It is hot and dusty. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyan voters are trapped in endless queues, many feeling desperate and sick. They are angry; they are pointing their fists and fingers at the officials and police officers, threateningly. Both men and women scream insults.
Nothing seems to be functioning in this country, which produces very little but survives mainly due to its military and intelligence collaboration with the West.
The high-tech polling system collapsed almost everywhere and voting is back to an over bureaucratic manual system.
“This is too much!” the crowd roars. It is 11:30am. “I am here since 5am”, cries Ms. Clara, a 35 years old voter, a shopkeeper. “It is better to vote even in a country like Uganda. Now, here they call us by letters. They tell us: if your name starts with A or B, or C, it is your turn. If it starts with E, you wait. If it starts with S, you will probably die from thirst and hunger and will not vote until Midnight. It is so unfair!”
Inside, a group of Nubian women in headscarves is trying to do their best to speed up the process, but there are too few of them to make a real difference.
“Our people are totally undisciplined”, I am told by one election official. He is buried under a chaotic looking mountain of papers. “We tell them, ‘A’ is for your surname, but they come in, even if it is their first name that starts with A. Or they just jump the queue with no reason.”
Police are heavily armed. They are given orders to use weapons if there is ‘any need’. In 2007, during the so-called post-election violence, the ‘need’ they felt was obviously constant and urgent. Out of 1,100 people who died, police killed at least 400.
The atmosphere is heavy, oppressive, all over the capital.
At one point I get to the Olympic School, turned polling station, in the shanty town called Kibera, by all counts the biggest slum on earth. Not that anyone knows exactly how many people live here; but the estimates range from between 200,000 and 1 million inhabitants.
Kibera has several polling stations. I visited three, but all of them looked the same: endless queues, exhausted people, oddly determined to come and cast their ballot.
The majority of Kenyans live in misery. Two thirds of the population of the capital lives in slums. People want ‘change’. All of them are talking about change. ‘Change’ is on the lips of the people forming those endless queues. But what kind of change?
“Why are you here?” I ask potential voters over and over again.
“Because we want change,” comes the same, stereotypical reply.
Gilbert, a driver, explains, passionately: “We come to vote, in order to get a new government. We are hoping that our country would change. We are demanding economic growth that would benefit us all… We are demanding reforms in medical care, in education, that would benefit everybody… Especially ‘wanainchi’ as we say here – the common people.”
Of course those who are forming long queues are all wanainchi. ‘Big men’ don’t queue here: they arrive in convoys, in their luxury vehicles, they bypass those waiting in line; they just wave at them, they vote, and leave.
‘Big men’ are only interested in becoming even bigger than they already are. Most of them will do nothing to improve their country. In a state where the majority of people live on less than US$1 a day, the local MPs enjoy some of the highest take-home salaries paid to politicians anywhere on earth –more than US$123,000 a year. For comparison, British MPs earn the equivalent of US$99,000. Why would the rich want to change anything?
* * *
These were supposed to be ‘high-tech’, and ‘democratic’ elections, in a country that is often described as one of the closest Western allies in Africa; a nation driven by markets; by local and foreign businesses and geopolitical interests. It is a country, which is hosts at least one RAF base, and tolerates all sorts of intelligence operations from the US, UK and Israeli ‘agencies’, on its soil.
The East African wrote in its February 16-22, 2013 issue:
To what extent can the US sacrifice its interests in Kenya? Data from 2008 shows that Kenya was the seventh largest recipient of foreign aid at $600 million in that year, behind Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan and Israel. That Kenya receives such a colossal amount of foreign aid is attributable to the special relationship the country has cultivated with the US in the latter’s Global War on Terror. This has seen the Americans build one of their biggest embassies anywhere in the world, in Nairobi, one that hosts a major CIA station and co-ordinates humanitarian, diplomatic and military activities for South Sudan, Somalia and the Indian Ocean.”
The elections have been described, in advance, as ‘democratic’, by both the local and Western mainstream media, simply because they always are labeled as ‘democratic’ by definition, in all client-states of the West.
In my elevator, I stumbled over two women – observers – wearing their batches and Farragamo shoes. They told me how much they really liked what they managed to observe. There was no dust on their shoes, I noticed.
In the case of Kenya, elections are also ‘democratic’, because there are eight Presidential candidates, and countless candidates running for MP, Senators and governors.
It does not matter much, that not a single Kenyan Presidential candidate has been truly ready to represent the interests of the people. In the language of Western propaganda, democracy is measured only by the number of political parties and candidates; and not by their agenda.
‘Change of system’ is definitely not on any candidate’s list. Their allegiances are to their tribes and to their business interests, to their deep pockets, neither to ideals nor to the nation. Even those few Marxist and generally left-wing MP candidates, including a bunch of my friends who have been running for offices in Kisumu and the Coast, are often forced to hide their ideology, afraid that they would not be ‘understood’ by their electorate.
“Ideals?” Mr. Edris Omondi, a lawyer and a left-wing politician, who is an MP candidate for a constituency near the city of Kisumu, told me. “We are experiencing what could be described as the Balkanization of Kenyan politics. All that matters is a tribe.”
* * *
The two main Presidential candidates –Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, belong to the two main Kenya rival tribes – the Kikuyu and Luo. They also belong to the two most powerful political dynasties.
Uhuru (which in Swahili means ‘freedom’) Kenyatta, is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president (1964–1978). Raila Odinga is the second son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, one of Kenya’s Independence heroes, and the nation’s first vice-president. After independence, Odinga Odinga was the prominent pro-Soviet, left-wing politician, who was later sidelined and politically destroyed by his own tribesmen –both indoctrinated in, and financed by the United States – Tom Mboya and Barack Obama Sr., father of the current US President.
To complicate things further, Mr. Raila Odinga, unlike his father, is not anywhere near the left; not even more to the left than Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta. And so, now Mr. Odinga appears to be the favorite candidate of the West – both the US and the European Union.
The bitter loss by Raila Odinga to President Mwai Kibaki in 2007 is what triggered the worst violence Kenya has experienced since Independence. The violence was tribal, and it left more than 1,100 dead, hundreds of thousands (at least 600.000 thousand) displaced and the country deeply divided.
In this socially fragmented nation with astronomical disparities, even the fighting and killing has nothing to do with the struggle against social injustice. There is no call for an egalitarian society, or for a determined re-distribution of wealth. Paradoxically, the toughest slums get engaged in unimaginable bloodletting, inspired only by tribal and clan rivalries. The victims murder each other with Rwanda-style or Belgian cruelty, cutting each other with machetes, ‘pangas’, over something so remote as which member of the elite class would be presiding over the preservation of the political and social status quo for the next 6 years.
Eventually, in 2007, the international community got involved, and as a compromise, Mr. Odinga was named the Prime Minister in a coalition government led by Kibaki, while Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta was appointed Deputy Prime Minister.
Now Mr. Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court, accused of orchestrating Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence, and the same charges are being pressed against his running mate, Mr. William Ruto.
Many Kenyans see ICC as biased.
“I see it as a gross violation of Kenyan sovereignty. It is always people from the poor countries who are being tried at ICC”, I was once told by Mwandawiro Mghanga, the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kenya. “Do you ever see the US or European leaders facing charges at The Hague, for the crimes against humanity they have been committing?”
Edris Omondi goes even further: “Kenya has been a hostage to foreign interests. The Kibaki administration, of which Uhuru Kenyatta would be a logical continuation, dared to look towards the East. We all know that because of China, Kenyans are now able to feed themselves. The West only tells us: ‘We are implementing democracy’. But we can’t eat their ‘democracy’. And what kind of democracy is it, anyway? And China is the country that had been truly helping Kenya. The West can’t accept it. And it is not used to being challenged in its colonies. That is why it supports alternatives to the existing administration and wants to cripple Kenyatta with the ICC charges.”
For the West, much is at stake. As CBS News pointed out on March 4th:
Kenya sits as an “anchor state” for U.S. relations in the region.
In August 2012, then US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, threatened Kenya with “the wrath of international community should those facing cases of crimes against humanity at The Hague be elected.”
* * *
On March 4, the day of the elections, the violence erupted in the predominantly Muslim and Swahili coast, which has been plagued by decades of discrimination, marginalization, economic and social neglect, as well as land-grabs orchestrated from Nairobi. People there have also been suffering from kidnappings by Western armed forces and intelligence agencies, as Mr. Mwandawiro, former MP and member of Parliamentary Foreign Relations and Defense Committees told me.
It is no secret that were they to be given a choice, most of the people of the coast would vote for independence. However, all separatist attempts meet brutal reprisals, in ‘democratic Kenya’. Just a few days before the elections, a court in Malindi sentenced a 30-year-old man, for allegedly being a member of the MRC (Mombasa Revolutionary Council) secessionist group, to life in prison, after finding him guilty of taking an oath against the law. The man did nothing, except entering a forest and making a pledge.
At least 15 people were killed in clashes between the pro-independence MRC and the Kenyan armed forces and police, on the coast. More people died in the north.
As the results have been streaming in from polling stations, the country has braced itself for outbursts of 2007-style violence, which so far have not materialized.
Almost all foreign companies and embassies evacuated their staff and family members to Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia, even as far as UAE and South Africa.
* * *
But most Kenyans have no place to escape. This is where they belong and this is where they have to endure whatever comes.
A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Education shared with me with disgust his voting experience at one of the Embakasi polling stations: “It took me 7 hours to vote. I can only describe what I went through as a bull-fight. It was hot, all the shops around were closed, no water, people were fainting, fighting each other, and jumping the queue.“
In Murang’a County, a 72 years old woman died after fainting, stranded in an endless queue.
The Police was seen to be pushing, even intimidating voters.
But technical problems and the discomfort of the voters, even minor skirmishes, were not the worst issues related to these elections.
* * *
The most terrible thing is that no real changes to the system have been proposed.
Two years ago I produced and directed a 30 minute film about the AIDS epidemic in Nyanza district, which is located near the city of Kisumu. The film is called Tumaini. It depicts tragedy of several villages that lost almost all their adult inhabitants: Those left were only very old people, mainly women, and small babies.
While the Kenyan elites are harvesting millions of dollars from their collaboration with former and present-day colonizers, In Nyanza and in many other districts of Kenya, people are dying from hunger and disease.
Right before the elections, I flew to Kisumu, was picked up at the airport by my friend – MP candidate Edris Omondi – and shown around. It was soon clear to me that in the last two years, the situation has not changed at all.
At Kochieng Village, in Central Alego, I was told, there are families that are vanishing, getting wiped-out by misery, by hunger.
“But people here are not ready to demand social justice”, explained Edris. “I come to them; I explain what the rich have been doing to them for decades. They listen, say nothing, and then they demand cash. They also expect their leaders, the candidates, to drive expensive cars. If we don’t, they don’t vote for us. Almost all candidates here are broke – they have been spreading cash in their constituencies, and they have had to borrow expensive vehicles. It is all absurd.”
As we drive towards Kisumu on a dirt road, two convoys consisting of luxury SUVs pass us at neck-breaking speed. “Governor Candidate”, Edris identifies one of them.
“I have problems with my own constituency”, confesses Edris. “Poverty is forcing us to sell our own rights. Poor people are now selling their ancestral land to developers; they sell whatever they can.”
He pauses, and then continues. “And the same thing is happening on the national and international scale. We are selling our own national interests to foreigners – to neo-colonialism. Once the West decided once again to take control over this part of the world, it immediately destabilized the entire region. Look at Congo and Somalia. Why are we now in Somalia? We are simply serving the interests of the West. They used Museveni before, but it is a well-known fact now that Uganda is a brutal dictatorship, and so they are pressing Kenya to take over, to give it at least some legitimacy.”
Destabilized Somalia is shedding hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of its people. Some end up as refugees in horrid camps like Dadaab (see trailer of my film: ‘One Flew Over Dadaab’).
But almost none of the essential issues have been discussed in the pre-election campaign: The brutal capitalist system that is destroying the lives of millions, or Kenyan ‘foreign policy’.
Corruption is discussed, but only as a separate, independent issue; something unrelated to the essence – to the master-servant arrangement between the Kenyan elites and the West.
* * *
At night, after Kenya voted, I drove to Mathare – to one of the toughest slums in Kenya, and Africa.
It was pitch black, dark; in some parts there were absolutely no lights. Garbage was covering both sides of the road. Small groups of men were gathering, arguing, and debating politics. The atmosphere was tense, and those who were walking at that hour were walking fast. A few fires were burning but there seemed to be no fighting, although one night before, several houses were burned down.
Avoiding drunks, we parked the car and went inside one of the voting stations at Mathare 4A Primary School. Even at night, volunteers were still counting votes, punching results into the system.
Gerald, the man in charge, explained: “Here, we thought it would be one of the hotspots. Kikuyu and Luo communities live side by side in this enormous slum. But overall, things went well.”
Did they? We drive slowly through this part of the city, which looks like a war zone. And for many, it is. One does not need to be shelled from aircrafts and tanks to experience war. Misery is always like a war. Women raped at night are experiencing war. Children dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases are in a war. Men shot and knifed are victims of war.
Kenya is at war, and so is almost entire continent of Africa. The war is triggered by something called imperialism and neo-colonialism. It is brought from ‘outside’. And those who run dozens of unfortunate African countries are mostly collaborators, not really ‘politicians’. Not all of them, of course, but some… many.
The linguistics in Africa should change, in order to describe reality. They didn’t during these elections.
In the Kenyan elections, the essential issues were not addressed. But without addressing them, and dealing with them, the war against the poor, against the majority, will never end. No essential issues will be resolved. No freedom, no true independence will be possible. Uhuru-1: Raila-0? Or vice-versa? What difference does it really make?
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
All photos by Andre Vltchek.