Late last year Nairobi audiences were enthralled by the movie Nairobi Half Life. A German and Kenyan co-production, the film is a rare but successful attempt to break the stranglehold of Bollywood, Hollywood and Nollywood on audiences in East Africa. Received rapturously in Nairobi movie theaters and then at international film festivals, Nairobi Half Life is now doing a brisk trade in the small market stalls selling bootleg DVDs that thrive in towns and cities around the country.
The film's plot is a familiar one. It follows Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) as he leaves his rural home and job -- ironically as one the countless hawkers now selling the film -- to find work as an actor in Nairobi. He subsequently falls into a life of crime while simultaneously playing a criminal on the stage. In its depictions of corruption, violence and crime, the movie offers an unvarnished view of contemporary Kenya. Nairobi is, after all, ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as better only than Tehran in its most recent index of major capitals and Kenya is only a better place for a child to be born in 2013 than Nigeria. But Nairobi Half Life also warns against binary depictions of what is a dynamic and fluid society.
The audience see Mwas and the city's residents moving across the invisible but all too real boundaries that divide Kenya's capital. They cross the barriers between the informal and formal economies, legitimate trade and criminal activity, and those between the aspiring middle class and the poor. As the film's director, Tosh Gitonga, told journalists, Nairobi Half Life "is the story of a city. We did not exaggerate. It is not about a positive or negative view. It is simply Nairobi."
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Fine detail of the sort depicted by Gitonga is inevitably lost when viewed from afar. Seen from the West, Kenya, like so many other countries in the region, seems to veer from boom to bust; in one era it earns praise for a thriving economy, while in the next it's cited for poverty and corruption. In the 1960s and 1970s it was frequently held up as a shining example of growth and political stability in a volatile region. On the back of a calm transition in 2002, when outgoing president, Daniel arap Moi, gave way to his successor, Mwai Kibaki, and a peaceful constitutional referendum in 2005, Kenya was briefly a poster child of the African Renaissance. Just as common as these moments in the sun have been the periods in which Kenya has been seen as an example of all that is bad about contemporary African politics. The 1980s witnessed increased authoritarianism and the 1990s gross corruption and state-sanctioned ethnic violence. The democratic gains of the half decade to 2007 gave way to the violence that followed the last presidential election in 2007 that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people.
Even at moments of great optimism and deep despair, however, Kenyan politics have always been best listened to in stereo. That has, perhaps, never been truer than today. In one sense, Kenyans have never had it so good. Investment in infrastructure, prudent economic policies, and private ingenuity have set the country on course towards middle-income status in the next two decades. Oil and gas finds promise to consolidate that trend. The country is well-positioned to make economic and political gains from processes of regional integration that are tying together North Eastern and Eastern Africa to an unprecedented degree. Kenya's technology sector is the envy of the region it serves so well and its banks demonstrate creative ways of aiding commerce. Add in a vibrant cultural sphere, a robust free press, a progressive constitution, and a reinvigorated judiciary determined to flex its muscle, and there is much to be optimistic about.
But this dynamism is not reflected in the upcoming presidential election. Standing on the threshold of a brighter future, the country is confronted with the choice of two main candidates who are products of a troubled past. Fifty years after independence, the 2013 presidential election will be contested by two princelings of the nationalist generation: Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta's father, Jomo, was the country's first president until his death in 1978. Odinga's father, Oginga, was the elder Kenyatta's greatest rival and critic. The two differed greatly on a wide range of issues, from land polices through to the pro-Western stance adopted by Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi.
By contrast, there are many more similarities than differences between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Both were born into power and have worked together in the past. They shared a platform as recently as the 2010 constitutional referendum. There is little disagreement between them about the need for foreign investment and economic policies designed to produce growth. In terms of foreign policy, both support continued regional integration, Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, and the measures taken to counter the threat of domestic terrorism by al-shabaab sympathizers. Both have pledged to implement reforms promised by a new constitution introduced in 2010, including the devolution of substantial powers from central government to new county authorities led by elected governors.
So what divides the two candidates? Both have good personal reasons to contest the presidential election that preclude compromise. Odinga is 68 years old and there will be few better opportunities to fulfill his ambition to be president. A distant third in the 1997 election, Odinga stood aside in 2002 to allow Kibaki to take victory. He was then narrowly but dubiously defeated by Kibaki in the 2007 election. Kenyatta has even more pressing concerns. Facing charges of committing crimes against humanity, he is due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court. He may well be in prison by the time of the next election.
His case, and that of three other Kenyans accused of crimes against humanity, have dominated this election. Kenyatta, his running mate William Ruto, the former head of the civil service Francis Muthaura, and the broadcaster Joshua Sang will be tried in pairs for their alleged role in perpetrating crimes against humanity during the violence that followed the dispute 2007 election. Many commentators have warned that Kenya faces the prospect of a Sudan-style isolation should Kenyatta be elected and try to use his new status as head of state to escape prosecution. If Kenyatta and Ruto travel to The Hague to face trial as president and deputy president, as they have promised to do, other commentators worry simply about how they will manage to run the country while also mounting their defense.
The ICC cases have split the country in two. Odinga is commonly believed to be supportive of the ICC process, but Kenyatta's supporters accuse Odinga of encouraging the prosecutions in order to remove his main rival from the presidential ballot. Moreover, the ICC and Odinga are depicted by Kenyatta's supporters as vessels for Western interference in Kenyan politics. Such claims are groundless. For their part, critics of Kenyatta and Ruto think that they are standing for election in order to gain some sort of democratic mandate which can be later used as either leverage in negotiations aimed at seeing the charges against them dropped or as justification for ignoring any summonses that may be issued by The Hague.
These are bitter arguments because the election is so close. Although Odinga is the frontrunner, he is unlikely to win an outright majority in the first round of voting. A second round will probably be necessary and the outcome of that run-off is unpredictable. What is clear is that ethnicity will determine voting patterns to a great degree. There are always anomalies, but Kenyatta will have the backing of his own Kikuyu community. His running mate, William Ruto, will bring Kenyatta the votes of the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley. Odinga will be supported by his own Luo community and by Kamba supporters of his deputy, Kalonzo Musyoka. Between them then, the two main candidates have carved up the support of four of the five largest ethnic groups in the country. The unpredictable variable in this is the Luhya voters of Western Kenya. The community is renowned for its unwillingness to vote as a bloc. The main Luhya candidate, Musalia Mudavadi, will almost certainly be eliminated in the first round of voting. Where the votes of his supporters and those of the other minor candidates go in the second round of voting will determine the outcome of the 2013 election. Muddying the waters still further, the ICC trials were meant to begin the day before the run-off -- although the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has now admitted that an adjournment until later in the year may be necessary.
The story so far of the 2013 elections will seem familiar to the casual observer of African politics. It is being contested by two perennial candidates who owe their prominence as much to their fathers as to their own records in government. Ethnicity will be extremely important. Taken together, the experience of significant electoral violence around the 1992, 1997, and 2007 elections, as well as incidents of localized violence stretching back to last year, suggest that the election will not pass off peacefully. Militant secessionists along Kenya's seaboard and the country's own ethnic Somali population, disgruntled by the Kenyan mission in Somalia, both promise to further disrupt the election campaigns. Moreover, the chaotic conduct of the recent primaries points to the institutional weakness of political parties and the electoral commission. These are all reasons for concern.
But there is some good news too. Kenyans are not just voting in the presidential election. As usual, they will vote also for their representatives in the national assembly. But under the 2010 constitution, significant power is being devolved from central government to local authorities. County assemblies with significant powers will be filled by representatives selected in the forthcoming election. Voters will also choose county governors and senators who are to sit in a reconstituted upper house of parliament charged with protecting the interests of the counties. The collective effect of these new institutions will be measurable once they begin work after the election. They may, as critics fear with good reason, increase corruption, drive up the costs of government, and further encourage ethnic competition. But what is clear is that these new elected positions are provoking new sorts of conversations about the suitability of particular candidates.
Writing in The Nation newspaper, the human rights activist, Maina Kiai, argues that devolution has led "to deeper thinking about the qualities required for various positions." The effects have already been seen in party primaries where supporters of all the major parties rejected potential candidates they saw as being too close to the party leadership. Clumsy attempts to impose unpopular candidates were the subjects of protest across the country. In many cases, candidates that secured their party's nomination present choices quite different from those that normally confront voters on election day. According to Kiai, the post of county governors in particular has attracted "a preponderance of professionals, managers, and non-traditional types."
This change to the substance of political debate has come too late to shape the presidential vote, but it is influencing other races. The election for governor in Nairobi has developed into a remarkable contest between Ferdinand Waititu, the former Member of Parliament for one of the city's poorest constituencies, and Evans Kidero, CEO of one of the country's biggest companies. It pits the street against the boardroom as debates about class have escaped from inside the ethnic box into which they are usually crammed. And those debates are taking place on an unprecedented number of platforms. Cheap cell phones have brought the internet to the Kenyan masses and with it an unfathomable amount of information and misinformation about politics.
The penetration of social media, the reach of existing newspapers and broadcasters, and an entrenched history of free speech mean that this will not be an election decided by ignorance. With the ICC cases and the risk of international isolation hanging over the country, the temptation for well-meaning outsiders to preach to Kenyans about the perils of voting for particular candidates is great, but it will prove fruitless. Voters understand the issues confronting their country and the flaws of their candidates. They worry about the instability and uncertainty that a victory for Kenyatta will produce and the relationships with foreign governments and investors that may be jeopardized as a result. And there are many good reasons to vote for Odinga besides the simple fact that he is not about to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
However, the tendency to dismiss those that vote for Kenyatta as simply ethnically driven or deluded is, to be frank, wrong. Kenyatta's supporters are skeptical of the vague promises of reform made by Odinga, who has, after all, spent most of the past decade in government. Furthermore, they have reason to doubt the sincerity of their foreign friends who talk of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation when discussing the suitability of the presidential candidates. They remember that during the Cold War positions of principle adopted by American and European governments tended to be dropped when they jeopardized more important strategic matters. With good reason, Kenyans can look around them and ask what has changed. Kenyan troops are critical to on-going efforts to stabilize Somalia, a task that is prioritized by the same Western governments that champion the ICC Kenyans know too that their country is at the heart of East African integration and part of a new frontier of energy exploration that will make any diplomatic isolation a serious problem for neighboring states and foreign investors. And if they need to find a current example where the state's half-hearted commitments to democracy and human rights can be tolerated by international partners more worried about stability, growth and security, they only have to look across the western border to Uganda to find one.
Kenyans know that theirs is an imperfect country. The marketing material for Nairobi Half Life poses the question "Have we chosen to be the way we are?" The answer is (of course) no, but it is only Kenyans that can fix the situation that they find themselves in. From Nairobi Half Life, through the novels of the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, to journalism, social media, and music, a sense of energetic agency runs through much of Kenyan popular culture produced over the past fifty years. But that agency is hard to find in much of the reporting or analysis of the country. Kenyans find a way of getting by, of getting things done, of thriving in difficult circumstances. Although the country's politics seems set to enter another bout of crisis, Kenya will survive.