Kenya totters toward state failure Burundi style

I have been asked again, “Where is Kenya going?” And I suspect that I now know the answer. We are going the Burundi way. Burundi, a landlocked tiny country in East Africa’s Great Lakes Region, totters precariously on the brink of total state collapse. Could this be where Kenya is headed, despite denials to the contrary? When you handle a country’s political system the way Kenya is being managed state failure is a sure outcome.

State failure manifests in collapse of institutions and systems. Institutions cannot control their staff and systems. Hence, external militias whose command is outside the regular command structures may infiltrate the police service. The chairman of the electoral authority may have no control over the election process and outcomes. In extreme cases, zones of alternative governance and command may even emerge. The economy collapses. Institutions like revenue authorities, national treasuries and central banks become irrelevant.  Not all these features obtain in Burundi. Yet she might very well be on the way. Kenya could follow.

Burundi, having been a colony of Germany and Belgium, regained independence in 1962. Unlike other African countries emerging from colonialism, she became a monarchy for the next four years. She only became a republic in 1966, after a series of assassinations and coups. The ruling class in Kenya displays a  dangerous monarchical appetite of the kind that plagued Burundi in the first four years of independence.

After 1966, Burundi has hobbled on, through spells of ethnic cleansing, civil wars and genocides. She is counted among the least developed countries in the world. Her people are some of the most impoverished globally. From time to time, she experiments with fictitious elections that only exacerbate a bad situation. In the latest such exercise in futility, the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, gave himself a controversial third term in office in 2015, after brutally crushing dissenting voices and defeating democracy. Kenya under President Uhuru Kenyatta has the symptoms of ethnic profiling and the attendant consequences, as in Burundi.

Nkurunziza himself lives in mortal fear. He dares not travel out of the country. He fears that he could be overthrown. Is Kenya’s president headed here? Unlike Kenya, Burundi is a direct territorial continuation of the territory that it was in pre-colonial times. The tribes continue to be the Hutu (86 percent) , Tutsi (14 percent) and Batwa (1 percent). The ethnic tensions that informed relations between the Tutsi and Hutu in pre-colonial – and even in colonial – times remain.  There is a community that believes it should rule. Conversely, it believes that the others should be ruled. Life in this poor country is nasty, short and brutish.

Now this is where Kenya is headed. The entry point is the controversial presidential election that President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto, and their party Jubilee have planned. They will execute their plan next week, 26 October, through a hapless “Independent” Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The commission is virtually their captive. When the Supreme Court of Kenya invalidated President Kenyatta’s election on September 1, the president and his handlers went into shock. They emerged from the shock wondering aloud “who the judges thought they were, to nullify a presidential election.” The president said that he had accepted the invalidation of his election “out of humility.” But, he cautioned, he was not a coward. He promised to fix the Supreme Court at a later time.

Since then, analogies have recurrently been made between Kenya and Burundi – as well as between Kenya and Rwanda, adjacent to Burundi. Jubilee politicians have advised Kenyans to look at Burundi, if they want to know that they are enjoying freedom under Uhuru Kenyatta. A top party official, David Murathe, has suggested that Kenya needs what he calls “a benevolent dictator,” like the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. He has told us that from next month, Uhuru is going to be “brutal, lethal and ruthless.”

Accordingly, this Thursday, President Kenyatta is set to give himself “a new term in office,” Nkurunziza style. He is set to go on to “celebrate” his “victory” in this non-election. The Opposition has rejected the farce because of numerous irregularities this far. It is instructive that the chairman of IEBC, Wanyonyi Wafula Chebukati, has himself publicly told the country that IEBC cannot deliver a credible fresh presidential election. Earlier, Commissioner Dr. Roslyne Akombe resigned. Akombe said in a formal statement that she did not wish to be party to “a mockery of democracy.” Some of her colleagues had been retained to deliver a predetermined outcome, she told BBC Radio.

The repeat Presidential Election has divided the country along ethnic lines. The division, moreover, is extremely hostile. Kenyans are saying terrible things to one another in the social media. They bay for each other’s tribal blood. In a taste of what look like things to come, the State seems to have targeted Luo Nyanza for police brutality. The police have violently disrupted their demonstrations.  They have fired teargas into protesting throngs, unprovoked. Even tots have been clubbed to death. Street protesters have been shot dead. Never mind that similar protests have taken place elsewhere too.

Uhuru Kenyatta is likely to be declared president elect (with more than 90 percent of the vote this time). This will be without the participation of a majority of Kenyan tribes in the “election.” This may not seem to trouble him. Yet, the big question is not about the electoral process anymore. This ended the moment Raila Odinga of NASA withdrew from the election. The question is how we will continue to live together – as Jubilee tribes vs. non-Jubilee communities. How do we walk into the future together?

Cheekily, Jubilee and IEBC retained Raila’s name on the ballot paper, even after his withdrawal from the race. This is meant to lend legitimacy to the ongoing electoral fiction. More comically, IEBC CEO, Ezra Chiloba, has taken three weeks’ leave, “to allow the election to proceed smoothly.”

Of course Chiloba, Chebukati, President Kenyatta and the Jubilee politburo know that there is no election, in the strict sense of holding elections. They are now only taking the country through a window dressing exercise, in the guise of an election. What will happen on Thursday next week, therefore,  is a dramatic exercise in electoral fiction and mockery.

As in Burundi, next week’s electoral window dressing game is meant to “legitimize” Uhuru Kenyatta. The bad news for everybody is that there are very tough consequences ahead. The Opposition will not accept an illegitimate president. The product of an illegitimate exercise and process is also illegitimate. A long drawn out resistance is in the offing. It will, no doubt, slow down normal activities.

“Systems people” who are looking forward to “return to normalcy” are in for a rude shock. I appreciate their eagerness to see “things return to normal.” Yet they never ask, “normal for who?” The Mexican revolutionary Emeliano Zapata (1879 – 1919) famously said, “If there is no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government.” There will be no true peace for the “systems people” who are dreaming of “return to normalcy.”

Kenya has reached a point of no return. The only way to restore normalcy is to let justice ring. Efforts to impose a “personal state” and a political hegemony, Burundi style, will only drag the country through the wilderness for a long, long time to come. The true business community and the foreign community with business interest in the country would do well to get talking to Uhuru Kenyatta. They need to tell him the truth. There will be no “normalcy” after 26 October. Not so soon, anyway.

Them vs Us- Conversations of War

Just 8 years ago, Syria had an army, a police force, and an economy 4 times bigger than Kenya’s. And then this happened:
“Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets.

The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government’s use of force to crush the dissent merely hardened the protesters’ resolve. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

Opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to expel security forces from their local areas.”


Today, it doesn’t matter who was right or wrong – for the families of the 250,000 Syrians that have lost their lives, and the 11 million who are living as refugees.

It doesn’t matter whether their leaders will get “full bread” or “nusu mkate” when the conflict is over. If your child is dead, your home is destroyed, or your livelihood is shattered, all the talk about the size of bread is meaningless.

In the midst of all the chest-thumping that is happening in our midst, it’s easy not to notice our unfolding tragedy. From conversations that take place around me, I get the feeling that our nation is suspended over a precipice, and that it is dangling by a slender thread that shows every sign of snapping.

Every day I listen to conversations of war, conversations of ethnic profiling, conversations of police brutality, and conversations of secession.

On social media, I have seen conversations praising police killing of members of a certain community; conversations about how certain communities are good fighters, and how others cannot fight at all; and conversations about which communities should be wiped out.

On national TV, I have watched the President and Raila Odinga take part in the conversation (The President saying “sisi sio waoga” and Raila Odinga defending one of his allies who had advocated for violence).

On vernacular FM stations I have heard popular presenters asking their viewers to get ready to defend their communities.

From parliament, I have heard conversations about how communities will perform in the coming war – based on pre-match contest between Jaguar and Babu Owino. I have also seen a respected senator take part in this conversation. His exact words were “Kama mbaya, mbaya. Wacha kiumane”.

I have heard a governor and MP from his county participate in this conversation: the governor asking members of communities that did not vote for a certain candidate to vacate that county, and the MP donating machetes to his followers.

These are conversations that take place moments before nations step into the slippery slope from which there can be no turning back. These are the conversations that took place in Somalia in 1990. They are the conversations that Syrians were having in 2011.

Such conversations cannot be stopped or changed by an election, police action, or legislation.

We must first be bold enough to admit that Kenya has a serious problem and that it is a problem for which we must find urgent but lasting solutions.

I call this problem “Them Vs Us”. It is the problem that…
• Triggered widespread violence in different parts of our country in 1992, 1997, and 2007.
• Made thousands of people to flee back to their ancestral homes a few weeks before the August 8 general elections.
• Makes some people say they want to secede.

It is this problem that has now reared its ugly head form of an electoral dispute.

Unless we do something about it, sooner or later we will be forced to say goodbye to Kenya – as we know it.

The reason I wrote this piece is to ask us – the ordinary people – to start our own conversation.

It is a conversation which I hope will force our leaders to prioritize the development of a permanent solution to the “Them Vs Us” problem.

When our leaders say “our communities will fight”, they don’t mean them and their children; they mean us and our children. It is our children who will lose lives, forfeit education, and forego a future.

If we lose our country, they will fly their families to European capitals. Their children will go to the same high-cost schools, they will play golf in the same high-end clubs, and they’ll take holidays – to exotic destinations – together.

In the meantime, the rest of us – irrespective of tribe – will probably be sharing the same crowded tent at a refugee camp in Somalia or South Sudan.

Please share your views with love (without anger, acrimony, or abuse).

Share widely.
Thank You.

Joshua K. Njenga

Twitter: @JKNjenga