Everyone is writing about a repeat of the Kenya violence in Malawi. But are we getting the question right?
Since Kenya’s main opposition candidate Raila Odinga rejected last year’s December 27 presidential election results, tribal clashes have claimed over 1,000 people in the East African country.
Some Malawians have argued that the Kenyan experience is likely to happen in Malawi after next year’s elections. The latest of such arguments being a two-page article by Wilson Mandala in Malawi News of February 16. While describing the Kenyan scenario, Mandala and others have not succeeded to draw a real connection between the social set-up of Malawi and Kenya.
What is the source of the violence in Kenya? The election dispute is just the immediate trigger. Kenya has had tribal violence for decades.
Tribalism is everywhere in Kenya, even in churches and universities. Inter-marriages are almost an impossibility. Even the moment you meet Kenyan professors, you know this one is Kikuyu, that one a Luo. Journalists, too, work on tribal lines although they are supposed to be impartial. This is far from the case in Malawi.
Consider 1992 when 1,500 Kenyans were killed in tribal clashes over land. Think of 1997 when 200 people died in Mombasa when tribal clashes erupted.
Kenya has 36 million people with more than 40 ethnic groups each with its own culture. The main groups, according to government statistics, are Kikuyu, 22 percent; Luhy, 14 percent; Luo, 13 percent; Kalenjin, 12 percent and Kamba, 11 percent.
The people are so visibly different in appearance and lifestyle that one wonders why they came to be in one country. The reason is simple. The boundaries in Africa were done at a table in Berlin in 1884. The colonial masters considered their economic gains not of the people of Africa.
To understand the uniqueness of each tribe study the Maasai who live a nomadic life, even in the capital Nairobi where they are seen in traditional attire, a stick in their hand. They believe all the world’s cattle—yes, all the world’s cattle—belong to them.
Apart from the tribal differences, poverty also plays a major role in violence. A Kenyan government report released eight months ago, showed that 16 million Kenyans were in extreme poverty.
Such people live in areas like Lang’ata which is described as one of the world’s biggest slums. It is in such slums that by November, 2006, gangs were almost taking administrative control, setting up parallel justice structures. The gangs were meting out instant justice and were unleashing terror on traders, landlords and hawkers who disobeyed. Everyone who revealed the gang’s identities was killed as a warning.
"The gangs have permeated every matatu route and every aspect of life in the sprawling Mathare slum, one of the oldest in the city. Their operation zones have become too dangerous for police foot patrols. In fact, parts of the city have become no-go zones for police," reported Sunday Nation of Kenya (November 12, 2006).
There were several gang groups but two major ones took centrestage. These were Taliban and Mungiki. Some of these were disconnecting people from Kenya’s official electricity power supplier and connecting them to illegal lines whose rates were exorbitant.
Nothing like this has ever happened in Malawi and it is not intellectually reasonable to conclude that Malawi will next year experience the kind of violence that has characterised post-election Kenya.
Kenyans will not tremble at the sound of a gun. Shoot in the air and see how far Malawians will go, running away. Have you ever wondered why strikes at the Polytechnic take a minute or two on the Masauko Chipembere Highway? Once the Police, who are metres away come and shoot tear-gas, the strike is over. The opposite is true elsewhere like Kenya.
The story of opposition leader Raila Odinga also matters. He is a Luo, from western Kenya near Lake Victoria just on the border with Uganda. His constituency in Nairobi, where he has fanatic support, is called Lang’ata and hosts one of the world’s largest slums.
This is an area that loves violence. So, when Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of last year’s elections, people of Lang’ata had an excuse for violence.
Odinga is a principled politician who commands respect in Kenya that people are willing to kill and die for his sake. His father, Ajuma Oginga Odinga, started politics as a close colleague of Jomo Kenyatta but became leader of opposition in Parliament after resigning as vice-president in April 1966. He accused his Cabinet colleagues of acting against him.
Up until now the senior Odinga is respected by Kenyans from almost all tribes, especially the Luo. What he did over 42 years ago, is what his son, Raila, did a couple of years ago. He resigned from Kibaki’s government and became part of the opposition.
The young Odinga commands a lot of respect and this is one reason people are willing to kill and die for his sake. No politician in Malawi commands such respect and, therefore, no Malawian can die for them. Is Bakili Muluzi that popular that anyone would be ready to die for him? Not at all.
Do people love Bingu wa Mutharika that if he were to lose, they would kill and be killed? No.
Beyond this, Kenyans believe the Kikuyus have had their share of political power for too long because Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki are Kikuyus while Daniel Arap Moi is a Kalenjin.
This is one reason Raila Odinga organised small tribes to fight against Kibaki. The presidency in Malawi has been rotating, although not so well. Kamuzu Banda was from Kasungu. Muluzi was from Machinga while Mutharika is from Thyolo. We do not know where the President after Mutharika will come from.
No tribe in Malawi is richer than the rest while in Kenya people think the Kikuyus have benefited economically more than any other tribe. They farm fertile highlands near Mount Kenya where they grow coffee and tea. Is there such a scenario in Malawi? No. No single tribe owns fertile land. No single tribe is sitting on gold for it to claim anything strange.
The violence in Kenya is unique to Kenya for clear reasons. It is not part of Malawi’s culture to engage in violence that takes away lives beyond count.
Kenya will not happen in Malawi. The likelihood is just too small to be engaging.