As the confirmation hearings in the “Ocampo Six” case drew to a close at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, commentators seemed to agree on at least one thing:
That the hearings have been served up quite shocking details about the atrocities in Kenya’s early-2008 post-election violence that most us didn’t know happened.
About everything else — performance of the ICC prosecutors, the show by the defence teams, and whether we came closer to figuring out who were the villains and who the heroes — there was wide disagreement.
Your columnist was looking out for something else. Less dramatic, perhaps uninteresting, but maybe the most important — what the election told us about the structure and capabilities of the Kenyan state.
This question is important because, for all the horrors and mayhem of the 2008 election, it was just one of the many elections in Africa, nay, the developing world, that ended up in violence.
In fact Kenya’s post-poll violence wasn’t the worst. From next door in Uganda, to Côte d’Ivoire, several post-election disputes have eventually led to wars in which thousands died.
So much so that, there is a growing body of scholarship around why elections lead to violence and the breakdown of law and order.
One of the most striking things listening to the testimony at the ICC is just how the election apparently became the only project for the government and state.
It would seem that in the last weeks of the election, every government department, every government official (especially upcountry), every security officer, and nearly every discretionary tax cent was devoted to the single election project.
What this revealed is a stunning shallowness of state capacity.
From the testimony, for example, it seems that if every government vehicle had been commandeered to deal with the violence, and every security officer deployed on that task, they all still wouldn’t have been enough to stop it quickly — within hours.
This is the story of many other African countries. If Kenya had been hit by a major catastrophe like an earthquake, or been invaded during the PEV, one senses that the state would have been largely unable to respond to the threat.
The second revelation is how much elections are about accumulated grievances rather than ideological issues; and how opposition parties function as a club of the disgruntled.
It is, of course, legitimate to act out of a political grievance and to turn your disgruntlement with the government of the day into an anti-regime vote.
But that does many things. First, it turns polls into a bitter settling of scores. Secondly, it leads to the transference of old quarrels to a generation of politicians who had no part in creating the problems and lack solutions to them.
Thirdly, the fact that opposition politicians tend to be led by the disgruntled, means that anti-government alliances tend to be dangerously unstable and, if The Hague hearings are anything to go by, very difficult to control.
Because the state’s capabilities are shallow, and the government’s resources are limited, what the ICC hearings are telling us is that there is a high tendency to mobilise them for the purpose where they are likely to be effective — in a partisan campaign to re-elect the sitting president.
That means that to get re-elected, the president, almost of necessity, has to repudiate and denounce the neutral state that exists to serve all regardless of their political leanings.
Likewise, the combination of grievance and disgruntled politicians in the opposition, also leads to the total repudiation of the state, not just of the president or his government.
This creates a state to which, briefly, no one is paying any loyalty, and results in a dangerous vacuum, as 2008 taught us.
At a wider level, it means that after every partisan election, most African countries embark on building a new state all over.
Thus, you could say, there are few African states that are truly older than an election cycle (five-to-seven years) old.
This might explain Africa’s so-called “chronic” instability, and why every other next election is likely to end in violence.
For students of structuralism in African politics, the Kenya ICC hearings are a wonderful goldmine.
Pity nearly 1,500 had to die; thousands raped; and 600,000 became internally displaced for us to get the rich data and insights.