Coalition cracks and armed militias threaten stability

Deepening rifts in Kenya's coalition government, a failure to press ahead with promised reforms and a proliferation of armed militia groups have given rise to fears that the country could slide back into the kind of violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives and forced about half a million people from their homes after elections in December 2007.

"Kenyans are not only growing far apart but also frustrated and angry at the way politicians are playing a game of Russian roulette with their future; the pent-up anger will erupt with volcanic ferocity," Wafula Okumu, a senior research fellow in the African Security Analysis Programme of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN.

"Don't lead us back to war," urged the country's biggest selling daily newspaper in a rare front-page editorial on 10 April. "The people of Kenya are watching as their political leaders threaten to once again send this country down the path of death and destruction," it added, lamenting that communication between coalition partners had broken down.

Multiple militias

What makes the prospect of the partnership's collapse all the more alarming are reports that several leading politicians, notably those representing constituencies in the Rift Valley, which bore the brunt of the violence last year, maintain armed and trained militia units.

"Conditions for armed violence in Kenya have never been so eminent," according to Charles Otieno, a security analyst whose research into peace-building strategies uncovered the existence of dozens of organised, trained and armed groups controlled by politicians, mainly in the Rift Valley.

"There is something behind all this organisation. It's not just organisation for the sake of [election] campaigns like you've seen in the past. This is organisation in preparation for potential violent confrontation," he said.

"Politicians are willing now to fund these militias to remain organised as a standing army, and that in itself means the potential for violence is very very high because each constituency has a politician [in office] who has an opponent on the ground and each opponent has his own militia group," he said.

Former military officers have been engaged to train such groups, which for the first time have begun to acquire significant quantities of firearms, Otieno reported.

Photo: Boniface Mwangi/IRIN
President Kibaki (centre) and Prime Minister Odinga shake hands during the power-sharing talks mediated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (right) in February 2008

According to Aeneas Chuma, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Kenya, the UN is working with the government to study such groups.

"A committee has already been set up, with three members from the Office of the President and two from the UN to develop the feasibility of addressing this issue of militias," he said. "Hopefully a rapid assessment will follow to establish the scale of militia activity in the country."

Resignations, recriminations

"Admittedly, the coalition is currently under some stress and this is a source of worry for us in the humanitarian community," Chuma told IRIN on 6 April.

"My hope is that the [country's] leadership will recognise that as imperfect as it is, the coalition is a useful instrument in pushing the required reform agenda; it is not an end in itself."

Chuma was speaking on the day that Martha Karua, previously a key ally of President Mwai Kibaki, resigned as justice and constitutional affairs minister after the head of state appointed seven judges without her knowledge.

Karua, who plans to run for president in 2012, showed no signs of quitting the political arena: "I will now be able to totally disagree with anything that is anti-reform."

Changes to the judiciary were among a host of reforms agreed by Kibaki and his election rival Raila Odinga during mediation talks led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2008.

The 7 April departure from government of an assistant minister - in a country where resignations on principle are virtually unheard of - marked another blow for the coalition's stability. Danson Mungatana left complaining that corruption and anti-reform forces were frustrating those determined to bring change.

Meanwhile, Odinga, now the prime minister in the coalition government Annan steered into being, has become increasingly critical of the head of state, describing his leadership as "primitive".

The president's political party responded with a full-page newspaper broadside, labelling Odinga as "reckless," "abusive" and bent on "creating a crisis."

Time to act

"Kenya is at a crossroads," Annan declared at a meeting convened in Geneva on 30 March to review progress since the signing of a National Accord in February 2008. "The time to act is now," he added. Neither Kibaki nor Odinga travelled to Switzerland for the gathering.

"There is no disagreement on what needs to be done. The parties have already agreed on a blueprint for building a more equitable, prosperous and just society. That blueprint is found in the reform package agreed in the National Dialogue," he added.

This package includes constitutional, legal and institutional reform; tackling poverty and inequity and development imbalances; tackling unemployment, particularly among the youth; consolidating national cohesion and unity; undertaking land reform; and addressing transparency, accountability and impunity.

Annan warned that Kenya's situation had implications far beyond its borders.

"The politicisation of ethnicity, non-adherence to the rule of law, corruption and the abuse of power, and inequitable development, exist in other parts of Africa and across the globe. I believe this is one reason why the world is paying such attention to the way Kenya grapples with these issues."

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
The post-election violence in early 2008 resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and the displacement of at least half a million Kenyans - file photo

According to Okumu of ISS, these issues "have slipped off the radar screen".

"At this critical juncture, when we are facing a global financial crisis, Kenya needs a government that is visionary, committed, disciplined, and dedicated to serving the people; not one that is driven by survival on the backs of the suffering population," he said.

The UN's Chuma also noted there was much more work to be done.

"The biggest achievement in 2008 was the stopping of the violence of course, but that alone is not enough without the far-reaching reforms, raising danger that the momentum may be lost.

"We hope that the Geneva meeting rekindled that sense of urgency in getting the politicians to look at the common good and meeting the hopes and aspirations of Kenyans," he added.

As Annan himself noted in Geneva, "the average person [in Kenya] finds it hard to comprehend why the changes, some of them very fundamental, are not taking place at a faster pace".

Alice Wambui, 38, a mother of three and resident of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, said: "This coalition has not met my expectations; none of the pledges they made to us have been fulfilled: the price of maize flour remains high, my business stall was looted then destroyed during the election chaos, hence I have no reliable means of livelihood. I now hassle doing casual work in order to feed my family."

Joseph Wanyama, 40, a watchman in a city estate, told IRIN: "I am disappointed in our politicians; they made promises which they promptly forgot once they started earning their huge salaries. Look at me, I walk about 10km every day to get to work, the price of maize flour has not come down, I can barely keep my children in school, let alone feed them, yet my salary has remained the same even after the violence; there has to be a way these leaders of ours can help us."