Monday, February 25, 2013

Kenyan Politics and the Fall of the Republic

I'm a bit of a Classics geek, with a particular affection for Roman history (in my book I limited myself, with great difficultly, to only four Roman references). Thumbing through the pages of the Nation the other day, filled with the usual dispiriting tales of Kenyan politics—backroom deals, tribal pandering, and other general skullduggery—an odd thought struck. The Kenyan political scene bears strong similarities to the dirty Roman politics of the 1st century BC, a time when Rome's republican system of government, which had functioned more or less effectively for four hundred years, began to completely unravel. 

The Roman political system, after all, has drawn endless comparisons to the American, whose founding fathers famously modelled their nascent republic on the Roman preoccupation with checks and balances. So why not Kenya's?

With the Kenyan elections only a week away, I submit to you, then, a few outsider observations gleaned from my year of living in the country:

The Land's the Thing

Jomo Kenyatta
After Kenya attained independence in 1963, Kenya's ruling elite moved to appropriate much of the land formally part of the colonial possession. The Kenyatta family alone currently owns an estimated 500,000 acres of fertile land (~2,000 km²) in a country that is largely classified as semi-arid or arid, according to The Standard newspaper. Many believe the figure may be twenty times as high. It's difficult to know for certain; much of this land was snatched up through corrupt dealings by Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, who took a loan from a guilt-ridden British government and used it to buy up large tracts of land through Settlement Transfer Fund Schemes.

The land parcels were subsequently sold to Kenyatta family members and supporters for a fraction of their worth. The land-grabbing continued under Kenyatta's successor, President Daniel arap Moi, who as Kenyatta's vice president had been allocated former settlor land interspersed among the broader region claimed by the Nandi tribe—a continuation of the colonial strategy of divide-and-rule.

Not so different in Rome. During the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic underwent rapid territorial expansion, resulting in an unprecedented influx of money and slaves. The freeholding citizen-farmers who had built the Republic were gradually supplanted by slave labourers, and farmland became increasingly consolidated in latifunda-esque estates concentrated in the hands of wealthy senatorial landowners. The now landless labourers flooded to Rome, where they swelled the hordes of unemployed subsisting off patronage from wealthy politicians. One such patron was Marcus Crassus, who was the richest man in Rome and probably Italy's largest landowner. The means through which he added to his already impressive real estate holdings became the stuff of barroom mockery; it is said that Crassus, who privately operated Rome's only fire brigade, would show up at the site of a burning building with his firefighters in tow, their services contingent on the building's owner accepting a reduced price for the land. If he accepted, Crassus' minions would extinguish the blaze; if not, they would leave the owner to his ashes.

Maybe comparing the effects of Roman imperial expansion to Kenya's liberation from British colonial rule is not exactly an apt analogy... perhaps, er, a case of utter opposites. But the end dynamics are identical: land reform is as big an electoral issue in Kenya today as it was in Rome. Julius Caesar was swept in as consul (the equivalent of President of the USA—only there were two of them) in 59 BC on the promise of introducing radical land reform, including the redistribution of public land.

The National Alliance (TNA) party of Uhuru Kenyatta envisions selling off the Kibera slum, currently communally held land

Today, only about 20% of Kenya's land is privately owned, while 67% is held communally. Meanwhile, Kenya's population has increased five-fold from independence to the present, from about eight million in the early 1960s to over 40 million today. The result has been a similar story to republican Rome: a growing poor, landless proletariat, urban migration, and widespread unemployment. Wouldn't you know, a major point of debate on the Kenyan campaign trail is the redistribution of under-utilized community land to individuals ("A property-owning democracy," Uhuru's Jubilee manifesto promises). Plus ├ža change...

Tribes, Not Issues

Two principal political coalitions are contesting the upcoming Kenyan elections: one, the Jubilee Coaltion, is headed by Uhuru Kenyatta's TNA (The National Alliance) party; the second, the CORD Alliance, by Raila Odinga's ODM (Orange Democratic Movement).

Roman politics of the late Republic was also characterized by the emergence of two competing factions, the Optimates and Populares, which some historians go so far as to label as proto-political parties. Yet the Optimates and Populares were not so much defined along ideological lines, as modern political parties, but by their constituents. Optimates tended to draw their support from the conservative elements of the aristocratic, landowning Senate. Populares, such as Julius Caesar, would appeal directly to the proletariat for political support.

Much like Roman politicians, Kenyan leaders pander to their tribal blocks by offering handouts of food, governmental appointments, or provision of infrastructure. One of the oddest balls on the Kenyan political scene, Mike Sonko (whose name mean "rich" in the local slang), is known for wearing shorts and sunglasses in parliament as well as for his alleged ties to drug trafficking. Of more importance to his poor constituents, however, is his tendency to appear in their neighbourhoods and literally hand out cash; Sonko's popularity also stems from his reputation as an Asclepius-on-earth, securing medical treatment for families in need who approach him. It's hard to imagine a clearer-cut example of patron-client relations.

During elections, the adult male population of Rome was split into voting blocks according to tribe and wealth classes, known as centuries. For all the rhetoric of tribalism being a thing of the past, Kenyan political parties functions in much the same manner (granted, women are allowed to vote). Tribe, not ideology, lies at the centre of voter decision making; so irrelevant are the issues, one gets the sense that presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta could change the Jubilee Coalition platform from land reform and economic growth to ethnic cleansing without suffering much of a loss of the popular vote.

The Gangs of Kenya

In the aftermath of the last Kenyan election in 2007, politically-organized gang violence was prevalent across the country. The Mungiki, a confused, murderous sect best known for severing the heads of their victims, attacked Luos and Kalenjins in vicious reprisals during the 2008 post-election violence. Mungiki leaders, International Criminal Court prosecutors allege, took orders from State House, during meetings at which President Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta were present.

2007/8 post-election violence.
Beginning by the late 2nd century BC, Roman political struggles had graduated from the rostra of the forum to club and knife fights on street corners. Political leaders had begun frequently employing street gangs headed by mafioso bosses, whose function was to intimidate, physically impede, and, in some cases, assault or kill members of opposing factions—much like the quasi-militias many Kenyan politicians employ today.

In 52 BC, the Populares gangster Titus Annius Milo famously happened across Optimate Publius Clodius Pulcher as he passed with his entourage in the opposite direction along the Appian Way. Jeers and insults began to spew back and forth, and soon the opposing mobs of slaves and gladiators hurled themselves upon one another. The melee ended with a knife in Pulcher's back. (This was too much even for thuggish Roman political sensibilities, and the once-consular candidate Milo was successfully prosecuted for murder and forced into exile.)

More recently in Kenya, MP Dadha Godhana was charged with inciting violence during tribal clashes that claimed the lives of over 100 people in Tana River late last year. One of the motives behind the violence, which caused massive population displacement, was likely the reengineering of Tana River's tribal makeup in advance of gubernatorial elections. In Rome, at least, the arena of political hooliganism was largely restricted to the streets of the city itself.

Legal Troubles

By the late Republican period, the famed Roman litigiousness had begun to get out of hand. The courts had ceased to be vehicles of justice and had become venal instruments for Rome's politicians to attack their political enemies. Corrupt judges were easily swayed into exiling hapless defendants on trumped up allegations, often, ironically enough, on charges of bribery and electoral corruption.

Because Roman law granted immunity to current officeholders, for Roman nobles, gaining political office often meant the difference between spending the next year in their estate on the Palatine hill or in a village on the Black Sea. The certain threat of prosecution following the end of his term as consul in 58 BC drove Julius Caesar to spur the formation of the First Triumvirate, whose founding members, Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus, guaranteed Caesar his fateful governorship in Gaul (and hence continued legal immunity) after he stepped down.

The "Biumvirate" of Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto have their own legal troubles, having been indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity for their role in the last election violence. Uhuru and Ruto have pledged to cooperate with the ICC process, even in the event that they are elected to office. But can we seriously believe that President Kenyatta and Vice President Ruto would find their way to The Hague? As many observers have already noted, the exile of the executive branch of the government to an extended trial 4,000 miles away would not exactly be in the best interests of the country, an anthem "UhuRuto" are likely to take up upon assuming the mantle of power. As with Caesar, election may be their only salvation from the courts.


This all said, the parallels between ancient Roman and Kenyan politics break down pretty quickly; for one, Rome was not nearly as ethnically divided or tribalistic as Kenya. The self-destruction of Rome's republican (one can't call it "democratic") political system ultimately sprung from its imperialist expansion and the ambition of its generals, conditions that hardly apply to the Kenyan case (the country's ongoing incursion into Somalia notwithstanding). Nor do I think the Kenyan political system is on the verge of collapse, by any means.

Nonetheless, it continually astounds me how Rome's political lessons still hold tenure in our own times, how much that ancient state cast the boilerplate for the very way we conceive of politics today. The Romans (and before them, the Greeks) were so similar to us that it almost requires stepping out of one's own brain to recognize the utterly novel forms of law, social organization, and government they bequeathed to us. Sometimes I'm not sure if it's entirely to their credit.

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