Don't Panic

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How did a relatively stable country like Kenya come to the brink of civil war seemingly overnight?

Relative to, say, Sweden, Kenya has had a pretty lousy time of it during the last few centuries.

Sweden's got Volvos, Ikea, lingonberries, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me Knowing You, Take a Chance on Me, The Winner Takes It All and Mamma Mia.

And Kenya? Since the late 15th century or so, the parts of East Africa that make up what is now Kenya have been serially molested by outsiders — the Portuguese, Arabs, Dutch, Germans and British all had a go. They exploited Kenya for slaves, farmland, natural resources, and for the prestige that came from pretending far-off people were your possessions.

Relative to its East African neighbors, however, Kenya has been sitting relatively pretty. Ethiopia, Uganda and Somalia are as synonymous with mass human suffering as Kleenex is with wiping your nose (sorry, Puffs).

Kenya's stability has allowed a $1 billon-a-year tourist industry to develop. In 2007 Kenya's economy grew by an impressive 7 percent, fueled in part by this writer funneling tens of dollars into the Kenyan economy by drinking Kenyan coffee at neighborhood coffee shops frequently staffed by stylish people wearing funky, lobe-expanding earrings inspired by those worn by the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania.

Unfortunately, Kenya's semi-happy days may be over for a while, thanks to Dec. 27's disputed presidential election.

President Mwai Kibaki was the incumbent running for re-election. His challenger was Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya. Election observers believe President Kibaki rigged the election.

The evidence? The opposition ODM trounced Kibaki's party in the down-ballot parliamentary vote held the same day. And ODM head Odinga was leading comfortably in the early presidential returns. Then, mysteriously, the returns stopped coming in for a day.

During that time, election observers believe President Kibaki's supporters broke into offices where ballots were being counted in the middle of the night and stuffed ballot boxes with votes for Kibaki. The fact that some areas "supporting" Kibaki came back with more votes than there were voters was one clue. Another clue was that when regional results were announced in the capital, Nairobi, they didn't always match the announcements made regionally. Mwai Kibaki is apparently Swahili for Katherine Harris.

Within minutes of the phony results being announced, rioting broke out. Odinga supporters wielding torches and machetes went on a rampage. The majority of Kenyans have handled the crisis peacefully. Pissed off, but peaceful.

The backstory to all this violence is intertribal resentment. President Kibaki belongs to the Kikuyu tribe. Among Kenyan tribes, Kikuyu are the richest, most politically powerful. Many Kenyans perceived Kibaki's election-fixing as a Kikuyu bid to hold on to power. The violence since the election isn't just about the election. It's about decades of ethnic and tribal resentment.

Odinga has called for international mediation. President Kibaki scoffed, swore himself in, again, and filled his cabinet with the notorious cronies Kenyans had just voted to kick out of government. He's not budging.

Riots have left at least 500 Kenyans dead and sent 200,000 fleeing their homes. Government security forces have proven themselves quite effective at gunning down peaceful protestors, but less good at actually returning a semblance of order to the streets. Full-scale civil war could erupt if no negotiated settlement is reached.

If the chaos continues much longer, Kenya's economy will nose-dive. Rich Westerners who want to see giraffes and lions lounging under trees want to do it in a place where people aren't using machetes to vent their grievances.

Kenya is also at risk of losing its growing call-center industry. Kenya is a natural destination of call centers because it has hundreds of thousands of educated English speakers and an undersea fiber-optic line connecting its big port city, Mombasa, to the rest of the world. "Your call may be monitored for civil war" isn't what customers or investors want to hear.

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