Kenya - A lethal legacy of political privilege

Mar/Apr 2008

On February 29th, after two months of violence which left 1,500 people dead, thousands mutilated and hundreds of thousands homeless, Kenya's politicians finally struck a deal over the disputed December 2007 presidential election.

A two-party system is to be set up with the office of prime minister having executive powers. Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition who claims that the presidency was stolen from him by the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, will share power with him, as prime minister. Cabinet posts will be divided between Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) on the basis of respective forces in the National Assembly.

Will the violence now stop? That is an open question. In the short period since 30 December, when the announcement of the election results seemed to be the signal for a wave of unprecedented killing and maiming to begin between tribal groups - mainly Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin - such a river of blood has been built up that it will be difficult to bridge.

As is always the case with Africa, the Western media has been quick to blame ethnic tensions, as such, as if they are some kind of ancestral malediction hanging over the heads of African people. But the truth is somewhat more complicated and a lot less comfortable for the rich countries.

These tensions actually feed on very "modern" factors, including the chronic and worsening poverty imposed on the population by the imperialist multinational companies' looting of the African continent and their deliberate corruption of local intermediaries. In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, ethnic tensions are also fed by the demagogy of local politicians, who more often than not happen also to be agents of one or other imperialist country or company.

It is in this combination of factors, which has been reproduced again and again over the decades, starting under the rule of the British colonisers and carrying on after independence, that the causes of the recent confrontations are to be found.

It's not just the green beans

Kenya is a geographically diverse and spectacular country, straddling the equator. It is more than double the size of the UK, with a population of 37m, comprised of diverse ethnic groups. Among them, the Kikuyu, from the centre of the country, form 22% of the population. The Luhya comprise 14%, the Luo from around Lake Victoria 13%, the Kalenjin (an umbrella name for several tribes) from the Rift Valley 11%, and the Kisii from the south-west, 6%. Smaller groups include the Embu and Meru peoples from the area adjacent to Mount Kenya who also speak Kikuyu and the Masaai, as well as several hundred thousand each of Asians, Europeans and Arabs.

The Central Highlands used to be called the "White Highlands" because white settlers - mainly from Britain - occupied these areas after Britain declared Kenya its colony in 1888. They also occupied parts of the Rift Valley, which is said to be one of the most fertile in the whole of Africa and is where most of today's farms - large and small - are still located.

Many western firms acquired large holdings in the Rift Valley's high-yielding agriculture - like Brooke Bond, Unilever, George Williamson Tea, James Finlay, particularly in the Kericho area where there are huge tea growing estates. Tea is now Kenya's second biggest export earner.

Most of Kenya's population is in fact concentrated in the fertile Central and Western provinces and to a much lesser extent in coastal areas like Kenya's main port city, Mombasa.

As for infrastructure - it is generally very poor, except for the fact that unlike a lot of African railways, the one in Kenya still works, (it was completed by 1902) and runs between Mombasa via Nairobi and the Rift Valley up to Kampala in Uganda, so providing Uganda and Rwanda/Burundi rail access to the sea. A lot of Kenya's towns and villages are grouped along this railway - and the main trunk road follows a similar path through Central and Western Province

While the Kenyan economy has never really been developed more than to produce basic agricultural products for export (mainly pyrethrum, flowers, coffee, tea) or minimal food processing, Kenya is the regional hub for East Africa's trade and finance. Surprisingly perhaps, in the last year, GDP growth was reported as 6.3% - which may appear to be a significant improvement over the declining economy before Kibaki came into power, five years ago. However observers point out that there has been no reduction in the population's poverty - rather the rich have got richer under Kibaki.

There may be a busy stock exchange, plenty of fast food joints on Nairobi's streets, thriving casinos, lovely golf courses and glossy safari holidays on offer. But the real face of Kenya has nothing to do with dramatic wildlife scenes nor happily jumping Masaai warriors.

Two-thirds of Nairobi's residents are over-crowded into only 8% of the capital city's land, living in so-called "informal settlements" - which is a hypocritical way of saying they are living in tin and cardboard shacks which they had to make themselves, in slums without any amenities like clean water, drains, sewers, let alone "bathrooms" or "kitchens". And two out of every three Kenyans has to try to survive on under 50p a day. Landless and jobless labourers continue to pour into the slums of Nairobi, because in the rural areas the situation is even worse.

Before the 2007 elections, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission reported that the Kenya police were implicated in the "extra-judicial killing" of close to 500 young men in 2006/7 - all from the poverty stricken slums of Kibera and Mathare. This is nothing other than a shoot-to-kill policy against the poor. It was in Kibera and Mathare that shacks were burnt down in the recent post-election carnage. Then again, many would say that the police were in the forefront of some of the so-called "ethnic violence" after the election.

As for happy, jumping Masaai - the famous "tourist attraction" - Kibaki showed how much he cared about them by denying them a hearing in 2004 over their petition to regain their lands in the Rift Valley - which had been leased from the British in 1904 for 100 years, a lease which had just lapsed.

From the point of view of the West, Kenya has some strategic importance, not due to its natural resources (it does not have any), but for political reasons. Unlike many of its African neighbours, the Kenyan regimes always stood squarely in the Cold War's anti-communist camp while proving relatively stable. Lately, Kenya has acted as a mediator in the Sudan conflict - a conflict that the imperialist powers would like to bring to an end because it threatens the stability of the Horn of Africa as a whole - while acting as a safe haven for those fleeing Uganda's civil war. Bush has been said to regard Kenya as a key African ally in the so-called "War on Terror" (Kenya was one of the first victims of an "al Quaeda" bomb attack in 1998, when the US embassy in Nairobi was targeted).

All this may explains why there was such a procession of world leaders, former and present secretary-generals of the UN and prominent Africans, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the presidents of Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, all arriving in Nairobi to try to get Odinga and Kibaki to compromise and put a stop to the terrifying and escalating inter-ethnic conflict which their rivalry unleashed.

The eviction of the Kikuyu

The media reported how the Kikuyu were the first to be targeted in the post election riots and burnings, by people accusing them of having voted for Kibaki who is Kikuyu or because they were seen as "favoured" by the government.

It is true that in the run up to the election, opposition politicians accused the government of fostering a "Kikuyu hegemony" over the country. But if these politicians could get away with playing this ethnic card, it is because the political scene has indeed tended to be dominated by Kikuyu politicians, thanks not only to their relative numbers among the population, but to a geographic and historical accident, which was not of the Kikuyu's own making.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Kikuyu people bore the brunt of British colonial invasion when white settlements were set up mainly in the Central Highlands, on traditional Kikuyu land. Of course, once the white settlers had arrived, there was not enough land to go round, since they occupied 4,200 square km (yet by 1948 there were only around 5,000 white farmers) whereas less than 1,000 square km was left to 1m Kikuyu!

Landless Kikuyu were employed as labourers on the white farms and/or allowed to reside on this land as "squatters". Since most of the whites' farmland was not cultivated or even used, tens of thousands of "squatters" were able to obtain a form of tenancy - which was, however, only temporary and subject to the whims of the white farmers. Their treatment was harsh and their situations became more and more precarious as time passed.

It was therefore Kikuyus who found themselves in direct confrontation with the British, and who then developed their own organisations to protest and resist. The Kikuyu people never chose the role of leading the political and armed struggle for independence, which they did do, but had this role thrust upon them by force of circumstance.

Things came to a head towards the end of the 1940s, with the formation of the so-called Mau Mau - the army of the landless, of the Nairobi working class and the poor - who pledged themselves to fight for their own independence (which they called "Uhuru"), for their land and their freedom. Much was made of the secret "oathing" ceremonies and the terror tactics used by the Mau Mau. But how else were they supposed to organise themselves, other than secretly, when they were in fact quasi-serfs, and de facto imprisoned in their own land? As to "oathing" - it was common practice in England in the late 18th and early part of the 19th century, when trade unions were first organised, also in secret, as a protection against being betrayed to the authorities. In Kenya, given that any display of resistance to the colonial regime was met with beatings, torture and even hanging, betrayal by informers was even more of an issue.

By the early 1950s it was probably the case that almost all the Kikuyu poor and working class in Nairobi - the latter were not all Kikuyu, of course - as well as a large proportion of the farm squatters had sworn the Mau Mau oath of loyalty to the fight for independence - and paid the subscription required. There were even "mass oathings" held collectively in the early days, before the severe clamp downs by the police and special branch. Since all of the population of the poor urban neighbourhoods were on the receiving end of the same oppression, most were willing participants.

However, as the Mau Mau campaign progressed, the British authorities detained all those suspected of taking oaths and many were hanged simply for this "offence". It was after this that some Mau Mau leaders began to use coercion and threats to control the neighbourhoods and to force people to help them.

Fighting the enemy within

The white farmers were, however, not the main initial target of the Mau Mau rebels. What they saw as the real problem, was the layer of "loyalist" Kikuyu whom the British had bribed to side with them, by giving them plots of land and local powers, in specially created reserves. It was these Kikuyu who formed an armed guard against the rebels and served as a buffer between the landless poor and the British colonisers. So in the view of the Mau Mau, it was these better-off "loyalists" who had first to be tackled if the British were to be sent packing.

Contrary to popular mythology, the Mau Mau killed very few white farmers - 32 in all - over an 8-year time period between the years 1952 and 1960. In contrast, 1,819 African civilians who were acting as Home Guards for the British or opposed the Mau Mau, were assassinated during this period - although probably a lot more simply "disappeared" and their bodies were never found. But it was the Mau Mau themselves who bore the brunt of the casualties, especially later when they had running battles with the British army, with a total casualty figure probably close to 30,000.

The Mau Mau war, was, in its initial stages, a bitter "class" war fought mainly in the Kikuyu's own ranks, in which the richer, privileged, landed, pro-British Kikuyu pitted themselves against the landless squatter army - who actually later formed what were termed "land and freedom armies", which went to train and live in well-organised camps in the forests, on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range. Their leaders were very often veterans from the Kings African Rifles or other WW2 regiments - as was the famous General "China", who had fought in Burma.

What is not so well-known is the role of the Nairobi proletariat in this fight. The first trade unions, were in fact built by people like Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia who also became prominent in the Mau Mau struggle. When Nairobi was officially declared a city by King George in 1950, Nairobi's workers went on general strike for 8 days, bringing the newest city in Britain's empire to its knees. Every morning huge crowds of strikers met at the public meeting grounds, thronged the streets and were set upon by teargas-firing police. The strike leaders' demands were quite simple: immediate self-government, cheap maize, higher wages!

The working class slums were overcrowded and the unemployed far outnumbered the employed - by 1946 there were 65,000 unemployed in Nairobi, against around 30,000 workers who had jobs in the small industries and shops. Almost all of these workers took the Mau Mau oath at some point over the next years and the fight continued in the form of strikes and boycotts (for instance a bus and various consumer boycotts).

Eventually the colonial authority launched the so-called "Operation Anvil", in 1954, by which the urban working class areas were literally cordoned off, with a tight "pass" system to allow armed police to screen every single worker who entered or left any designated area. Thousands of workers were arrested and thousands expelled from Nairobi for not having the right passes.

The colonial regime tried new internal restrictions and the de facto "imprisonment" of rural squatters, in a so-called "villagization" campaign during which 1.1m Kikuyu were resettled in 854 villages in the space of just 15 months. These were "villages" with perimeter fences, which were little more than concentration camps. But the Mau Mau guerilla attacks carried on nevertheless, and regularly penetrated British and Home Guard defences, freeing prisoners, stealing weapons and sometimes killing loyalists in brutal attacks - which on occasion included the hacking to death of the wives and children of those who were known to be British stooges.

The fact was, that despite all the authorities' punitive measures against ordinary Kikuyus suspected of helping the rebels, and despite the controls on movement, the beatings, the torture, the detentions and the hangings - or perhaps because of all of these - support for the rebels, without which they could never have survived, continued unabated. Of necessity the guerillas had to have somewhere to hide, an early warning system of imminent army patrols, as well as basic food and supplies - and it was thanks to local support that they sustained their fight for so long.

The colonial authority - under Churchill's Tory government - followed a policy of criminalizing the struggle, as if it had nothing to do with a political fight against oppression, summarily hanging any Mau Mau suspect who was caught - after they had been, more often than not, brutally tortured to get a "confession".

None of this worked either, though. From the time of the declaration of the emergency in October 1952, to the amnesty declaration in January 1955, all in all, there were 12 army battalions engaged in the attempt to defeat the Mau Mau's land and freedom armies - comprising an estimated 20,000 fighters scattered around the forests, at the highpoint of the struggle. These were organised under several "generals" who may have had a few thousand guerillas each. When their retreat deep into the forests proved an obstacle for the army who could no longer find them, the RAF was called in. They began to bomb the forest systematically with ten Harvard bombers and four heavy Lincoln bombers. But even this did not succeed in routing the rebels. In fact, in 1964, 1,000 forest fighters finally emerged from their hide-outs, considering that it was time for them to come out, a full year after independence! They had survived in the struggle and in the forest for over 12 years and kept their oath - never to give up until independence was achieved.

At the peak of the rebellion over 71,000 Kikuyu supporters of the Mau Mau were held in detention camps, most of them simply on the basis of suspicion and without trial. It is estimated that even more - up to 150,000 - spent some time at least in these concentration camps, during the course of the war. These camps were unsanitary and overcrowded - and in the most notorious, like the Manyani camp which took prisoners from Operation Anvil (urban workers) there was a typhoid outbreak which resulted in 1,151 cases of the disease and 115 deaths. Others suffered from pellagra and similar vitamin deficiency diseases, the direct consequence of poor diet - when at the same time the prison wardens were trying to force the prisoners to do hard manual labour. On this issue of work, however, they were met by the prisoners' organised and determined resistance.

By 1960/61, that is, five years after the supposed defeat of the Mau Mau, the British were still facing local rebellions against their diktats in the resettlement areas, mostly because there was just not enough land. Evicted squatters re-occupied the white farms and if farmers tried to evict them again, they just refused to go. It became evident that it would be impossible to keep control over the colony except at huge cost.

The British leave at last

An exit strategy was developed by the British authorities in the form of installing a "loyalist" Kikuyu elite in government to prepare the handover. This loyalist elite had, however, to include "rehabilitated" Mau Mau leaders, now released from detention. The president-in-waiting was Jomo Kenyatta, a "democratic" nationalist, who had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for 9 years for supposed Mau Mau sympathies. He had, in fact, never sympathised with the Mau Mau at all, referring to them as "hooligans". But Kenyatta had been active in local politics and had raised his voice against injustices, which at the time was more than enough to condemn him to prison.

It was Kenyatta who had founded the Kenya African Union which later became the Kenya African National Union or KANU. He and his anti-Mau Mau, suitably moderate ministers ensured that the landed African bourgeoisie took over from the white colonialists by stepping straight into their shoes.

But worse, when Kenyatta was "crowned" Kenya's first president at the independence ceremony on 12 December 1963, by the British governor, he told the Kenyan people to forget about the past, in an attempt to discredit and wipe out of history the Mau Mau freedom fight. As he wrote later: "Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated and must never be remembered again."

Well, quite obviously, there were and are those in Kenya and in Britain who would like such a challenge to colonialism to be erased from memory. Yet there is a lot to learn from it. In particular, the potential of the working class in this struggle was never realised, but if the Mau Mau leaders underestimated it, the British administration certainly did not. It ensured the arrest and imprisonment of union leaders and turned the working class areas into no-go areas, surrounded by police. Luo and other workers were brought in to take over manual jobs from expelled Kikuyus.

The obvious limitations of the movement, however, was to confine itself to a guerilla fight - which was not even waged against the colonisers, but against their African auxiliaries - thereby failing to turn outward and see, beyond the borders of Kenya, the simmering potential that existed across the vast poor masses of colonial and post-colonial Africa.

Kenyatta went on to ensure that the farmland vacated by those white farmers who took advantage of the generous sale terms for their land, was not redistributed to the landless, but to his family and clique. The existing loyalist "landed" Kikuyu gentry - who had been given land in the reserves as a reward for their help to the British administration and against the Mau Mau, were not only allowed to retain their lands but were handed over administrative powers in their districts.

This meant that the land hunger of the Kikuyu poor would never be resolved - and that the landless Kikuyu would only be able to find a plot by buying or renting land in the traditional territory of Kalenjin, Masaai and others, thereby leading to accusations, which have survived ever since, that they were acquiring land at the expense of other peoples.

Kenyatta's real problem with the Mau Mau however, was that from the point of view of the weak Kenyan bourgeoisie, a threat remained as long as the spirit of rebellion of the Mau-Mau still survived among the poor in some way. Kenyatta reacted by getting rid of any dissenters in and around his government, particularly those on the left - by having them killed or, if they were lucky, "just" tortured and detained without trial.

The greatest tragedy of this chapter of Kenyan history, which ends at independence, is that it indeed did lay the basis for Kikuyu "privilege" and "hegemony". But this was privilege for a very thin layer of the Kikuyu elite, while the vast mass of the Kikuyu were, just like the rest of the Kenyan population, left to struggle on, in dire poverty.

They are all "mafiosi"

Daniel arap Moi, who had been Kenyatta's deputy, took over as president when Kenyatta died in 1978, to rule for 24 years.

It was under Moi that the large British and American firms began to take control of the production of cash crops - the flowers, tea, coffee and sugar cane - forcing the government to import large quantities of maize from South Africa and the US. This proved disastrous for the small farmers.

The resulting crisis, exacerbated by drought, led Moi to try to reconcile with old adversaries, but not before an attempted coup by air force officers tried to unseat him, in 1982. One of the participants in this failed coup was a young Raila Odinga, fresh out of his university in East Germany. He was imprisoned for 6 years without trial, and once released, re-arrested spending 9 years in total behind Moi's bars.

That did not prevent Moi from bestowing on him the general secretaryship of the ruling party, KANU, nor, later on, from inviting him into government as his energy minister, in 2000.

Moi's playing with the ethnic Kalenjin card (he was himself born in a Kalenjin family) was far worse than anything seen so far today. During the preparation for the 1991-2 election he got the General Service Uit (GSU - his personal paramilitary police) to direct killings against Luo, Luya and Kikuyu settlers in the Rift Valley. More than 1,500 people were killed. For the 1997 elections, the area of GSU operations was expanded and around 2,000 people were killed including in the coastal area of Likoni. Raids against Kikuyu in Narok and West Pokot carried on into 1998 because, in Moi's view they had not voted "correctly" in the election - i.e. had voted for the opposition.

By the time that Moi was finally ousted (even if he is still alive and well and living in the midst of great wealth, currently still pending corruption investigation), he was completely discredited, if not actually hated by the majority of the population.

The Kenyan political scene and its institutions (all inherited direct from the British) can only be said to be bankrupt - even if the players in this exclusive scene are themselves certainly not "on their uppers". Most of them are extremely rich. And this is largely - or maybe entirely - thanks to abusing their positions in the state.

Kibaki himself, a graduate of the London School of Economics and ex-university lecturer, has held government posts from the day he was first elected on a KANU ticket way back in 1963. He occupied various posts in government until Kenyatta died, and then was elevated to the vice-presidency by Moi, while keeping at the same time the Finance portfolio. He remained in this post until he fell out of favour, in 1988, and was confined to the Health Ministry. When Moi legalised political parties, in 1991, Kibaki left KANU to set up his own party and stood without success in the presidential election held the following year, then again in 1997 and finally successfully, in 2002.

Kibaki is said to be among Kenya's richest men, but finding figures for his personal fortune (probably not in a Kenyan bank) proves difficult. Having come from humble beginnings, all of his wealth has been acquired while he has been in office and it is unlikely to be the consequence of shrewd investment of his MP's salary.

As to Raila Odinga, though he may have been called a "communist" by some of his opponents (because he promised to bring in welfare benefits for the poor?), he seems to be even richer - with a personal fortune of 4 billion Kenyan Shillings (£7m). Some of this comes from his oil business which he managed to acquire while energy minister in Moi's government (2001-2002). This was down to links he made while negotiating government contracts with the Saudi Al Bakri Group and the Libyan government. His Pan African Petroleum Company has an annual turnover of £0.5m, as does the gas cylinder manufacturing company founded by his famous nationalist father, Oginga Odinga - who, for some reason is also accused of "communism"! Odinga senior did advocate good relations with the Soviet Union during his short period in office under Kenyatta - with whom he later broke. He sent his son Raila to study engineering in East Germany - and his grandson has been named "Fidel". But that is about as far as his "communism" goes!!

The Odinga family business is called Spectre International. It bought the ex-state owned Kisumu Molasses Plant for 3.6m Kenyan shillings (£27,087 at today's exchange rate), when it was privatised under Moi, in 2001, of which it sold a 55% stake to the Canadian firm Energem, for around £2.2m, shortly afterwards. The Odinga family retains 40% of the shares at present while in the meantime, thanks to Canadian investment the plant has expanded to become one of the largest in the country, producing industrial ethanol, so that it is now valued at £7.8m.

Normally, Raila Odinga should have taken over from Moi as KANU's presidential candidate in the 2002 election (Moi being barred from standing for a third term). But Moi appointed another heir apparent prompting Raila Odinga to lead a split from KANU, which then joined other parties, including Kibaki's Democratic Party, to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in order to stand a joint candidate. Kibaki was selected and he easily defeated KANU's candidate.

Partners and then rivals

In the 2002 election campaign, Kibaki had promised to tackle corrution. The following year he appointed John Githongo as his "czar" - but by 2005, Githongo had to flee the country, having done too good a job that he feared for his life, after uncovering fake contracts which resulted in various business friends of Kibaki getting millions of dollars of state funds.

That same year Odinga and Kibaki fell out, as one could have predicted. The pretext for the break was a new constitution drafted by Kibaki which was to be put to referendum. Admittedly, it was a reactionary piece of work. It aimed at centralising power even more, creating a land commission to remove rights of local officials to distribute land. It also proposed the creation of Christian courts (Muslim courts already existed), the banning of regional political parties and the outlawing of abortion to all intents and purposes. To gain popular support it played the nationalist card by banning foreign land ownership and it played the anti-corruption card by proposing elections of all local officials.

Seven of Kibaki's ministers defected as a result, ostensibly at least, of disagreeing with this constitution and joined the opposition - including Raila Odinga. They proceeded to campaign for "no", and the "no's" won by over a million votes in the context of a 54% turnout. Apparently many people had used the opportunity to protest against Kibaki's regime

Odinga and a few other "no" campaigners proceeded to Orange Democratic Movement (maybe this was a reference to the orange used as a symbol for the "no" vote in the referendum, or maybe it was a reference to the "Orange revolution" in the Ukraine, or maybe both?). Odinga then also invited William Ruto, a well known Kalenjin politician from the Rift Valley settlements, as well as former vice president Musalia Mudavadi from Western Province to join. It was these areas which provided the bulk of the ODM's votes in the recent 2007 election, in fact. Both were rather dubious characters. Ruto, a former leader of KANU's Youth organisation, was apparently responsible for the embezzlement of state funds during the Moi period and over which he still faces corruption charges. As to Mudavadi, he had been finance minister under Moi, during the so-called Goldenberg scandal in which over £5m was looted from government coffers.

And what about the ODM itself? It was a fraud, neither new nor democratic, of course. It may well have other features in common with the Ukrainian pro-US movement than the "orange" name, since the ODM election strategy was overseen by someone called Dick Morris, who is alleged to have helped along the events in the Ukraine and later in Mexico at the behest of the US.

In fact the birth of the ODM was just a rerun of the "birth" of so many other Kenyan political parties which have arisen because of personal rivalries and thwarted ambitions among politicians of exactly the same ilk, who have fallen out with each other, riding cynically on popular discontent and very often playing the ethnic card, no matter how lethal this can be. These politicians shuffle backwards and forwards between the old parties and make new ones at will, without any scruples and purely on the basis of their own personal interests.

Since the new government was mainly formed of Kikuyus, from Kibaki's support base, it was soon dubbed by Odinga as the "Mount Kenya Mafia" and the ODM began to imply in its propaganda that it was becoming necessary to get rid of "Kikuyu hegemony" over the country's economy.

This was one reason why "Majimbo" (or federalism) was turned into a big issue in this last election. Opposition politicians argued that it was the only way to even out the inequities and deprivation of other provinces compared to the better equipped, Kikuyu-dominated central Kenya. But in reality "Majimbo" has meant a call for ethnic-based federalism, the orchestration of ethnic violence and the call to expel "foreign tribes". In this case it is purely for the sake of defending the interests of one set of rival politicians over another. No more, no less. There is no gain in all of this for the 66% of Kenyans who live on under one dollar (50p) a day. Poverty knows no ethnic label in Kenya.

It is this use of real social and economic issues which affect the majority of the population, and the twisting of them, to blame one tribal group - in this case the Kikuyus - which has become "normal" politics in an increasingly impoverished Kenya where there is less and less for everyone.

This resentment is what politicians ensured was ominously bubbling just under the surface during the 2007 election campaign and this is what exploded after the 30 December. And this is what has so far led to 1,500 deaths so far and 300,000, or more, people displaced from their homes.

The disaster in the making

The run-up to the December 2007 general and presidential elections had been, relatively violence-free, which was a relief, since pre-election periods have invariably been accompanied by orchestrated violence by the incumbent party to prevent opposition parties from holding their rallies. This time the killing started afterwards.

The immediate cause was obviously the ballot rigging in the presidential poll. What added insult to injury was that the 76-year old Mwai Kibaki, supposedly convinced he had won, got himself sworn in as president almost immediately, even though people were already rioting (and dying) in the streets in protest.

The official results from the Kenya Electoral Commission (ECK) gave Kibaki 4,578,034 votes against Raila Odinga's 4,352,860 - a very tight margin for Kibaki of just over 225,000 votes.

But in 72 of the 210 parliamentary constituencies, the local figures, released by the ECK returning officers and election agents, were quite different from those which were later released from the national counting centre. So, for instance, at Ole Kalou, out of 102,000 registered votes, local ECK figures gave Kibaki 72,000 and Odinga 5,000 votes. Yet by the time the figures for Ole Kalou were released centrally, Kibaki's total had jumped to 100,980 (99% of the votes). This kind of rigging was repeated in other constituencies where Kibaki's vote was swelled by the odd 10,000 to 20,000 votes, after the event. The chairman of ECK, Samuel Kivuitu had to admit "I don't know who won the election and I won't know till I see the original records, which I can't for now, until the courts authorise it".

That said, the ODM had actually already secured a decisive victory over all the other parties in the parliamentary elections which took place at the same time as the presidential election.

A lot of candidates - 2,547, from 103 registered political parties had been vying for the 210 parliamentary seats. The ODM won 99 seats. Kibaki's party - the Party of National Unity (PNU) won only 43, with the split-off ODM-Kenya getting 16 seats and the old ruling party of Kenya, the Kenya African Nation Union (KANU), 14. The remainder, that is, 34 seats, were won by minority parties, which is also unprecedented.

Of course, it is always possible that the vote in the presidential election, in which there were actually 9 candidates standing, might not completely reflect the parliamentary vote, especially since people may cast a vote for president on the basis of different considerations, or because their favoured party is not fielding a candidate. But nobody really believes that is what happened.

The announcement of what was perceived to be Kibaki's fraudulent victory caused an immediate explosion of violence in the Nairobi slums and in the western province.

In fact Raila Odinga's own constituency is one of Nairobi's slum areas of Kibera, where he probably received votes from Luos, Kikuyus and others purely on the basis of his opposition to Kibaki and without any "ethnic" consideration.

In the urban centres and in Nairobi's slums in particular, the violence aimed by ODM supporters and activists against Kibaki's supporters could, at least initially, be considered as the result of anger and frustration against the thwarting of their aspirations for social and economic change - even if the expectation that these would be fulfilled by the ODM was an illusion. Unfortunately, it did not take long for this to take on an ethnic content - with Kikuyu being attacked as if they were "natural" Kibaki supporters, no matter their actual politics, just because Kibaki had been identified by the election propaganda as "favouring" Kikuyus. And since the ODM had by then ensured that it was identified as a Luo-Kalenjin alliance "against" Kikuyu privilege, local thugs were able to feed into such prejudice to inflame "Luo" versus Kikuyu pogroms. So many Kikuyu's had to flee from Kibera and their houses or shops were burnt.

In the Rift Valley, it was Kalenjin gangs, who attacked Kikuyu farmers - but here the violence was more organised and seemed to have been partly, at least, an opportunity to settle old scores. The Kalenjins have a historical grievance, having been pushed out of some of their traditional home lands, first by white colonials and then by Kikuyu settlers, the latter having been sent there after they themselves had been deprived of their traditional lands. Of course many other "tribes" have similar grievances like the Masaai.

The 35 people who were burnt in the church in Eldoret were from Kikuyu farming families - women and children - who were hiding from the machetes, knives and wooden clubs of "warrior" Kalenjin who must have been fired up and equipped, in advance, by local headmen and politicians.

In fact it is claimed that the ODM had already set the scene for what was to come. Before the election, Odinga predicted the rigging - and made sure that this was widely reported in the media. Of course everybody would expect the election to be rigged anyway - this is always the case, after all. But it seems the ODM was trying to arrange for a "spontaneous" outpouring of "people power" which would allow Odinga to take the presidency no matter what the actual vote turned out to be, as happened in the Ukraine.

In Eldoret, 3 policemen were lynched by youths on the day before the poll, on the grounds that they had been sent to rig the election in favour of Kibaki (before it even started!), and an ECK vehicle was burnt. Within days, the killings had escalated in Central and Western province, while the long procession of African dignitaries and foreign diplomats held talks with Kibaki and Odinga in an attempt to get a deal out of them.

Out of the frying pan into the fire - and then out again?

Today, when Kenya is supposedly living under true multiparty "democracy" (well, it is true that there are many political parties which are, for now, still allowed to register), one would be justified in asking why it is that the same old names crop up again and again in the top positions in government.

How can anyone take political "differences" seriously in a system where politicians recycle themselves constantly under ever-changing banners? A veteran like Kibaki, who was in Kenyatta's first government and is a KANU veteran, is today wearing a PNU badge, which he made for himself, having passed through multiple other political disguises in between, but all the while remaining in the top circles of government.

Are people meant to forget that in 2002, Odinga and Kibaki, allied in NARC opposed Moi's appointed successor, Kenyatta's son Uhuru, who at the time stood on the KANU ticket? Today, Uhuru is in the ODM, with Odinga, against Kibaki! But then Odinga was also in KANU with Moi two years before that! Neither of these corrupted politicians wants to hear the free democratic expression of the population's will. One happens to have been the victim of the other's vote rigging, but it might just have been the reverse. More ominously, both are prepared to use the ethnic card in order to advance their political careers (and inflate their income) without any qualms or concern for the blood that is shed by the poor as a result.

In fact it is the political labels of politicians which are the only things which seem to change in Kenyan politics. Underneath, the same system operates - with the small layer of politicians championing their own cliques of businessmen and wealthy Kenyans - always at the expense of the working class and rural poor. That is what the rivalries are really about. Which clique among the rich is going to rake it in when government contracts are handed out. But this is in a context where, for the vast majority of the population, things are going down the plughole. And that means that the risk of an escalation of violence is all the greater.

So what now? The first test of the current agreement between Odinga and Kibaki will probably be when the 300,000 refugees try to return home. Will the politicians be able to restrain their thugs? Will they find a reason to let them loose again? And what about the thugs who do not recognise their command nor any other command, but who are themselves victims of chronic poverty, chronically cynical and corrupt politics and utter desperation?

Tragically, the Kenyan people will be condemned to continue asking such questions until they throw off the unbearable weight of this layer of parasites who suck their blood when they are not actually helping to spill it. Surely a new political party representing the interests of the working class, the poor and the dispossessed in Kenya must be built, because no other party will throw out capitalism and the capitalists - and without that happening the endless cycle of poverty and violence can only continue.