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Kenya: The formation of a political crisis like never before | Opinion

Despite their faults, or because of it, Kenyan politicians have always heeded the advice to never let a good crisis go to waste. In a country that seems to have perfected the art of disaster management, stumbling from one potential catastrophe to the next, political elites don’t even need to wait for crises because they can easily create them. The past few weeks have offered a physical lesson on how to do this.

Before delving into the current crisis, it is worth providing some background. In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution, the culmination of more than 25 years of fighting to tame its rapacious parasites and corrupt political class. Influenced mainly by the bloodshed following the contentious 2007 presidential election, Constitution seeks to overhaul the country’s institutions and create a straitjacket to curb their psychopathic instincts in hopes of preventing future catastrophe.

But it has had mixed results. Every presidential election since the Constitution has been contested. In 2013, the Supreme Court, largely tasked with adjudicating controversies surrounding the presidential election, delivered a widely criticized decision that legitimized what many believed was yet another election that was stolen. However, despite his dissatisfaction with the verdict, the defeated candidate, Raila Odinga, accepted it. Kenya has avoided a 2008-style collapse thanks to the constitutional introduction of this dispute resolution mechanism.

But by 2017, it was clear that the political class was gnawing at the limits of the constitution. Odinga was initially reluctant to seek redress in the Supreme Court following another controversial victory by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta. He ended up joining a case brought by civil society activists challenging the outcome, and the court ruled in their favour. It was the first court decision on the African continent to overturn the re-election of a sitting president. Kenyans see it as proof of the validity of the constitution.

This moment of constitutional supremacy did not last long, however. Kenyatta has launched an attack on the courts, demonizing judges and warning of a “retrial” before a repeat of the presidential election. It was re-held a month later, but due to Odinga’s resistance it was dismissed as a scam and the vote was again challenged in court.

The Supreme Court was unable to have a quorum to hear a petition to annul the election results after the bodyguard of then-Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu was shot dead.

A later Supreme Court ruling upholding the election was swiftly overruled by the losing coalition, and the country entered a period of political instability, violence and uncertainty culminating in a “handshake” in March 2018, a veritable power share agreement.

“Handshake” and everything that led to it essentially loosened constitutional constraints and legitimized political arrangements beyond the constitutional vision of a clean and transparent electoral contest, with clear winners taking power and losers backing down gracefully. Once again, that vision collided with Kenya’s messier reality, and this time, it failed.

Today, like in 2017, Kenya is in the midst of post-election chaos. This time around, however, the vote was widely regarded as the most transparent the country has ever seen, in stark contrast to the murky process of six years ago.

Odinga was defeated again, this time by Kenyatta’s estranged deputy William Ruto, another casualty of the handshake. Odinga again challenged the Supreme Court’s result. He lost again.

But, freed from the shackles of the Constitution, the political class will not let Supreme Court rulings get in the way of its politics. The madmen are in charge of the madhouse again.

Despite a lack of evidence to support his case and public support, Odinga has launched a weekly public protest with vague and shifting demands. The aim was to induce the Ruto government to overreact.

The government’s slow and harsh response was as stupid and short-sighted as it was predictable. Police were dispatched to beat up protesters and use tear gas, killing three people and injuring 400, while mobs attacked Odinga’s business and invaded the farm of his ally Kenyatta.

The violence in the capital and in several towns to the west was enough to convince many that a political crisis was real and needed to be negotiated. The pressure led to an offer of talks from Ruto’s government, which Odinga’s team quickly accepted. However, it’s unclear exactly what the crisis is, and what the talks will discuss.

Negotiations have bogged down, perhaps because there is no agreed agenda. While both sides opted for a negotiating team, Ruto insisted that negotiations be limited to parliament (which he controls), leading Odinga to threaten to return to the streets after Ramadan ends.

At the same time, the country faces a very real economic and humanitarian crisis, with ballooning public debt, rising food costs, the government’s inability to pay workers, and as many as six million Kenyans facing hunger.

Although Odinga has paid lip service to the skyrocketing cost of living and asked the Ruto government, which he does not recognize, to cooperate with him in bringing it down, it is clear that both sides are more concerned with the struggle for power than with the increasingly miserable lives of their fellow citizens. If history is our guide, even political agreements are hardly certain they will act to alleviate this pain.

In 2008, in the face of a worsening food crisis, the Government of National Accord formed to stem the violence following the 2007 general election instituted a new maize subsidy program.

Imported corn and strategic national reserve stocks will be sold to millers at a discount to reduce flour prices. However, the program has been widely abused by politicians and government officials who pretend to be millers, pocket the subsidy and then sell the corn to real millers, driving up costs even further. By the time they’re done, 10 million Kenyans are starving.

The looting was so brazen that PricewaterhouseCoopers, which audited the scheme, questioned whether it was “designed from the outset to fail and to provide a means of massive financial exploitation at the expense of the state”. Ruto, then agriculture minister, was accused of profiteering from the scheme, as were family members and associates of Prime Minister Odinga.

With that in mind, the chances of either side of the political divide putting ease of Kenyan suffering above their narrow interests are pretty slim.

The real political crisis Kenya faces today is the same as it has been since independence. Its political elites were forged in the flames of colonial plunder, and from the day it was born the country had to see them as a misery, the price of stability.

Some, like Charles Onyango-Obbo, one of East Africa’s most perceptive commentators, see them as the reason the country has avoided following many of its neighbors into anarchy and civil war. “Its corrupt and immoral politics [are] A high degree of pragmatism and political common sense,” he wrote recently. “Every deal is possible. It is unthinkable without betrayal. This is Pagan deal politics at its worst — and its best. “

But that’s exactly what Kenyans are trying to get out of with the 2010 constitution. The truth is, it is the “pagan deal politics” in which “every deal is possible” that incentivizes politicians to view their followers as fodder and violence and chaos as pure negotiating tactics.

This is what keeps Kenya on the brink of catastrophe, with a constantly starving and brutalized people taught to accept plunder and suffering as the price of avoiding the fate of their neighbours.

Kenyans are ultimately faced with a choice: lower their expectations and succumb to Kenya’s degenerate politics, or continue down the frustrating path of trying to force Kenyan politicians into a new paradigm.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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