Thursday, October 12, 2017

WHAT OTHERS SAY: Kenya politics seems stranger by the day


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

An African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) conference on peace and security in the Horn of Africa just ended in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

A bunch from Nairobi was in the house. A day before we arrived in Khartoum the US announced the end of its 20-year-long sanctions on Sudan, and it was probably one of the biggest stories in the country for a while.

There were newspaper adverts congratulating President Omar al-Bashir for pulling off the end of the sanctions. On Sunday evening, purring with contentment, Bashir put on a dinner for the conference crowd at his presidential palace.

This was supposed to be a story of the encounter with Bashir, but we hadn’t reckoned with Kenya.

On the sidelines of the conference, the ruling by the September 1 ruling by the Kenya Supreme quashing the August 8 presidential election was all the rage.

The conversations started with “what is happening in Nairobi (or Kenya)?” The inquisitors presumed, and we indeed understood, that they were asking about the Supreme Court ruling, and what at that point was a nearly-sure October 26 election.

The Kenya Supreme Court ruling was the first time in African history where a court had had annulled a presidential victory based on an opposition petition.

Some people wanted to know what would happen on October 26. Would there be violence? Would President Uhuru Kenyatta win? Did NASA flag-bearer Raila Odinga stand a chance?

The more wonkish and studious fellows then asked “how was it possible for the court to overturn a presidential election?” With some people the discussion and analysis got very lively, but I soon realised that they really were not looking for a satisfactory explanation.

They were not asking a question. They were making a statement. They were saying that, in an African context, there was no explanation that could shed enough light upon what the Chief Justice David Maraga-led court did. It was beyond our experience and comprehension.

So whether the court had displayed an unprecedented case of judicial independence; whether it had been biased in favour of NASA; whether it had as Jubilee leaders alleged been bribed; whether the majority ruling had been the product of a hyper-new Kenya, none of them were good enough to explain what happened.

The odd corner that international election observers are boxed in in Kenya clearly is also a matter of great interest. Most people are used to seeing African governments bashing observers for being pro-opposition.

The Kenyan picture of observers being slated for being pro-government lackeys and their reports being invoked favourably by the state is another incomprehensible affair.

Then on Tuesday came news that Raila and his running Kalonzo Musyoka had pulled out of the race. Things now got very complicated. Anti-corruption and civil society activist John Githongo and I spent the better part of three hours on our feet in the hotel lobby fielding a fresh barrage of questions about what it all meant.

Needless to say, we didn’t solve the puzzle for anyone.

In the calmness of late evening, it was easy to see why political events in Kenya seemed like some drama from Mars. The Horn of Africa is the most broken region on the continent presently.

Something also struck me for the first time. In nearly all of Africa, it is the government supporters, state officials and the pro-regime intellectuals who usually take a more positive view of the country.

As the Kenya questions flew around, I noticed that Kenyan independents, civil society activists, and those who work for organisations like the UN almost all had a more optimistic of what would happen to the country, whatever the outcome of the October 26 vote, than the pro-government or state-linked people.

And now, no one can say for sure what will happen in the days ahead. If you know what the hell is going on or have a good explanation for all this, please write me.