At the beginning of last year, Kenya seemed to be descending into madness. Those scenes return as if from a nightmare: children massacred inside burning churches, mobs using machetes at will in city slums, a country on the brink of breakdown. By the time the dust settled, more than 1,500 people had been killed and over 400,000 displaced, following an election that observers dismissed as rigged.
Kenya was saved from the abyss by a shotgun marriage between the country's ethnic Kikuyu president, Mwai Kibaki, and his Luo challenger, Raila Odinga, who was given the post of prime minister. The power-sharing government, fostered by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Western powers, stabilized the country and gave Kenyans hope in a tough year that has seen food and fuel prices skyrocket and drought plague the north.
But if the government is to succeed and prevent further violence, Kenya must tackle the roots of its election chaos. These include poverty, tribalism, and the failure of the country to live up to the vision of its first president, Jomo Kenyatta.
Speaking in 1952 -- prior to independence -- Kenyatta said: "It has never been known in history that a country prospers without equality. As long as people are held down, corruption is sure to rise, and the only answer to this is a policy of equality. If we work together as one, we must succeed."
Today's Kenya bears little resemblance to this vision -- 48% of Kenyans live in poverty and 75% of young people are unemployed. Urban slums like Nairobi's Kibera -- home to over one million people -- remain largely untouched by government services.
Into this vacuum have stepped tribal gangs including the ethnic Kalenjin Sabaot Land Defence Force and the Luo Taliban, which was named, according to one member, in honor of its Afghan heroes' "defense of their people and way of life." These groups frequently challenge law and order through intimidation, extortion, and violence.
But no group has provoked government ire like the Kikuyu Mungiki. The organization -- which claims one million members -- is guilty of horrific acts of violence that continue unabated, including the recent beheading of the son of one of Kibaki's key allies.
Mungiki's origins can be traced in part to the sons and daughters of Mau Mau fighters, the dispossessed Kikuyu who fought the Kikuyu elite and British colonists in the 1950s. Today, they have vowed to fight government elites, Christianity, and foreign influences like the IMF and World Bank, which they accuse of re-colonizing Kenya. Western culture is shunned and traditional Kikuyu beliefs like female circumcision promoted.
Kibaki has responded harshly to Mungiki, waging a "war on terror"-style campaign to defeat it, which has lead to thousands of deaths, according to Kenyan human rights groups. Kibaki was aided by the Bush administration, which was concerned that Kenyan instability would harm Western business interests and jeopardize American anti-terror operations in Somalia.
Yet, at the same time Kenya's president was trying to suppress Mungiki, some of his Kikuyu allies in government allegedly activated Mungiki as attack dogs following attacks on the Kikuyu by the Luo and other tribes in the post-election chaos. Many Kenyans suspect that these politicians' names are on a "secret list" of guilty officials from all sides contained in a recent report by Kenyan Justice Philip Waki.
The discrepancy in Mungiki's treatment by the government is a good indication of what is going wrong in Kenya. The state fails to provide for its citizens; poverty, political marginalization, and land disputes then fester, fueling ethnic militias that function as a kind of tribal shadow government, often providing social services. The state then brutally crushes the militias, making matters worse, and politicians manipulate the actors for their own purposes.
To break this cycle, Kenya needs a new approach to government -- a return to Kenyatta's original vision of justice and equality, and a way for the poor to benefit from economic growth and globalization.
This does not mean using state power to crush groups that have arisen in part due to the state's own failures, but rather to uphold law and order by prosecuting only the guilty and understanding why such groups are gaining recruits in the first place. Odinga's pledge last year to begin a dialogue with Mungiki is a good step, but it must be followed with action.
Kenyans should be proud of what they have accomplished in a year that has also seen the election of a man they claim as their own, Barack Obama, as America's president. But if the old pattern continues, and massive poverty-stricken populations are left out of the political process, the country could explode in another orgy of violence.
For all the parties involved, including the coalition government and its Western allies, the stakes are much too high for a return to "business as usual."
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service and is working on a book about Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion. This article was written for Project Syndicate.