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Fear and loathing in Kenya: elections, war crimes and cheap nostalgia

Kenyans voted in presidential elections last Monday amidst charges of war crimes, fraud but most worryingly, amid a political climate inching ever closer to a repeat of the violence that followed the 2007 elections. As early as Tuesday, reports of failed electronic election systems and overdue election ballots began to leak. This had some officials already questioning the integrity of the vote counting, and in no way allaying fears of a 2007 repeat.

Prior to these revelations, scandal and trepidation had already surfaced due to the resurgence of two contentious political figures, Uhuru Kenyatta and Rail Odinga. Both figures, considered frontrunners in the elections, have been mired in controversy from the very beginning as a result of their respective roles in the tumultuous post-election chaos of 2007. Shockingly Kenyatta, indicted recently for war crimes by the ICC, took an early 10% lead with half the votes counted.

Meanwhile, Odinga, who has consistently done well in polls leading up to the elections, paints an equally troubling figure in Kenya’s political landscape. He has faced considerable controversy himself, having been the opposition leader in the 2007 presidential race and a main player in the resulting chaos.

It must be asked then, why have Kenyans limited their choice to these two less than consummate candidates?

Well it might be wise to first examine the political pedigrees both these candidates carry. As is common in presidential elections around the world, these contests are as much a vote of popularity and celebrity as they are of platforms and promises. All to often, we see sons or brothers of former presidents undertaking political careers justified only on the basis of, usually paternal, laurels. Both Kenyatta and Odinga are last names deeply entrenched in the socio-political conscious and post-independence patriotism of Kenya. It should be no surprise then that neither candidate has wavered in using it to their advantage. This has given both men spontaneous political clout, sparking their campaigns and circumventing criticism directed at them by appealing to Kenyan post-independence nostalgia. Kenyatta, as the son of Kenya’s first president, and Odinga, as the son of the first Vice-President, have both inspired a false hope in the people of Kenya. In framing the election with reference to their fathers’ accolades, both have stirred what can only be described as a short-term fervor invigorated by nostalgia.

One can only conclude that this is a disservice to Kenya’s people and their future. With so much at stake, both for the long-term and the short-term stability of the country, appeals to an unreclaimable past of newly minted freedom and sovereignty are misguided.The country at large remains perturbed by the events of 2007 and calls for the people to form loyalties to candidates on the basis of former patrilineal ties are a very serious threat to hopes for post-election peace this time around.

Late last week, it was officially announced that Kenyatta would take the top seat in government, one his father sat on nearly 40 years before. In his victory speech the younger Kenyatta spoke of his country’s future and present with regards to its past stating, “in the nearly 5 decades since independence, we have made great strides as a nation”. He framed his election as the “victory of nationhood” and the “coming of age of Kenya”. Unsurprisingly his last thank you was to his family, acknowledging that ” I am here because of my family”.

Amidst the momentousness of the presidential election and the excitement and enthusiasm that inevitably will follow, one can only hope that Kenyans do not once against put finger to flame; that they not be blindly led by shrewd leaders and that peace and stability prevail in a country which is simultaneously seduced and scarred by an intermittent past.

 – Henry Fieglar


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works by Danny McL, Flickr.)

About hfieglar

Honours Philosophy student at McGill University. Though born in Toronto, Canada, Henry has spent much of his life abroad. He has lived in Cuba, Syria, Guatemala, Mali and Cyprus. As an editor, he wishes to help the journal develop into a comprehensive and respectable media publication

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