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Binyavanga Wainaina: A feudal ruling elite is the heart of the problem, Kenya needs a new constitution

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ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: Violence and the political stalemate in Kenya continues. Former secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan, arrived in Nairobi today in order to mediate between President Mwai Kibaki of the PNU party and his political rival Raila Odinga of the ODM. Both sides accuse each other of instigating the violence that has characterized the country since elections took place in December. To analyze the situation, the Real News spoke to author and professor Binyavanga Wainaina.

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA, AUTHOR AND PROFESSOR: This pot has been simmering for more than 50 years. And the independent state of Kenya has never, never addressed these issues enough about rich and poor, about which dominant ethnicity would try to impose themselves on which one and why! And I guess the gamble over the last five years has been to pretend that doesn’t exist, pursue economic growth, and hope beyond hope that at some point enough people will be in the economic mix that it makes things happen. You cannot have a situation where only one part of the country’s seeming to grow and in other parts people actually becoming poorer, and not just people becoming poorer, but there are a lot of people who aren’t in the economy anyway. That’s one thing. The second thing is that we’ve known for more than ten years now, probably since the mid-nineties, that our constitution is a virtually imperial presidency who can virtually do anything. Kenyans have been demanding a new constitution with more devolved power of the presidency and more devolution of economic self-determination to various regions. The problem has been a perception within the government and within members of the Kikuyu community in particular, very often, that what is actually a fairly feudal structure with a pragmatic and hard-working community, assumes that it’s the feudalism that will carry the economic growth. And when they keep talking about this, they completely refuse to understand that markets are built by policy, and that equal access to education and that deliberately planning and opening up different parts of the country to access where development shall be. The idea of the ethnic war that has been simmering since time immemorial is one—I don’t even think you could find a half-assed academic who could make a case for that that’s in any way meaningful. More than anything, what has happened here is the vehicle died. We were carrying in ourselves a fairly progressive country, which had deep, old divisions that have been with us all along. And what happened was, at some point, the leaky Constitution failed. It failed on the day that we saw Kibaki rig that election. It failed on the day we saw Raila and ODM use the most crude style of fake mass action and violence to try and entrench themselves in their positions. It just failed. The legitimacy of the state failed. And when that happened, like in any society, immediately people who may or may not have issues with them pick them up. They use these methods simply to continue to entrench themselves in power. Right now, in the last ten days, you can question the legitimacy of whoever’s movement to either maintain a stable state or to have a people’s movement. Really it’s about a class of people. Please do not forget that most of the members of ODM belong to families that have been part of the political class and wealthy class of this country for more than forty years, and the same applies, as much if not more, to the people around PNU, and have been well trained over the last 40 years in being able to use the angst of ordinary people and the ethnic divisions that they can manufacture to maintain themselves in power and building ethnic blocks in one way or another way. And because nothing ever happened like this before, you know, nobody worried that much. Substantial number of Kenyans were simply shocked at how quickly things began to unravel when that happened. We never expected it. And so the question here is that what is the legitimacy of the representation of these two sides to what is actually happening in Kenya and that’s in doubt. When you do not have a state, which you trust—and up to two weeks ago, we had a state that we didn’t like so much, but we basically trusted them. Because it was a vehicle we felt it would get to point A to point B. It did not get so well, but it could. That has ceased. And right now, both leaders are failing to talk about a new constitution, because they’re simply wanting to talk about the runoff and sharing of power between them. The lubrication is the Constitution. If we do not have that Constitution, nothing they do together will make any real meaning, and we’ll continue to have the violence and continue to have the conflict.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author and journalist. He is the founding Editor of Kwani? magazine. Wainaina was nominated in 2007 by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader; and won the Caine Prize for literature in 2002. He has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and National Geographic.