Kenya's Reality Check

Spread the wealth, or the violence will continue.

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The scenes are horrifying: Charred bodies sprawled over debris in burned-out churches. Men coveting makeshift weapons to protect their families and land. Some 250,000 displaced people wandering without shelter, nourishment, or security. Over 600 people are dead, victims of senseless violence.

This is Kenya, once touted as a beacon of hope for democracy and economic stability on the continent. It is an alarming political crisis that has disrupted the trajectory of a seemingly productive democracy. Yet, a more sinister problem is driving these merciless and irrational acts of violence. Poverty is festering in the deep wounds of this crisis.

The December 2007 presidential election unleashed this string of violent acts after opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement insisted the vote rigged. Despite widespread domestic and international concerns about the poll, the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president and leader of the Party of National Unity, the victor. The political instability brought to the surface ugly and deeply-rooted ethnic tensions between the Luo and Kikuyu tribes.

Political contests often bring out the worst. We have seen it time and again. In this case, it wasn't simply the battle of ideas, the war of words, or the fight for a seat in the house of power that brought Kenyan people to the brink.

Don't allow Kenya's economic growth to fool you: The six percent annual growth rate and nearly $1 billion in tourism earnings in just the past year isn't trickling down to average Kenyans. Corruption is systemic and rampant. Ten percent of the richest households in Kenya hold more than 42 percent of the income. In the burgeoning slums and on decaying farms, Kenyans are stuck in the poverty trap, and falling deeper while the haves consolidate economic gains through political power.

Half of the Kenyan population lives below the national poverty line. Fifty-eight percent of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day. Kenya's economy, heavily dependent on agricultural production, suffers from droughts, deforestation and changing climate patterns. Emergency food assistance must continue to be on hand to sustain large portions of the population living in the rural areas.

This is what lies behind the land grabs, looting, and intimidation tactics. It's an all out gang-like effort to steal what some believe should be theirs.

Following attempts by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Ghanaian President John Kufuor, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is trying to mediate an end to this tragic conflict. Political consensus may be expedient, but what Kenya really needs are national leaders with the courage to confront the dilemma that bedevils many nations, from China to the United States: How to govern for the common good and not for special interests.

The Kenyan people deserve leaders who have the political will to rectify the injustice of inequality.

Sundaa Bridgett Jones is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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