Secession debate points to Kenya's deep-seated divisions


Kenya's National Super Alliance (Nasa) strategy and policy chief David Ndii has stirred the hornet’s nest with a series of controversial statements that have raised questions about the real intentions of opposition chief Raila Odinga in contesting President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election victory.

First, the economist and Saturday Nation columnist retweeted an Online petition advocating secession for a large swathe of Kenya that did not support extension of Jubilee Party rule.

Then the same night, Tuesday, in an NTV interview with talk show host Larry Madowo, Dr Ndii amplified the secession call, and also asserted that even after having challenged the presidential election outcome in the Supreme Court, Nasa would still resort to calls for ‘mass action’ even if streets protests led to violence and bloodshed.

That was not new from Dr Ndii as he had in a Saturday Nation column in March last year declared Kenya a “a cruel marriage” and said it’s time to talk divorce.

Regime change

His latest comments generated an uproar that Dr Ndii would probably have expected.

The provocative posts drew widespread condemnation from the ruling Jubilee Party supporters as robust social media exchanges peaked on Facebook and Twitter, as well as closed chat groups such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

Jubilee supporters generally took the view that Dr Ndii was advocating anarchy and bloodshed, some proposing that he be arrested and charged with treason.

Many also concurred that Dr Ndii was simply exposing Mr Odinga’s ultimate game plan: to lead a violent insurrection aimed at regime change if he loses at the Supreme Court.

The furore, however, also brought out the very real schisms in Kenyan society. As much as Jubilee supporters were outraged, there were an equal number of Nasa supporters on the other side fully behind secession calls or mass action.

Their general feeling was that the electoral system in Kenya was rigged to ensure perpetual rule for an alliance of two major ethnic groups that had monopolised leadership and the economy since independence.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE | NATION

Many also felt that the Supreme Court cannot really be expected to deliver ‘justice’ in a system where the Executive holds all the cards and is not shy to use the coercive power of the State machinery.

Dr Ndii, who on his Twitter profile describes himself as a ‘public intellectual’, probably got just the reaction he had set out to provoke.

While most of the comments simply reflect the Jubilee-Nasa political divide, what the debate brings out is a much deeper issue that goes to the heart of Kenya’s existence as unitary nation state.

Beyond Jubilee versus Nasa or the age-old Kenyatta versus Odinga dynastic feuds lie serious unresolved issues that define politics competition in Kenya.

While David Ndii provoked the outrage and generated the sound bites that had him trending on Twitter, it must have been lost in all the frenzied arguments that he was raising issues of legitimate political discourse.

Make pledges

Both the Jubilee and Nasa manifestoes make pledges towards realisation of cohesion, reconciliation, national unity, and peace; a fair share for all regions and population groups; fair distribution of development resources; special attention for marginalised and disadvantaged groups and regions; equal access to employment, education and health services; and fair representation of all groups in leadership and government.

These are also ventilated in the 10-point Nation Agenda issues by the Nation Media Group ahead of the election campaigns.

A reading of the two manifestoes reveals that Jubilee and Nasa are actually in accord on diagnosing the unresolved issues that must be fixed to make a truly united Kenya.

Where they differ is on the prescription, and that is where the ideological gulf emerges.

The Jubilee approach emphasises economic growth, infrastructural development and rapid expansion of health, education and other social services. It gives only fleeting mention to righting past wrongs.

Old wounds

Nasa, by contrast, rejects ‘trickle-down’ economics and obsession with GDP growth, focussing on redress for historical injustices and addressing old ethnic grievances through implementation of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)Report; land reform; and shifting of development resources to neglected regions.

At a simplistic level, Jubilee offers a forward looking model that prefers not to re-open old wounds, as put by Deputy President William Ruto in rejecting implementation of the TJRC report.

Nasa sees the old wounds as still open and in need of stitching and dressing, lest they continue festering.

These may be issues dwelling in the respective economic and social policies and development paths drawn up by the rival political groups, but they also define the political divides that make electioneering in Kenya such a time-bomb.

Reactions to Dr Ndii’s comments invariably recalled that Kenya was yet to heal from the bloodletting that followed the disputed 2007 elections.

Many were quick to recall Mr Odinga’s role as presidential candidate for the then Cord coalition that disputed President Mwai Kibaki’s victory.

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

In the run-up to the 2017 elections, Jubilee consistently accused Mr Odinga of plotting violence in case he lost. It was in such an environment that Mr Odinga’s decision to go to the Supreme Court, rather than to the streets, was seen as major development.

What is shaping up now, however, is a scenario where Nasa might be anticipating defeat in court, and preparing to pursue mass action.

Dr Ndii may have intellectualised the issue, but he spoke on NTV after Mr Odinga had the same day publicly declared that the election petition was just one part of a wider national campaign against what he termed a culture of electoral fraud.

Speaking in Mombasa, he said that seven Supreme Court judges cannot override the votes of a majority of Kenyans, asserting that the solution would lie in ‘People Power’.

The struggle

Mr Odinga, who claims he was cheated of victory in three successive presidential elections, is typically cagey on what mass action or people power would entail, or the ultimate goal.

For many in Kenya, mass action brings back memories of the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

However, Dr Ndii points out that no change in Kenya, whether it was the struggle for independence, the struggle against one-party dictatorship, or the struggle for a new constitution, has been achieved peacefully.

He also rejects the notion that mass action must of necessity be violent, countering that it is the police who unleash violence in turning their guns and on legitimate and lawful protests.

Ethnic grouping

What is not clear, however, is what mass action is intended to achieve.

It might be difficult to make the case for protests aimed at forcefully ejecting President Kenya and installing Mr Odinga in State House, especially when the latter cannot conclusively demonstrate that he was the rightful winner of the elections.

If the main complaint is that the electoral playing field is tilted to the advantage of a dominant ethnic grouping or coalition, then mass action would be intended to force though constitutional amendments for a more just and inclusive leadership structure and electoral system.

That would not lead to an immediate change in leadership. It also might need to be viewed against the fact that the Nasa masses will not necessarily out-number the Jubilee masses.

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