Kenya: Workers’ movement must provide an alternative

TALKS BETWEEN political rivals and foreign diplomats are continuing to try and solve the escalating sectarian bloodbath in Kenya. This violence followed the disputed elections of 27 December last year, after President Mwai Kibaki blatantly rigged the result.
Initial political protests (where demonstrators were fired on by police) gave way to communal rioting and looting, particularly targeting people from Kikuyu backgrounds. (Kibaki is a Kikuyu, while opposition leader Raila Odinga is from the Luo, the second largest ethnic group.) Revenge attacks have followed. Keith Pattenden reports.

THE CONTINUING carnage has shocked millions of people around the world. For years we were told that Kenya was an island of calm, stability and prosperity in a sea of chaos and corruption on the African continent. Now scenes of ethnic cleansing, communal massacres, street violence and political assassinations have blown this portrayal apart.

Under the surface this turmoil has been brewing for decades. Despite years of impressive economic growth (6% last year) the spoils have gone mostly to the rich. The majority of Kenyans, including most ordinary Kikuyu, live on $2 a day or less and inhabit the slums and shanty towns of the urban centres, lacking basic amenities, or live in impoverished villages. It is these, the poorest people in society, who have been the victims – while a massive police operation has been conducted to protect the rich suburbs.

Kibaki, having provoked a political crisis by falsifying the presidential election result, intended to ride out the storm, hoping it would dissipate after a few days. However, the rapid descent into inter-ethnic violence threatens to tip the country into the abyss.

The economic consequences are already being felt with the transport system dislocated and fuel supplies disrupted. The tourist industry, Kenya’s main foreign currency earner, is being seriously affected. Thousands of workers have been laid off.

That more than 40 years after independence, ethnic identity still plays such a political role is a condemnation of the weakness of the domestic capitalist class in Kenya.

It is a symptom of the underdevelopment of the Kenyan economy which the political and business elite, through their slavish dependence on western imperialism, have been unable to overcome.

During direct colonial rule British imperialism deliberately promoted the Kikuyu elite and leaned on them to maintain their rule, playing them off against the other ethnic groups. This has left a legacy of mistrust and resentment.

While Kikuyus are only 23% of the population, the Kikuyu elite dominate the political and business hierarchy. However, the mass of ordinary Kikuyu remain at the bottom of the pile. Ironically, many poor Kikuyu voted for the opposition but are now subject to violent attacks.

There is a danger that if the ferocious cycle of violence and reprisal is not contained, the country could fracture along ethnic lines with all the terrible consequences for the people of the region.

This prospect has also alarmed the Western powers who see Kenya, with its deep sea port in Mombassa and its borders with Somalia and Ethiopia as of major strategic importance. As well as losing a key ally in the ‘war on terror’, the disintegration of Kenya would destabilise the region and further complicate US strategy in Africa.

People have been led to believe that placing members of their ‘own’ ethnic group at the top of the pile will bring them benefits. This was never the case.

Capitalist politicians of all stripes are only interested in enriching and empowering themselves at the expense of the poor. The Luo and Kalenjin elite look jealously at the power and privilege of their Kikuyu rivals and whip up communal strife to advance their own interests.

Diplomats from the African Union and United Nations and various national governments have been deployed to find or enforce a solution. But workers can have no faith in international diplomacy. Only the working class as an organised force can put an end to this horror.

Unfortunately, the Kenyan Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU-K) has done nothing to intervene, claiming to stand “above politics”.

Trade unions

Previously, the tops of COTU-K have cosied up to Kenya’s rulers. For example, when organised and non-organised workers struck for better pay and conditions in 2003 it was left to Non-Governmental Organisations to assist their struggles while the COTU-K leaders demanded a return to work.

But it is largely workers who are the victims of inter-ethnic violence. If only for that reason the labour movement must act to defend its members.

The workers and poor peasants of all ethnic groups have nothing to gain from the current unrest. The ranks of COTU-K need to intervene now to build local democratic multi-ethnic defence committees to come to the aid of those under attack.

They must force their unions to abandon their craven position of apoliticism. COTU-K and its affiliates have a responsibility to show a way forward based on the class interests of the workers and poor farmers.

  • No to Kibaki! No to Odinga! Kick out the political thieves, the servants of capitalism! For a government of the workers and poor! Take over the big plantations, the banks, the assets of the super rich and the big corporations! Repudiate the foreign “debt”! The resources of Kenya for the ordinary Kenyans! Fight for a socialist Kenya and a socialist Africa!