal.
In Kampala and Kigali, officials and businessmen, driven to insanity by the inefficiencies at Mombasa, must have smiled and been thankful.
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The port expansion is scheduled to end in 2015, and Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, and northern Tanzania, which depend on Mombasa, will be hoping that the next Kenyan president will have the near-obsession with building infrastructure that Kibaki has shown.
Kibaki also broke Kenya out of its mould of concentrating only on using the country’s military for UN peacekeeping. Beyond that, Nairobi also traditionally restricted itself to peace efforts involving its neighbours — South Sudan, Somalia. Kenya, though, has been active in the International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR) Heads of State Summits held to resolve the crisis caused by renewed rebellion in eastern DRC.
In ICGLR, Kenya has been drawn into the murky waters of DRC for the first time. The ICGLR summit has recommended a neutral regional force
for DRC. If that were to come to pass, Kenya — having lost its virginity when its sent its army into Somalia in October 2011 — will have to continue playing a critical role.
Raila, Kalonzo and Wetangula
But will this activist foreign policy continue? On this, perhaps the evolving coalitions give the biggest assurance.
The coalition of Prime Minister and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga, Vice President and Wiper Movement leader Kalonzo
Musyoka, and Ford-Kenya leader and Trade Minister Moses Wetangula, brings a very solid foreign policy capital to the election arena.
There are other smaller parties in the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), as they named their alliance.
The combined experience of Kalonzo’s many years as foreign minister and his role in both the early stages of the Sudan and Somalia peace process; and Wetangula’s more scrappy and militant tenure; and PM Raila’s role in Somalia and the more controversial foray into both the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe troubles, is unassailable.
The Jubilee TNA ticket is weak on foreign policy, but it trumps CORD on its economic and pro-business credentials. Both Kenyatta and Mudavadi were former finance ministers. Uhuru was also born into and grew up in money, and has a sensible respect for business.
Ruto — like Raila — has lucrative businesses in Kenya and is believed to have a range of commercial interests in Uganda.
The NARC ticket of the more principled former justice minister and firebrand Martha Karua, which proposes to go it alone, is the one that is most ideologically different from the rest. It is left of centre, where the rest lean right, with a strong human-rights and civil-society linked agenda. If Karua were president, she would build a state closest to Kagame’s Rwanda.
The tech savvy Karua perhaps represents the face of the “new and future East Africa,” but whether the tide has swung enough in her favour waits to be seen.
Kenya National Congress leader Peter Kenneth and Party of Action chief Raphael Tuju represent the most youthful pact. Tuju was Kibaki’s foreign minister for a few years, but never had a chance to deal with the issues that Kalonzo and Wetangula grappled with at the head of Kenyan diplomacy.
However, beyond their youthfulness, they have not indicated that they will break dramatically with the old Kenyan establishment.
Apart from Narc-Kenya, then, the other platforms are very much status quo, and they are unlikely to alter the relations between Kenya and its EAC partners, or to move away from the increasing profile of the security agenda in regional politics.
CORD and Jubilee, for sure, will both just fatten the East African Old Boys Club, and that will give a lot of comfort to Kampala and Dar es Salaam.