Kenya: the barbaric consequences of capitalism

Until recently Kenya was held up as a glowing example of the success of the free market economy. It was supposed to be a shining example of democracy, a beacon of hope for what Europeans used to call "the dark continent." Now all these dreams lay in ashes. In recent weeks Kenya has been torn asunder by a wave of ethnic and tribal violence that has claimed nearly a thousand lives.

Lenin once said that capitalism is horror without end. Kenya is the most ghastly proof of that assertion. This is a nation of approximately 36 million inhabitants, situated on the equator on the East of African coast, with Sudan and Ethiopia to the north, Uganda to the west, Tanzania to the south and the Indian Ocean to the east. To the northeast lies Somalia. The capital, Nairobi, is one of the largest cities in Africa with a population of three million. The average age of the population is only 18. Kenya is blessed with a benign climate and fertile agricultural land, although 70% of the country is arid and semi-arid. The combination of scenic beauty and abundant wildlife made Kenya one of Africa's leading tourist destinations. Kenya has very vibrant culture, which is due in no small measure to its ethnic diversity.

Kenya mapThe basis of its economy is agriculture and tourism. The main crops grown are tea, coffee, cashew, maize, sugar and pyrethrum. It therefore has all the elements to become a prosperous and successful nation. But almost half a century after independence from British rule, it remains poor. The per capita income of the country is approximately 300 dollars. Until recently Kenya was held up as a glowing example of the success of the free market economy. Here was a country that carried out to the letter the policies dictated by the World Bank and the IMF. It was supposed to be a shining example of democracy, a beacon of hope for what Europeans used to call "the dark continent."

Now all these dreams lay in ashes. In recent weeks Kenya has been torn asunder by a wave of ethnic and tribal violence that has claimed nearly a thousand lives. The immediate cause of the violence was the rigged election of December 27th, when the sitting president Mwai Kibaki robbed the opposition of victory by blatant electoral fraud. Immediately after the disputed election, supporters of Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, who leads the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, took to the streets to protest. Since Kabaki is a Kikuyu, as are most of his supporters, the struggle assumed the character of a bloody ethnic conflict.

Since then at least 1,000 have died and 200,000 been driven from their homes in widespread violence. Every day the western media are filled with stories of new horrors, as ordinary poor Africans slaughter each other with machetes, clubs and knives. Houses are looted and torched and thousands of people forced to flee to other areas. Tens of thousands of families have been forced from their homes. People have been hacked or burned to death. Women have been raped. The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs in Geneva said today there had been 167 rapes reported to the Nairobi women's hospital in the past month, with the youngest victim one year old.

The shooting dead, in separate incidents, of two Orange MPs, set off a further orgy of killing in the capital's slums and elsewhere. One was Mugabe Were, a Luhya who was popular in Nairobi; the other was David Kimutai Too, a Kalenjin. In the Luos' provincial capital, Kisumu, more Kikuyus were butchered, some of them "necklaced" with burning tyres by Luo youths. In Eldoret, where Too was gunned down by a police officer, hundreds of young men blocked roads with burning tires and rocks, chanting "Kibaki must go". Smoke columns rose from smouldering ashes in what remains of the city's poor Nwagocho and Baraka housing estates. There police shot and killed four people and injured five on Thursday evening and Friday morning. They were accused of participating in looting properties and torching residential houses and business buildings.

In revenge attacks in the western village of Ainamoi a police officer was lynched by a 3,000-strong mob armed with bows and arrows, spears, clubs and machetes. They accused him of wounding a civilian when police opened fire on protests that broke out when news of Too's death spread. "The police officer injured three attackers before he was overpowered and lynched on the spot," said police commander Peter Aliwa. Regional officials said eight people were killed in the village of Ikonge, 240 miles west of the capital, Nairobi, in a revenge attack linked to Too's killing. Around 100 men hacked six of the victims to death. The other two were killed with poisoned arrows, the officials said. A further four people were killed by police. The list of horrors seems endless.

Hypocrisy of the "international community"

The weak Kenyan national bourgeoisie is alarmed at these developments. The country's largest newspaper, the Daily Nation, which had tended to support Kibaki during the election campaign, has lost patience with him. An editorial declared that the government's "inertia and ineptitude" were "exposing base instincts and driving the country back to pre-colonial times". The bourgeois are wringing their hands, but what is the solution? To this question Daily Nation has no answer.  

Clashes in Nairobi

What of the "international community"? Surely nice democratic countries like Britain and America will help? In the face of this appalling slaughter, the response of governments has been muted. Where are the shrill calls for regime change in Nairobi? Where are the resolutions in the Security Council? Where are the plans for humanitarian intervention? There are none. Why? Maybe it is because Kenya has no oil, or maybe because the West has been backing Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki and his regime and see no urgency to change their mind. For whatever reason, the nice, civilized, Christian leaders of the western world are in no hurry to help prevent a catastrophe on the lines of Rwanda.

As always, the attitude of the imperialists stinks of hypocrisy Britain and America have given considerable military support to Kenya and they are still giving it. Mr Kibaki has been warmly embraced in the past as an ally in the global "war on terror". It is said that the European Union may seek "targeted" sanctions on Kenya, which would punish Kibaki and some of his ministers and backers, while allegedly sparing poorer Kenyans from the effects of general trade and aid sanctions. This would mean travel bans on specified individuals and their families and similar measures. But this kind of thing has already been tried in the case of Zimbabwe, without producing any significant result. It will be a bit inconvenient for Mrs. Kibaki not to be able to come to London to do her shopping at Harrods, but that barely amounts to a slap on the wrist. 

They have dispatched former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan to act as mediator between Kibaki and the opposition leader, Raila Odinga. Kofi Annan says the political opponents had agreed a four-point plan for talks that could end the violence "within seven to 15 days". "The first [point] is to take immediate action to stop the violence," he told Reuters. But these are just words, and there is no sign whatsoever of the violence decreasing. Quite the contrary. 

Diplomats, businessmen and church leaders are fervently hoping that Annan's negotiations will succeed. They know Kibaki is to blame for rigging the presidential vote, they have agreed not to press for immediate sanctions so as to give Annan more time. But time is not on his side. Kibaki is dragging out the talks in the hope of bolstering his position without making any concession on the election or on anything else. And the opposition supporters are being urged to suppress their anger and lower their demands. That is all that Kofi Annan and the "United Nations" has to offer: keep calm! Avoid violence! But violence is increasing all the time and threatens to overwhelm society.

In view of the manifest impotence of Kofi Annan, the current UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, flew from the African Union summit in Ethiopia to Nairobi to give him some support. The talks resumed, Ban called on both sides to "look beyond the individual interest. Look beyond the party lines ... Now the future is on you."  But these are empty words and have had no effect. The gulf that separated the antagonistic parties before the elections has now turned into an unbridgeable abyss. Such a conflict cannot be resolved in purely parliamentary terms. In a speech at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Kibaki welcomed the international mediation efforts but suggested the opposition should take its grievances to the courts. He said: "The judiciary in Kenya has over the years arbitrated electoral disputes, and the current one should not be an exception."

This speech shows the undisguised cynicism of Kibaki. Everybody knows that the courts are stuffed with Kibaki's allies. In any case, proceedings move so slowly it could take months or years to reach a conclusion. This was a transparent attempt at delaying tactics. A recount of the vote would solve nothing because most Kenyans have no confidence in the electoral commission. The Oranges are demanding a new election, which would be the most democratic option. But even if the election was held (and Kabaki has rejected it), who would convene it? It is not likely that Kibaki and his supporters would sit alongside Odinga in an interim government. In the meantime the slaughter continues.

Crimes of imperialism

For many people in Europe all this seems inexplicable. Some merely shrug their shoulders and make vague references to tribalism, which is a term they do not understand. Others see it as a confirmation that Africans are "primitive" people with "savage" instincts, as opposed to civilized Europeans. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. There were always different tribes in Kenya, as in every other country in Africa. There have been wars between tribes in the past over cattle rustling or land and natural resources such as lakes and rivers. But these tribal conflicts were child's play compared to the bloody wars we "civilized" Europeans have been waging for centuries, at the cost of millions of dead. And the damage caused by these earlier inter-tribal wars, pales in comparison to the arrival of foreigners, starting in the mid 15th century. The kind of all-out genocidal conflicts we have seen in places like Rwanda were unknown in Africa before the arrival of the white man. They could only be the product of our own enlightened, civilized world.

Mwai Kibaki
Mwai Kibaki

The colonial subjugation of Kenya was accompanied by the same violence as in other African countries. The colonists deliberately gave certain privileges to some tribes at the expense of others. All over Africa, tribal divisions were encouraged and intensified by the most Christian European rulers. The British were especially skilled at this game. In Kenya they introduced a rigid system for categorising the "natives" according to their real or imagined tribal origins. They even invented non-existent tribes for this purpose, like the Kalenjins, whose existence as a separate tribe seems to date from the 1940s. It was the British therefore, who planted the seeds of inter-tribal strife. They left behind them the same poisonous inheritance that they had earlier implanted in Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus and the Indian Subcontinent.

The Rift Valley, which has become the centre for much of the ethnic violence, in colonial times this area was known as The White Highlands. Masai cattle herders originally inhabited it, but the British, who wanted these lands for themselves, drove them out. The seeds of the independence struggle began from the very instant that communities were forcibly evicted from the productive lands. Organized resistance begun after the First World War, and initially centred on issues such as access to education for Africans, land ownership rights and tax rates. The struggle was intensified after the Second World War, when black Africans returned from the front with military skills. They launched a long and bloody guerrilla war for independence.

The Kenyan people suffered many deaths, and many freedom fighters were imprisoned and sent to concentration camps. But in the end they won. Kenya became independent on 12th December 1963. This was a great victory for the people. But the middle class leaders of the independence struggle continued the oppressive and exploitative system as the British. Nominally independent, the national bourgeoisie had a servile attitude to Britain. In reality, over forty years after independence, Kenya today is more dependent on imperialism than ever before.

What is the problem? The problem is this: that the people of Kenya fought a heroic war of national liberation against British imperialism. The British were forced to leave. But this, in reality, was only half a victory. The lion's share of the spoils went to the new middle class, the blacks who aspired to European living standards and who secretly admired the old colonial masters and wanted to be like them. The founding president was Jomo Kenyatta, the legendary leader of the liberation struggle. He ruled Kenya from independence until his death in 1978. Like Julius Nyerere and other African leaders, he originally talked about socialism, and promised to free the country from the curse of disease, ignorance and poverty. In reality, this was the programme of the bourgeois democratic revolution. But under modern conditions it is impossible for an underdeveloped country like Kenya to solve the problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution on the basis of capitalism.

Bankruptcy of the national bourgeoisie

The national bourgeoisie is too weak, and too dependent on imperialism, to tackle the most pressing problems of the masses. The new black elite went to smart British public schools where they learned to talk and think like the white B'wanas of colonial days. They became shareholders in British and American companies that installed themselves in Kenya and established a new kind of colonial dependency. For the average Kenyan poor worker and peasant not much changed. They had done all the fighting, but all they succeeded in doing was to change one master for another. The new black bourgeoisie was just as rapacious as the British, but even more corrupt, inefficient and rotten. In effect, they were only the local office boys of the British and America imperialists.

Raila Odinga
Raila Odinga

After independence, the different groups of the ruling class were struggling for power and influence. In this power struggle they based themselves on tribal loyalties. They thus preserved intact the old British system of divide and rule. Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu, was in conflict with Odinga Odinga (the father of the present opposition leader), who based himself on the Luos. In order to bolster his position, Kenyatta distributed large tracts of fertile land in the former White Highlands to his Kikuyu followers. Other tribes like the Luo and Kalenjin were largely left out. Despite this, the different tribes lived side by side in peace and often intermarried. There was a feeling of a Kenyan national identity. But in recent years the feeling has grown that the fruits of Kenya's economic growth were not being evenly shared. This sentiment gradually took the form of resentment against the hold on power exercised by the dominant Kikuyu tribe.

The constant power struggles between the ruling and opposition parties led to a concentration of power within the presidency. Kenya became a de facto one party state (KANU), with a Bonapartist leader (Kenyatta). All power was vested with the presidency. The independence of the judiciary was a farce. Opponents were detained without trial while real threats were "eliminated". Cronyism and corruption flourished. But thanks to the Cold War between Russia and America, Kenya was the darling of the West. At a time when the Americans feared that Africa would end up in the Soviet camp, Kenyatta was seen as a bulwark against "Communism". Lavish funds kept pouring in while the "democratic" West turned a blind eye to government excesses, lack of democracy and rampant corruption.

After the death of Kenyatta in 1978, Daniel Arap Moi, his deputy, took over. But the underlying instability was exposed by an unsuccessful coup attempt by the air force in 1982. Moi quickly consolidated power within the presidency, just as Kenyatta had done. And the West again turned a blind eye. Under the Moi regime corruption, which was always present, developed into something like a fine art. Looting the state coffers was the rule, and those that benefited from privatisation were expected to contribute to KANU's party funds. Political opponents were jailed without trial, tortured and otherwise eliminated. And again the West said nothing.

Single party rule effectively silenced all those who disagreed with the government. In one instance the party disciplinary committee reprimanded a cabinet minister because "he did not applaud enthusiastically enough" after a presidential speech at a public rally. But by the end of the 1990s, the demand for free elections with more than one party became irresistible. Such was the discontent that detentions without trial, beatings and torture could not stop the movement for democracy. The regime was forced to accept the first multi-party elections in 1992. However, the opposition was fragmented along tribal lines, and in the elections of 1992 and 1997, KANU was returned to power, to continue looting the public purse.

In 2002 the opposition united behind a single candidate and inflicted a severe defeat on KANU. Under the National Alliance of the Rainbow Coalition the opposition won a landslide victory in December 2002, This appeared to many to mark the end of almost 40 years of uninterrupted rule by Kanu. The new President Mwai Kibaki declared zero tolerance to corruption and promised to deliver a new constitution in 100 days. He launched a purge on the judiciary and promised to root out corruption. But the ink was scarcely dry on these decrees when details of multi billion corruption deals became known. As in the past, senior government officials were implicated in massive corruption.

Another Rwanda?

The opposition insists that Kibaki stole the December election and is an illegal president. They are obviously right about this. But by unleashing a wave of violence directed against the Kikuyus, the opposition leaders played a fatal role. It is possible that the riots and pogroms were spontaneous - an expression of the pent-up fury of young unemployed people that has been simmering for a long time. But the leaders did nothing to stop it and there is plenty of evidence that they are now encouraging it for their own purposes, as is the government. In Eldoret, in Western Kenya, Luo mobs burned to death more than 30 people who were sheltering inside in a church. Such actions gave the excuse to Kikuyu extremists to organize revenge attacks on Luos in other areas.

Kibaki's argument that the country should carry on as normal is absurd. The old unstable equilibrium has been destroyed and cannot be put together again. The truth is that neither Kabaki nor Odinga can solve the problems of Kenyan society. This is a conflict between two bourgeois politicians, struggling to obtain a slice of the state pie for themselves, their families and followers. But since the conflict is tribally based, and since both sides accept the "market economy", if one side wins, the other side must lose. This is a finished recipe for tribal strife, massacres, chaos and genocide. 

Fear is spreading like an uncontrollable epidemic. The fear brings more violence and the escalating violence begets even greater fear, creating an uncontrollable spiral of violence. Kenya is alive with rumour. Some say there are furious disagreements within Mr Kibaki's circle in State House. Others say he is poised to impose a state of emergency. Among Kikuyus, there is fearful talk of Luo militias loyal to Odinga being trained in southern Sudan. All this can produce an even more frightful an escalation in violence from machetes to machineguns, which would be a catastrophe for all Kenyans. The use of traditional weapons, clubs, machetes and poisoned arrows is terrible enough. But if open civil war breaks out, it will make the recent atrocities look like a party. These events, while horrific enough, have not yet reached the level of wholesale slaughter that we saw in Rwanda in 1994. But the prospect exists.

It is not impossible that Kenya could break up along ethnic lines. Already the violence has caused the flight of several hundred thousand Kenyans who belonged to ethnic minorities in their places of residence. The Luos have been forced to flee from Central Province and the Kikuyus are fleeing from the west. If things were carried to the extreme, Kibaki's Kikuyu-dominated government would keep control the wealthy centre of the country up to Nakuru, north-west of Nairobi, while Odinga's Orange opposition would seize the west and much of the north. But this would still leave the problem of the Rift Valley. Most of the Kalenjin people who live there are hostile to Kikuyu political domination. This could easily lead to a bloody civil war, accompanied by new horrors.

Until recently, this would have seemed an incredible prospect to most Kenyans. The speed with which the entire social and political structure of what appeared to be one of the most stable countries in Africa shows the underlying fragility of bourgeois democracy everywhere. Capitalism has failed to solve the problems of the people of Kenya, just as it has failed on a world scale to deliver the kind of life that most people want. Lenin pointed out that the national question is ultimately a problem of bread. The central problem was, and is still, economic: Kenya's economic growth did not keep up with the rapid growth of population, which is one of the fastest in Africa. The result was a chronic shortage of jobs especially among the youth. The shortage of good agricultural land and rural unemployment has had a serious effect.

Unable to make a living on the land, large numbers of unemployed youths migrated to the towns where they rotted in the slums of Nairobi and other urban centres. If the economy were capable of providing jobs and houses for everyone, the antagonism, suspicion and jealousy between people from different communities would loose its reason to exist. That is as true for Kenya as any other country in the world. In this way a volatile explosive mixture was built up that has now exploded, tearing apart the fabric of society. If a revolutionary party existed, it could give an organized and conscious expression to the discontent of the masses. But in the absence of a revolutionary alternative, other forces can come to the fore, the dark forces of tribalism that have their roots in a distant past and have not been overcome.

The kind of atrocities that have been committed are the work of declassed and criminal elements, incited by professional pogrom-mongers from one side or the other. Most Kenyans are appalled at what is happening to their country. But they feel powerless in the face of the tidal wave of collective madness. The only force in society that would be able to halt the violence is the organized working class. If the trade unions were worthy of the name, they would put forward a class alternative to the tribal madness. They would organize armed workers ‘militia, linked to the trade unions, to patrol the workers' districts and keep order, disarming and punishing the perpetrators of pogroms.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In a situation where large numbers of young people are taking to their streets, either the working class will give the movement an organized expression and clear goals, or they will inevitably fall under the influence of the tribalists and pogrom-mongers. Unfortunately, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, the main trade union federation in Kenya, has adopted an abstentionist position during the present crisis, arguing that the problem was politically instigated and should be "solved politically". The leaders of COTU call on Kibaki to resolve the crisis through negotiation. This is a betrayal and a complete dereliction of duty.

Historically the Kenyan trade unions were dominated by KANU and have had close links with the government. Despite this, there have been important struggles over wages and jobs, as in 2003, when the Kenyan workers staged a wave of strikes swept the country. This shows the revolutionary potential of the working class, which is being undermined by the class collaboration policies of the leadership. The working class must adopt and active role, completely independent of any bourgeois party or leaders. It must strive to place itself at the head of the nation and lead the struggle for a fundamental change in society, which is what the overwhelming majority of Kenyans desire and need.

What is needed is a genuine workers' party, cutting across all tribal and ethnic divisions, organized to fight the bosses and the rotten government of Kabaki. Such a party would fight for democratic demands, starting with the demand for new elections to sweep Kabaki and his corrupt clique from power. But elections by themselves will solve nothing. Democracy is an empty phrase unless it signifies a genuine transfer of power to the people, to the majority of society, which are the workers and peasants.

The bourgeoisie has had decades to show what it was capable of doing for the people of Kenya. Now look where it has ended! The capitalist showcase of Africa has been reduced in a matter of days to burnt-out villages and heaps of corpses. An even greater tragedy hangs over the heads of millions of innocent men, women and children. Cynics and sceptics will say the idea of socialism and workers' unity is impossible. No! What is impossible is for men and women to continue living in this rotten, decaying capitalist society, a society that destroys everything that is humane and decent and reduces people to the level of animals. And if you treat people like animals, they will behave like animals.

Some will say that what we propose is utopian. But what we propose is a society based on human solidarity and not greed for profit. It is that greed for profit that is ultimately responsible for the misery of millions of people in Africa and all over the world. It is the rapacious greed of the landlords, bankers and capitalists, both the well-heeled bourgeois of London and New York and their local office boys of the Kibaki type, who have robbed Africa of its treasure and reduced its people to slavery. That, the critics of Marxism say, is "practical", but what we advocate is not.

But we have had enough of your "practical" policies, and we have seen all too often where they lead. What we see in Kenya is barbaric, but the barbarism is the result of the failure of capitalism: failure to give work to millions of unemployed youths, who are condemned to rot in the slums of Nairobi; failure to feed and clothe the people, to provide them with decent houses, schools and hospitals: in one word, failure to provide them with even the most basic conditions of a civilized existence. You deny people a civilized life and then complain of barbarism! But capitalism ultimately means barbarism and what we see on the streets of Narobi today can be repeated even in the most civilized nations on earth, if this degenerate system is allowed to continue much longer. The choice is either socialism or barbarism, not only in Kenya but also on a world scale.

Is humanity inevitably condemned to a descent into barbarism? Of course not!  There is a force that can prevent this. That force is the international working class, a class that is able to transcend all the old barriers of race, colour, nationality and religion. Karl Marx said: "the workers have no country". The working class can only survive by developing class unity, surmounting all distinctions of colour, race, tribe or creed. We are neither Kikuyu nor Luo, neither Catholics nor Protestants, neither black nor white: we are brothers and sisters fighting for the same cause. We are soldiers of the world socialist revolution. That is the only message of hope for the workers and peasants of Kenya and of the whole African continent.

London, 5th February, 2008.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.