STATE OF THE NATION: Kenyan crisis could take different path if fires spread to burn its neighbours – By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

February 25th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

If Kenya’s crisis persists and starts to impact heavily on neighbours, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somali militants would not stand by and do nothing. They would intervene, and in the process create a total mess that would break up the country, writes CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO (Uganda leading political commentator)


If Kenya’s crisis persists and starts to impact heavily on neighbours, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somali militants would not stand by and do nothing. They would intervene, and in the process create a total mess that would break up the country, writes CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO (Uganda leading political commentator)

Opposition supporters wave placards during a protest in Nairobi calling for quicker resolution of political crisis.
If you have a lot of stamina, you are a fast driver, and set out before dawn from Kigali, you can arrive in Nairobi in time for a late dinner the same day.

If you started out from Kampala, you would be in Nairobi in time for a late lunch. Very many East Africans were making these trips, until the post-election violence closed the highways in the western part of Kenya that lead to Uganda and Rwanda.

Hundreds of Uganda-bound trucks were stoned or torched and drivers beaten, some to death. Within a week pump prices in Uganda shot from an average of $1.4 a litre to over $7 – possibly the most expensive in the world!

Kenyans cannot conceive of that, for it would be the equivalent of a litre of petrol moving from the current average of Sh90 to Sh450 overnight. Exports were held up, and factories faced closures as raw material supplies dried up because Mombasa was not functioning.

Mombasa is Uganda’s main lifeline. It is also serves the same purpose for Rwanda, Southern Sudan and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nairobi is a critical destination and hub for the sub-region, so Ugandans with pressing business continued to come to the city and Mombasa during the worst periods of the violence.

But they didn’t come through Malaba or Busia. They would set out from Kampala, to the western part of the country, into Tanzania, and come into Kenya through the Namanga border point. What was previously an eight-hour journey for Ugandans, turned into a two-day 38-hour ordeal!

Though the countries in the hinterland do get some of their goods through Dar es Salaam, it is a trickle. Both Tanzania and Uganda will have to spend hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars in infrastructure and the port over a long period before they can get 50 per cent of their goods routing through Dar es Salaam.

International community

Most immediately, the region and the international community feared that if the Kenya violence had continued for two or so months, countries like Rwanda and Uganda would have come close to collapsing economically.

That is the more obvious danger of a protracted crisis in Kenya. The less obvious consequences would, in fact, be more catastrophic.

To begin with, nations in the Great Lakes region are very interventionist. Uganda backed the Rwanda Patriotic Army, occupied DR Congo, faced off with Sudan and supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Rwanda intervened in and occupied DR Congo, as did Zimbabwe and Angola. Sudan backed the Lords Resistance Army in its fight against the Yoweri Museveni government, and is godfathering the rebels who are fighting the Chad government and might, yet, overthrow the Idriss Deby regime in N’djamena. Even Burundi sent troops into DRC. Tanzania had its fingers in the Burundi pie.

Kenya, hitherto the most neutral and was peace mediator for Sudan and Somalia, finally tasted the forbidden fruit with its co-operation in the Ethiopian-led overthrow of the Islamic Courts Union government in Somalia in late 2006.

One fact that fed these interventions, is that the arbitrary colonial-imposed borders in the region split communities right down the middle.

The Banyamulenge in DRC are the same people as the Rwandese, so when they were being slaughtered in 1996, Rwanda intervened to stop it; and while there destroy the Interahamwe who had carried out the genocide back home, before fleeing across to establish a mini independent state within DRC. That campaign ended in Kinshasa and the overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997

Southern Sudan

Uganda, historically, has supported the various southern Sudan rebellions against Khartoum, beginning from the 1960s, right through to the rule of Idi Amin, to date.

This is because the southern Sudan splits the Sudanic/Luo people from their Ugandan Luo cousins. Many SPLA fighters in the early days of southern liberation struggles were “Ugandans” who, when they were defeated, would cross back home, stash away their guns, farm their gardens, and wait for another fight when the season was right. This was one of the reasons why the Lords Resistance Army rebellion, the support by Khartoum notwithstanding, lasted 20 years.

The SPLA, staunch ally of the Kampala government that they were, just could not be hard enough on their Ugandan cousins in the LRA, in exchange for the support they were receiving from President Museveni.

The point here then is that because Kenya has the same people mix on all its borders as Rwanda has with the Banyamulenge, if the crisis persisted and began to impact heavily on the neighbours, Uganda, Ethiopia, and the Somali militants would not stand by and do nothing. They would intervene, and in the process create a totally different jolly mess that would finally break up a Kenya where, already, many areas have been cleansed of “enemy” ethnic groups.

That is a cost Africa and the world simply cannot afford to pay.

Even without the recent troubles, knowledgeable source say some South African interests were already lobbying to have the United Nations relocate its Unep offices in Nairobi and its regional operations to at a place of its choosing in the south.

The Midrands, where the African Parliament is located, has been touted as a possible location. And the South Africans are allegedly offering a sweetheart deal – lots of land, infrastructure, and new buildings. All the UN would have to move out of Nairobi, are human beings.

Strategic location

With the massive investments it is making in its airports and other infrastructure for the 2010 World Cup, South Africa will have a lot of capabilities and capacity that it needs someone to take up. Unrest in Kenya plays into their hands, and makes that move inevitable should Nairobi become unliveable.

That would be a big blow for international supports for Somalia and Southern Sudan, because the bulk of the programmes for these countries are run out of Gigiri and other NGO offices in Nairobi. Kenya’s strategic location, and its role as the sanctuary for refugees from throughout the region, and as the anchor for the long-term stabilisation of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, southern Sudan and Somalia and Burundi however brings with its several mixed blessings.

When US President George Bush visited Africa last week, he spent half his time on the continent (three days), in Tanzania.

Questions are being asked about why he stayed around so long. When he moved on to Rwanda, he naturally had to make parallels between the genocide there in 1994 in which nearly one million people were slaughtered, and the killings in Kenya.

Bush, reechoing the line that President Paul Kagame had taken a few days earlier when he called for the deployment of the Kenyan army to stop the violence, said genocide starts slowly. A few people are killed today, and before you know it, hundreds of thousands are dead a few weeks later.

One of the criticisms of the international mission that was sent to Rwanda during the war, was that it was too small, and it had a useless observer and minimal peacekeeping role. It therefore didn’t have the resources or the mandate, to stop the killings.

Stop killings

Against that history, Mr Bush said if the mediated talks between the PNU government and ODM did not produce a deal that returns Kenya to stability, the international community would not intervene just as “observers”. It would have to do something to more actively stop killings.

US undersecretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer had said the same thing, more bluntly, in the early days as the government and ODM were being nudged to begin talks, noting “it would not be business as usual” in US relations with Kenya if the leaders didn’t settle the crisis quickly through negotiations, and that the international community would “impose a solution”.

By the time US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Nairobi last week, the language from the US was more temperate. She didn’t repeat the “imposing” bit, but stuck to the line that if there were no agreement to share power, it “would not be business as usual”.

Mr Bush’s long stay in Tanzania, seemed to vindicate those who suggest that the US has decided to locate its controversial African Command (Africom) along the East African coast. Nearly all African countries have refused to host Africom, fearing that they would get embroiled in America’s “international war on terror” and provoke internal instability. Only Liberia has publicly offered to host it. The matter has become so heated, that the US has announced that it has shelved the idea indefinitely, and Africom would continue to be run out of Germany.

Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way. A look at the world map will tell you that Africom, when it is eventually set up, is most likely to be on the East Coast where the location makes strategic sense. It will probably never be located in a country because, as in the case of Liberia, just because that country has offered to host it.

It can’t be located in North Africa, in part because all the North African countries are Muslim countries that pose a real risk of radicalising the region and the Middle East further.
If Ethiopia, Rwanda or Uganda were not landlocked, Africom would be a done deal by now. Tanzania has few port options, and its capital Dar es Salaam is a coastal city, which means a large population lives there.

Kenya has historically hosted US forces on a short-term basis, and its capital Nairobi is in the hinterland, meaning there are fewer prying eyes at the coast. It also offers Malindi and Lamu. In addition to offering easy access to most of Africa, an Africom base on the East coast would give the US proximity to the volatile Middle East, and a forward position and “line of sight” to the region which offer it its greatest future global rivalry – Asia.

A settled Kenya and a Nairobi government with national legitimacy will almost definitely continue saying “No” to hosting Africom. However a crisis in which the US plays a “saviour role”, which will also destroy the hold of the political elite that is squabbling over power today, creates the conditions for a US base to be welcome.

This question has an intriguing subtext. Several international publications writing on the Kenya crisis have noted the country had gone further than most countries in establishing economic ties with China, and that that had not helped its relations much with the West which had been its “traditional” economic partner in the process.

Finance minister Amos Kimunya, like former Internal security minister Chris Murungaru, likes to repeat the line that the West has tended to support the opposition in Kenya in recent years, including over the current election dispute, because the Kibaki government had reduced its dependence on the west and diversified its economic links toward Asia. In a general sense, that has some truth it.

Specifically, though, Kenya’s growing business ties with Asia, particularly China, challenge the old economic order in a more subtle way. China’s dealings with Africa have mostly been in the extractive industries; oil, timber, diamonds and a range of raw materials. It is the kind of relationship Africa has had with the West over the past 50 years, and its transformative value, as history teaches us, has been limited on the continent.

However Kenya, because it is largely resource poor, has a different relationship based on exchange of services and more ordinary trade goods. Kenya Airways thus became the first main African airline to fly to China. In that sense, the Kenyan case is a more powerful example of the possibilities that China can offer the continent.

We are no longer in the Cold War world, but if the example that Kenya offers in this undermines the model of a western-led world economic model, then the political leaders in Kenya have worked against their own power interests by embroiling the country in an election crisis that requires an international solution.

The only tool available to the leaders in this case to preserve some power for themselves, then, is a quick political deal that removes the possibility of further escalation. For all that, it is the impossibly high political cost that the region would pay that makes the implosion of Kenya unaffordable.

Kenya is the country that has hosted the most refugees from around Eastern Africa. For years it has give sanctuary to Ethiopian, Somali, Sudanese, and Ugandan refugees in their thousands, and harboured Congolese, Burundi and Rwandese too, though in smaller numbers. The first complication is that if Kenya were to come apart, and more of its own citizens become refugees, where will the Somali refugees in Kenya, for example, go?

Bigger nightmare

But the bigger nightmare is where would the Kenyan refugees themselves go. They can’t go to Somalia or southern Sudan. Conditions in southern Ethiopia are also too fragile to allow a large number of refugees.

The two practical options are Uganda and Tanzania. However, because of historical resentment toward Kenyans in Tanzania, a large influx of refugees could create too many complications in the long-term.

Uganda, then, would be the safest refugee haven. Right now, the estimated 6,000 Kenyan refugees in Uganda are hosted in the eastern part of the country. That area of the country has been hard hit by environmental degradation, partly because it is hopelessly overpopulated, which is one reason it suffered the worst effects of the floods last year.

It cannot hold a larger number of refugees than have already entered the country, which is one reason the Kampala government is planning to move them to the western part of the country, to camps that housed Rwandese refugees for more than a generation, but are now empty after most of them returned home after the RPA took power.

Buganda kingdom

Uganda, though, is itself a country that’s sliding toward the kind of land-fuelled crisis that informed the fury of the clashes in the Rift Valley. Tensions are rising in the central part of the country where there are fears that a dispute between the central government and the Buganda kingdom over control of 9,000 square kilometres of “crown land” could turn violent.

A refugee influx could very easily tip the situation in the country. These are fickle times in East Africa. The region and the world therefore least afford a Kenya on fire, because there will be nothing like a Kenyan fire.

The flames will spread all over Eastern Africa, and the region risks suffering its largest collective economic reversal ever. Which is why if the politicians in Nairobi cannot fix the crisis, some other powers and regional forces will be tempted to. Kenya is simply too important for them not to try and impose a solution.

State of the Nation continues

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