The stuff of TV drama

by Simon Collings

It is February 2013 and Kenya is covered with election posters. Every wall, lamp post, and road bridge seems plastered with the smiling faces of candidates in the elections due to take place on 4 March. In Nairobi the giant roadside billboards which normally advertise beer, cell phone networks, and insurance have been taken over by the two major coalitions, promoting their candidates.

Eight candidates are running for President, but the fight is between the current Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, and the Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. The polls put them neck and neck, and far ahead of the other candidates. Both are tarnished with allegations of corruption. One third of the government’s revenue is stolen every year and these are the men who run the country.

Uhuru is also currently facing trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, along with his political running mate William Ruto. The pair are charged with having helped to organise the post-election violence in 2008 which left 1,000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. His supporters are undeterred.

Kenya votes on ethnic lines and doing deals to secure the votes of the various communities is what the real campaigning has been about. Raila and Uhuru claim to be competing on policies, but everyone knows it’s a numbers game. Raila is Luo, from Western Kenya, Uhuru, the son of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, is a Kikuyu.

But these elections are about much more than who will be President. Under the country’s new constitution power is being devolved to new political structures and the role of the President reduced. Candidates all over the country are competing for a raft of new positions. No one quite knows how it will turn out.

The slightly overweight, bespectacled figure of Dr Evans Kidero is a familiar sight as one drives around the city. He beams down benevolently on motorists stuck in the jams on Nairobi’s congested roads.  Kidero is standing for Governor of Nairobi County, and is in the Raila camp.  He’s seen by many as a candidate who could help improve the city’s administration. Kidero has had many years’ experience in corporate senior management.

The billboard which attracts my eye the most is that of his main rival, Ferdinand Waititu, from the Uhuru camp. The poster looks like an advert for a soap opera, or perhaps a TV drama about crime.  Waititu in a business suit is flanked on his right by the white-suited Mike Mbuvi Sonko, a candidate for the senate, and on his left by Rachel Shebesh, the women’s representative candidate.

Waititu, MP for Embakasi in Nairobi and junior minister, has been arrested several times for hate speeches in which he has incited violence against other ethnic groups. The most recent incident was in September last year.

Mbuvi, or Sonko, as he is known, is a no less colourful figure. Sonko means ‘rich man’ in sheng (Swahili dialect.) Currently MP for Makadara constituency in Nairobi, Sonko was banned from parliament in March 2011 for wearing a light coloured suit, earrings and sunglasses, an outfit other MPs felt was inappropriate for the legislative chamber. Sonko has a criminal past and was named as one of the country’s leading drug barons in a December 2010 CIA report. He continues to cultivate the ‘gangster rap’ image, appealing to the youth in the city’s sprawling and impoverished neighbourhoods.

Rachel Shebesh began her political career in the Raila camp but defected last year to become Uhuru’s ‘right hand woman’. Various rumours circulate about the precise nature of their relationship. One voter has posted the following comments about her on a local website: ‘Vulture – even worse than the elected MPigs. You get nominated and all you want to do is to suck the blood out of us taxpayers.’ Later he adds: ‘This lady leads the pack of MPigs on the hunt to drag us taxpayers into the gutter. Sorry I misspoke – she’s no lady.’

The trio is widely tipped to win control of the city. ‘The middle class vote is small,’ one of my colleagues says. ‘These guys have enormous influence among the poor sections of the community.’

This is the tragedy of current Kenyan politics. The stuff of TV dramas is the reality of power here. Some of the counties are likely to fall to progress, reforming candidates. The picture is not all black. But the corrupt and criminal elite continues to hold sway in many areas of public life, creating a crisis of governance. The country’s potential will never be realised until characters like these only exist in fiction.