Kenya, often described by the imperialist press as ‘an advanced democracy’, has erupted into a dangerous spiral of violence that, at the time of writing (mid-January), had claimed more than 700 lives.
This violence is being portrayed in the imperialist media as ‘tribal conflict’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, but this is an oversimplification of the situation, although Kenya does suffer from the intense tribalism that was fostered by British imperialist colonial rule as part of its ‘divide and rule’ strategy over the country and also by the post-colonial (or neo-colonial) rulers.
Moreover, the imperialists’ imposition of the ‘multi-party’ model in Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, along with neo-liberal economics, has led to an increase in tribalism. In fact, though, the bulk of the casualties during recent clashes were actually protestors killed by the police.
The imperialist media have chosen to portray this as a tribal conflict in order to distract from the repressive role played by the Kenyan state and the reactionary Kibaki regime. How different from their coverage of Zimbabwe and Burma (Myanmar), where the blame for all violence is put on the state authorities! There have been no cries of ‘Kenya, stop the killings!’ from the imperialist media, from British bourgeois liberals or much of the fake left.
Kenya’s crisis is not due to ‘tribalism’ but to poverty and underdevelopment, which in turn is caused by dependency and several decades of neo-colonialism, further compounded by the zealous adoption of neo-liberalism by the Kibaki regime that came to power in 2002.
The initial trigger for the violence was a dispute over presidential election results. Sitting president Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002 as part of a hodgepodge coalition of different parties opposed to the dictator Daniel arap Moi and the ruling party KANU. Once in power, Kibaki did not change anything and was perceived as favouring his own tribe (the Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya).
The coalition fell apart and Raila Odinga, son of the famous independence leader and first vice president Oginga Odinga, formed the ‘Orange Democratic Movement’, a party which claims to want to build a ‘social democratic state’ but also embraces some neo-liberal tenets, to challenge Kibaki.
The ODM says it won the presidential election held on 27 December, but Kibaki also claimed victory. Odinga, a Luo (the Luo are the second-biggest tribe in Kenya), claims that the elections were rigged by Kibaki, and violence exploded when Kibaki hastily inaugurated himself as president.
Early election results gave Odinga 53 percent to Kibaki’s 39 percent. Moreover, Kibaki’s party, the PNU (Party of National Unity), was heavily defeated in the parliamentary elections, where Odinga’s ODM gained many seats. Mysteriously, after the election results were delayed, Kibaki won by a small margin. Naturally, Odinga and the ODM claimed the vote was rigged, and Odinga regarded himself as the victor and legitimate president of Kenya.
The US imperialists initially congratulated Kibaki on his victory, but later withdrew the message, saying instead, “We urge all parties to restrain their supporters and reach out to each other to find a peaceful resolution in the interest of continuing to advance Kenya’s democracy and development. The United States is working with all parties to this end.”
British premier Brown took a similar line: “I am gravely concerned by the situation in Kenya. I have urged both Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to exercise restraint and responsible leadership.”
Much is made in the imperialist media of the fact that Odinga is a Luo, while Kibaki is a Kikuyu. It is said that Odinga’s ODM is a Luo party. In fact, though, some Kikuyu politicians, such as Charity Ngilu, who was Kibaki’s health minister until he sacked her and a former leader of the Kenya Social Democratic Party and the National Party of Kenya, gave their support to Odinga.
The bottom line is that both British and US imperialists could tolerate either Kibaki or Odinga as Kenya’s leader, in the sense that neither would pose a fundamental challenge to the present neo-colonial order, although it is true that some hardline cold warrior types in the CIA and MI6 would favour Kibaki over Odinga because of the latter’s leftist past (he studied in the socialist German Democratic Republic; served some seven years, first under house arrest and then detained without trial because of his anti-dictatorship activities; and named his eldest son after Fidel Castro and his youngest daughter after Winnie Mandela), as well as because his apparent victory in the elections reflects to a degree the aspirations of the Kenyan masses, now drawn in a more militant direction following the apparent electoral fraud and subsequent brutal repression.
Both Odinga and Kibaki come from wealthy backgrounds. The bourgeois media continually point out that Odinga is a ‘millionaire’ despite his populist credentials. Kibaki in the past was very anti-communist and is thus regarded as “a reliable friend of big business and the United States (his campaign ads are even in red, white and blue)” . (‘In helicopter or hummer, Kenya contender dazzles’ by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 22 December 2007)
Kibaki is a landlord and a capitalist. He is a member of the ‘old guard’ of Kenyan politicians in that he has served in ministerial positions in most Kenyan governments since the 1960s, including as vice president under the widely-reviled and unpopular dictator Daniel arap Moi. Given the present situation, where the people have risen in struggle at least in part under the banner of the ODM, the imperialists’ best hope may be for Odinga and Kibaki to work together in some kind of coalition, as indeed happened in the first post-arap Moi government, in which the conservative old-guard Kibaki would seek to marginalise the populist moderniser Odinga as much as possible.
The land of the 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars
Rather than being a ‘prosperous’, ‘stable’ or ‘advanced’ democracy, Kenya is powder keg riven by intense tribal rivalries, racial and social tensions. J M Kariuki, the speaker of the Kenyan parliament who was murdered on 2 March 1975, described Kenya as the “land of the 10 millionaires and the 10 million beggars”.
Most Kenyans live in abject poverty, both in the big cities and in the countryside. In Nairobi, some 30 percent of the population live in horrendous slums, such as the infamous Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with a population of one million. Famine exists in some areas of Kenya with around 2 million Kenyans threatened by starvation. While more than half of Kenya’s arable land is in the hands of 20 percent of the people, many Kenyans are landless or are squatters. Officially, unemployment stands at 23 percent, but may in reality be much higher.
Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the rich comprador capitalist class, while descendants of white settlers still own large tracts of land, notably Lord Delamere. Recently hitting the headlines has been the attempt to prosecute Tom Cholmondeley, son of the fifth Lord Delamere, who murdered two Africans for allegedly poaching on his estate. Resentment against the Asian middle class and petty bourgeoisie is also expressed by some Africans.
Statistics show that the richest 20 percent of the population take 61 percent of urban incomes and 51 percent of rural ones. Whilst poor Kenyans die of starvation, rich capitalist Kenyans spend money on weight reduction clinics and cosmetic surgery. In Kenya, the rich became known as the ‘Wa Benzi’ because of their love of Mercedes Benz cars. Rich Kenyans often own property abroad in Britain and the USA and have money in foreign bank accounts. Dictator arap Moi had $3bn dollars in foreign banks when ousted from power.
The Kenyan economy is dominated by foreign multinationals such as Brooke Bond, Unilever, Barclays Bank, British American Tobacco, Shell, BP, Caltex and others. Plantation agriculture accounts for a large proportion of the land and in this sector the US-owned Del Monte (which has a fearsome reputation for the guard dogs that have killed many impoverished Africans trying to pick pineapples) is dominant. Kenya is shamelessly pillaged by these multinationals, with billions of Kshs (Kenya shillings, the national currency) taken out of the country each year by them. This domination and plunder of the economy is the fundamental reason why Kenya has been unable to develop.
Unsurprisingly, corruption is rampant. The Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki regimes have all been kleptocratic. Moi and Kibaki in particular looted millions from state coffers to enrich themselves, and the anti-corruption authority itself became a joke when it was found to be taking bribes. The electoral system is flawed even by conventional bourgeois-democratic standards, with voters being expected to vote by queuing behind the candidate they intend to vote for, so that in some places it takes the whole day to vote. People are also paid to attend political rallies – a practice that favours wealthy candidates and the bigger parties in Kenya.
Imperialism’s outpost in East Africa
Kenya has been described as “the shock brigade or bridgehead of imperialism in East Africa” , or, as the imperialist press prefer to put it, “a key ally of the West in the fight against terror” . During the more intense period of the cold war, Kenya was seen by the US and British imperialists as the only safe pro-western country in the east African region, and they decided to cultivate and build it up to check what they saw as a threat to their interests from Tanzania under President Julius Nyerere and from the general trend of militant and progressive African and Arab nationalism that prevailed in the region at that time. Thus, Jomo Kenyatta’s past as a fiery independence champion (and, indeed, one-time member of the old CPGB!) could be forgiven, and he was transformed into imperialism’s man in East Africa.
The US acquired the right to use military and naval facilities in Kenya, and it is known that from time to time there have been small numbers of US troops within Kenya. Moi entered into a secret military agreement with the US, which only came to light during a debate in the US Congress. Some British troops have also remained in Kenya since 1963, and regular British Army exercises are held there. There have been persistent allegations of a massive and systematic campaign of rape carried out by British army soldiers whilst in Kenya. War exercises involving US and British troops have also taken place. The notorious General Service Unit (a state terrorist outfit) was trained by the British and Israelis, while the Israelis also have an economic foothold in Kenya, ironically owning hotels on the predominately muslim coast at Mombasa.
It is all too easy to simply denounce Kenya as a fascist neo-colony and puppet state of imperialism, but it is necessary to analyse historically what happened to turn the country into what it is today.
Kenya became a British colony in the 19th century under a British colonialism that was truly brutal. An independence movement began to appear in the 1920s and 30s, while the Kenyan African Union (later renamed KANU) appeared in 1944, with the then militant nationalist Jomo Kenyatta becoming its president shortly afterwards.
In the 1950s, the independence struggle intensified, as did the British imperialists’ repression of it. The dispossession of Kikuyu peasants by British settlers led to the formation of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, known famously as the Mau-Mau. (This was the name given to it at the time by the imperialists, as its members were bound by oath – a captured KLFA member refused to give details in court and just said “those, those things”. ‘Those those’ in Swahili is Mau Mau.)
The KLFA, under its leader Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi, waged an armed struggle to regain the stolen land and achieve independence. British imperialism responded with unparalleled ferocity by bombing the Aberdare forest and trying to detain the entire Kikuyu tribe in concentration camps. Although the KAU was a separate organisation from the KLFA (though of course there were some who were members of both), the British also heavily repressed the former, jailing Kenyatta for many years, during which time the running of the Union was taken over by his deputy, Oginga Odinga. Some 100,000 Kenyans were interned by British imperialism, with up to 70,000 killed. Mau-Mau leader Field Marshal Kimathi was hung, but nevertheless the struggle gained momentum and a third strand of struggle was added to the KLFA and KAU – that of the trade unions. Although the KLFA and KAU did not have communist leadership, individual communists such as Pio Pinto Gama and Makhan Singh played a key role in organising urban workers, particularly the office workers of Asian origin.
Kenya gained independence in December 1963, and a government was formed under the leadership of the two giants of the Kenyan independence movement, with Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as president and vice president respectively.
The attainment of political independence by a country is obviously an important victory, but is in fact only the first step along the road of the national liberation revolution and building of a nation. The footholds of imperialism must be torn out, economic independence achieved and a progressive social system set up.
Kenyatta’s government did not do this, however, preferring to put the brakes on the anti-imperialist movement. Dispossessed landless farmers waited for Kenyatta to give the order to occupy the land held by the colonialist settlers, but instead, Kenyatta told them “Hakuna Na Bure” – there is nothing for free – advising them to go to China or Tanzania if they wanted something for nothing. Instead of confiscation and redistribution, the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle was enforced, to the sole advantage of those with funds to make the desired purchases. Kenyatta himself did very well out of this process, becoming one of the country’s biggest landowners, with some of the best land in Kenya in his hands.
Kenya started to swing to the right, and the CIA played its part in this, while the US ambassador pressurised Kenyatta to remove Odinga as vice president. As the Kenyan newspaper the Sunday Nation (itself very much part of the establishment) commented many years later: “contrary to the common belief that Odinga and Kenyatta fell out because of the former’s political ambition, it was the Americans who sealed Odinga’s political fate in mid-1960s” .
Kenyan communist Pio Pinto Gama was gunned down in 1965, apparently on Kenyatta’s orders. Months later, Kenyatta attacked communism. The Lumumba Institute, set up with the help of the socialist countries to train KANU cadres, was shut down. KANU itself merged with the federalist KADU, an organisation that included many who had collaborated with British imperialist rule, such as Moi, and which was regarded as a cat’s paw of the remaining white settlers.
With KANU now moving to the right, Odinga and others left it to form the Kenya People’s Union to fight for real independence and socialism. The KPU supported the socialist countries, particularly China, and was denounced outside Kenya for being a ‘communist party’. Inside Kenya, it was accused of being a Luo entity because several of its leaders, including Odinga himself, were from the Luo tribe, but in fact some Kikuyu joined, notably Mau-Mau veteran Bildad Kaggia. The KPU itself was banned, with Odinga placed under house arrest and many KPU leaders and supporters jailed. Later they were released and allowed to return to public and political life, although many of them were jailed again at various times.
The Kenyan left
In the early 1960s, just before independence, John Keen, a Masai independence leader, planned to form the Communist Party of Kenya with Odinga and Pio Pinto Gama. The party was never formed, however, and after the repression and dissolution of the KPU, Kenya was without any kind of revolutionary party.
Students protested against the misrule of Kenyatta, who had turned into an imperialist stooge – a pale shadow of the Kenyatta who had fought the British. Now Kenyatta was preaching reconciliation with imperialism, the white settlers and the notorious former collaborators of the humangati (homeguards), some of whom were given high positions in the government. Kenyatta later wrote a pathetic book, Suffering Without Bitterness.
The December 12th Movement and the March 2nd Movement grew out of the student protests and merged to become the Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya, known in Swahili as Muungano wa Wazalendo wa Kukomboa Kenya, or Mwakenya for short. This organisation pledged itself to rid Kenya of imperialism and neo-colonialism, and was based on Marxism Leninism. Although Mwakenya tended to be based on university circles and, because of repression, to have a small membership, it at times enjoyed wide popularity because of dissatisfaction with the increasingly corrupt dictatorship of Kenyatta’s successor Daniel arap Moi (a former collaborator with British colonial rule), who had a much narrower power base among the Kalenjin tribe than his predecessor Kenyatta, who was from the majority Kikuyu tribe. It is not clear whether Mwakenya still exists in Kenya today.
In addition to Mwakenya, there was the Kenya Anti-Imperialist Front, formed by exiled Kenyans in Zimbabwe, the Kenyan Patriotic Front and the Kenya Revolutionary Movement, led by Raila Odinga. Moi’s rule saw many other challenges, notably the 1982 Kenya Air Force coup, which briefly established a People’s Redemption Council but was defeated by armed forces loyal to Moi and the GSU (police or General Service Unit). (It was rumoured that Moi also received help from the US and British imperialists.)
Moi’s regime ran the economy into the ground and faced mass discontent. With the ‘end of the cold war’ in the early 1990s, the regime was rendered somewhat redundant in the eyes of the imperialists, while its corruption and repression were now becoming an embarrassment. About this time, many African countries that had a single-party system were being pressured to switch to a multi-party one. Moi knew this would spell disaster for him as his KANU would probably lose due to tribal allegiance as well as the discontent with his regime, but under pressure from the imperialists, he reluctantly introduced a multi-party system. Ironically, this led to Moi and KANU trying to revive a tokenistic and hollow anti-imperialism that fooled no one.
The Democratic Party, led by Moi’s former vice president, was established as a pro-US conservative party, and a number of other parties were established, many of them organised along tribal and ethnic lines. Mwakenya remained illegal, however, and a number of other parties were denied registration, notably the Party of the Proletariat and Peasants, the Green Party and the Islamic Party. Although Kenyan public security laws do not specifically outlaw Marxism or communism, organisations that ‘threaten public order’ can be banned.
This denial was rescinded some time later, and today there are a few leftist organisations with some token representation in the Kenyan parliament – one MP each from the Green Party, the National Liberation Party, the People’s Party of Kenya and Chama Cha Uma.
Moi survived the 1997 election by a combination of vote rigging and the fact that the opposition parties could not unite, thus splitting the opposition vote four ways.
Finally, in 2002, Moi was swept from power by Kibaki’s triumphant NARC party. Some former dissidents and leftists joined the government, but Kibaki proved to be little different from Moi and there was no break with the policy of dependence on the US and the West. In fact, the Kibaki regime greatly accelerated privatisation and moved to closer ties with US imperialism. A constitutional referendum in 2005, as well as a series of broken promises, caused the government to split, and Odinga and his supporters formed the Orange Democratic Movement.
The ODM programme is bereft of any explicitly anti-imperialist content. There is vague talk of redistributing power and wealth but no real indication of how this will come about. Progressives and anti-imperialists should, however, oppose the repression of the ODM. Insofar as the ODM stands for an end to the rule of Kenya’s old guard and some further democratisation, it can and should be supported up to a point. However, the ODM cannot solve the country’s fundamental problems – only a mass anti-imperialist movement, crossing all tribal lines and led by a revolutionary party can do that.
There are possibilities that the present upheavals may lead to such anti-imperialist and popular democratic aspirations surfacing, but whether they will materialise into some kind of organised expression on this occasion, only time will tell. British communists, meanwhile, must expose the repression of the Kibaki regime and the interference of US and British imperialism in Kenya and lend their support to the struggle of the Kenyan people and any progressive or revolutionary movement that emerges.
US and British imperialism out of East Africa!