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Obama’s Not-So-Bad November

17 October 2010

Obama’s Not-So-Bad November

By Gwynne Dyer

About eight months ago I was visiting an old friend in San Francisco, and for reasons I couldn’t then explain I found myself betting him and his son $100 each that the Democrats would lose their majority in both houses of Congress in the US mid-term elections this November. It seemed like easy money to them then – surely the Democrats wouldn’t lose the Senate – but I think they are going to owe me $200.

Much is being made of this in the media at the moment: how disappointed Obama’s former supporters are, how angry and mobilised the Republican “base” are, how extremely hostile to him the new Republican-controlled House and Senate will be. How can he be so calm about this? Why doesn’t he get out there and fight?

Well, he has made a few fairly fiery speeches recently, but basically he knows speeches won’t do much good. His supporters are disappointed because it has been a long, grim recession, and for most Americans it is still not over. Obama couldn’t get another economic stimulus bill through Congress at this point even if he thought it was a good idea, so he can’t hurry the recovery up.

Some of the people who voted Democratic in 2008 are also very cross because Obama has not brought American troops home from Afghanistan as fast as they hoped, or hasn’t got any legislation about climate change through Congress, but he can’t deliver on those things this year either. All he actually has at his disposal is words, and they won’t be enough to re-motivate disillusioned Democrats.

The Democrats lack all conviction, while the Republican base is filled with passionate intensity. Obama’s approval rating of 44 percent is not especially low for a US president two years into his first term – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were considerably lower at this point in their presidencies – but most of his supporters won’t bother to vote in this election, while almost all of his enemies will.

If you really believe that your country has been hijacked by a Muslim Communist who was born in Kenya (or a cannibal troll who was born in Mordor, or whatever), then you will certainly get out and vote. If all of the retired white people vote, and only the usual mid-term proportion of all the other demographics does, then the Democrats will lose both houses of Congress. So why isn’t Obama more worried about it?

He will certainly regret that so many long-serving Democratic senators and congressmen are going to lose their seats this autumn, but it really does not much matter to him who controls the Congress for the next two years. He can’t hope to get any more legislation even through the current Congress since the Democrats lost their “super-majority” of 60 seats in the Senate last January, so what’s the difference?

Nor does Obama actually have to get more legislation through Congress right now. It would be nice to have a tough climate-change bill, no doubt, but from a political point of view there is no new law that he simply must pass before he faces re-election himself in 2012. Indeed, he stands a very good chance of winning a second term in 2012, in large part because of what is going to happen this November.

Getting majorities in both houses of Congress will leave the Republicans nowhere to hide on the critical issue of cutting the huge federal deficit. They have already said that they will not raise taxes – even for those earning more than $250,000 a year – and they have pledged not to cut defence spending. What’s left? The only other big-ticket items in the budget are entitlements: health care and pensions.

The United States has not yet gone through the painful debate about how to tame the deficit that has already happened in most European countries, but it will have to do so soon. That poses a particular problem for Republicans, because if they will not raise taxes on the rich or cut defence spending, then they have to support brutal cuts in health care and pensions or lose all credibility as deficit-cutters.

But cutting entitlements would alienate the Republicans’ own most important demographic: older white people. They will not risk that. By contrast, the Democrats would not be alienating their own base if they cut defence spending and raise taxes on the rich, so they can be coherent and consistent on the topic. A Republican-controlled Congress may well come to be seen as an obstacle to fiscal responsibility even by many Republicans.

Make the further, quite reasonable assumptions that the US economy will be growing strongly again by 2012, and that US troops will be gone from Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan, and you have a credible scenario in which the Democrats win back both houses of Congress as well as re-electing Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama can veto any Republican attempt to repeal the legislation he has already got through Congress, and he will retain a free hand in foreign affairs. He could even try to get new legislation on immigration through Congress: it wouldn’t pass, but he could thereby lock up the Latino vote. No wonder he looks calm.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Nor does…pensions”)

Kenya: Hope and Betrayal

2 January 2008

Kenya: Hope and Betrayal

 By Gwynne Dyer

More than two years ago, when Kenya’s current opposition leader, Raila Odinga, quit President Mwai Kibaki’s government, I wrote the following: “The trick will be to get Kibaki out without triggering a wave of violence that would do the country grave and permanent damage….Bad times are coming to Kenya.”

The bad times have arrived, but the violence that has swept Kenya since the stolen election on 27 December is not just African “tribalism”. Kikuyus have been the main target of popular wrath and non-Kikuyu protesters have been the principal victims of the security forces, but this confrontation is about trust betrayed, hopes dashed, and patience strained to the breaking point.

Nobody wants a civil war in Kenya, but it’s easy to see why Raila Odinga rejects calls from abroad to accept the figures for the national vote that were announced last Sunday. If Odinga enters a “government of national unity” under Kibaki, as the African Union and the United States want, then he’s back in the untenable situation that he was in until 2005, and Kibaki will run Kenya for another five years.

If Odinga leaves it to Kenya’s courts to settle, the result will be the same: there have been no verdicts yet on disputed results that went to the courts after the 2002 election. So when the opposition leader was asked by the BBC if he would urge his supporters to calm down, he replied: “I refuse to be asked to give the Kenyan people an anaesthetic so that they can be raped.”

Despite the ugly scenes of recent days, Kenya is not an ethnic tinderbox where people automatically back their own tribe and hate everyone else. For example, it is clear that more than half the people who voted Mwai Kibaki into the presidency in the 2002 election were not of his own Kikuyu tribe, because the Kikuyu, although they are the biggest tribe, only account for 22 percent of the population.

Kibaki’s appeal was the promise of honest government after 24 years of oppressive rule, rigged elections and massive corruption under the former president, Daniel arap Moi. If he had been just another thug in a suit, most Kenyans would have put up with Kibaki’s subsequent behaviour in the same old cynical way, but his victory was seen as the dawn of a new Kenya where the bad old ways no longer reigned. It is his abuse of their high hopes that makes the current situation so emotional.

By 2005, Kibaki’s dependence on an inner circle of fellow Kikuyu politicians was almost total and the corruption was almost as bad as it had been under Moi.. The British ambassador, Sir Edward Clay, accused Kibaki’s ministers of arrogance and greed which led them to “eat like gluttons” and “vomit on the shoes” of foreign donors and the Kenyan people. The biggest foreign donors, the United States, Britain and Germany, suspended their aid to the country in protest against the corruption.

Most of the leading reformers quit Kibaki’s government in 2005, and in the weeks before last month’s election their main political vehicle, the Orange Democratic Movement, had a clear lead in the polls. That lead was confirmed in the parliamentary vote on 27 December, which saw half of Kibaki’s cabinet ministers lose their seats and gave the opposition a clear majority in parliament. But the presidential vote was another matter.

Raila Odinga won an easy majority in six of Kenya’s eight provinces, but in Central, the Kikuyu heartland, the results were withheld until long after the vote had been announced for more remote regions. Observers were banned from the counting stations in Central and the central tallying room in Nairobi — and on 30 December Samuel Kivuitu, the chairman of the electoral commission, declared that Kibaki had won the national vote by just 232,000 votes in a nation of 34 million.

It stank to high heaven. Ridiculously high turnouts were claimed for polling stations in Central — larger than the total of eligible voters, in some cases — and 97.3 percent of the votes there allegedly went to Kibaki. It was an operation designed to return Kibaki to office while preserving a facade of democratic credibility, but no foreign government except the United States congratulated Kibaki on his “victory”, not even African ones, and local people were not fooled.

Within two days Samuel Kivuitu retracted his declaration of a Kibaki victory, saying that the electoral commission had come under unbearable pressure from the government: “I do not know who won the election….We are culprits as a commission. We have to leave it to an independent group to investigate what actually went wrong.”

But Kibaki is digging in, and innocent Kikuyus — many of whom did NOT vote for Kibaki, despite the announced results — are being attacked by furious people from other tribes. Meanwhile, the police and army obey Kibaki’s orders and attack non-Kikuyu protesters. It is not Odinga who needs to accept the “result” in order to save Kenya from calamity; it is Kibaki who needs to step down.

He probably won’t, in which case violence may claim yet another African country. But don’t blame it on mere “tribalism”. Kenyans are not fools, and they know they have been betrayed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“By 2005…corruption”; and “Within…wrong”)

Kenya: If The Patience Runs Out

25 February 2005

Kenya: If The Patience Runs Out…

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago, Kenyans voted for a new leader who promised to end the deeply entrenched official corruption that has been destroying the country’s economy. President Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya with an iron fist for 24 years while his cronies robbed the country blind, had just died, and in December 2002 Kenyans flocked to the polls to elect a man who really seemed determined to root out the corruption: Mwai Kibaki. Unfortunately, Kibaki was just fooling.

It seemed like a real chance for salvation at first, even though Kibaki, like Moi and his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s independence hero, was a Kikuyu. The Kikuyu had dominated politics for so long not just because they were Kenya’s biggest tribe, but because they had borne the brunt of the independence struggle against Britain and paid a terrible price for it. It gave them a sense of entitlement, and Kikuyu ministers had taken the lead in corruption every step of the way. Yet Kenyans of every ethnic group trusted Kibaki enough to ignore his tribal allegiance and vote for him anyway.

Kibaki began well. Petty corruption decreased sharply, and he appointed John Githongo, a respected former journalist who was the director of Transparency International’s Nairobi office, to wage war against high-level corruption as the country’s first Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance. The International Monetary Fund resumed lending money to Kenya after a four-year ban, and foreign donors, who had suspended the flow of aid to Kenya because so much of it was stolen, opened the taps again in late 2003.

At the end of 2003 Transparency International still ranked Kenya 129th out of 144 countries in its annual survey of honesty in government, but Githongo himself had warned that it would take two years to know whether he was winning his battle against high-level corruption or not. Kenyans and foreigners were both willing to be patient — but gradually it became clear that President Kibaki either couldn’t or wouldn’t take action against the clique of senior Kikuyu ministers who continued to steal vast sums of money.

The first public suggestion that things were going badly wrong came from the outspoken British ambassador, Sir Edward Clay, who accused Kibaki’s ministers last July of “arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic” which led them to “eat like gluttons” and “vomit on the shoes” of foreign donors and the Kenyan people. Harsh words for a diplomat, but they reflected the growing sense of dismay among ordinary Kenyans as they started to realise that they had been deceived and betrayed.

Kibaki’s anti-corruption crusade has not yet resulted in the conviction of a single senior political figure, and cynical deals between foreign businessmen and Kenyan officials — kickbacks, padded invoices, every imaginable form of fraud — are estimated by diplomats to have cost the country $1.1 billion in the past two years. It costs Kenya even more than that, in fact, because the biggest foreign aid donors, the United States, Britain and Germany, have once again suspended their aid to the country in protest against the corruption.

What precipitated their action was John Githongo’s resignation on 9 February, just two years after he had taken on the job of anti-corruption tsar. He took the precaution of leaving the country before announcing that he was “no longer able to continue serving the government of Kenya:” he had opbviously realised that his task was hopeless.

At the same time Sir Edward Clay returned to the charge, claiming that the foreign associates of Moi’s corrupt regime were now cooperating regularly with officials of Kibaki’s government to steal public funds through crooked procurement deals: “We are not talking about minor corruption. We are talking about massive looting and/oe grand corruption which has a huge impact on Kenya’s economy.”

Kibaki’s government responded by attacking its critics. A government spokesman branded Sir Edward “an incorrigible liar” and “an enemy of the state”, and Lands Minister Amos Kimunya, a close associate of Kibaki’s and a fellow Kikuyu, threatened to have the British ambassador arrested. Kumunya also declared that any civil servant who leaked information on corruption to the press or foreign diplomats would be charged with treason, a hanging offence. And the long-suffering Kenyan public watches all this and seethes with anger.

Kenya has been fortunate, compared to many other African countries: no mad dictators, no inter-tribal wars, and such a wealh of human and natural resources that even decades of corruption have not reduced it to utter penury. But at some point the patience of the people runs out, and that point may now be approaching fast.

Kenyatta got away with it easily because of his almost mythic status as father of Kenyan independence. Moi only got away with it by creating an atmosphere of repression and fear in which outspoken critics of government corruption died of “accidents” at a statistically improbable rate. Kibaki bought a couple of years more by pretending to lead an anti-corruption crusade, but he probably won’t get away with it much longer.

The trick will be to get Kibaki out without triggering a wave of violence that would do the country grave and permanent damage. Already Kibaki’s government is playing the anti-foreigner card, and it is starting to mobilise Kikuyu tribal loyalty in its defence as well. Bad times are coming to Kenya.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“At the end…money”;and “Kenyatta…longer”)

Kenya Election

30 December 2002

Kenya: “Without Moi, Everything Is Possible”

By Gwynne Dyer

The great philosopher Pete Townshend once summarised his exploration of how politics really works with the famous hrase: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.” Have 30 million Kenyans been fooled again?

At first glance, it certainly looks like it. Mwai Kibaki, who won the presidential election last Friday by a two-to-one majority, is personally clean, but many of the key people around him are the former cronies and henchmen of outgoing president Daniel arap Moi, the man whose 24 years in power earned Kenya its place in Transparency International’s top five most corrupt countries in the world.

The slogan of Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) was “Without Moi, Everything Is Possible,” and that was exactly what desperate Kenyans wanted to believe. Kenyans of every tribe and class were fed up with the bandit politicians who had vandalised their economy and ruined their lives, and most Kenyans were delighted when Narc’s victory was confirmed on Sunday. But the awkward fact is that Kibaki couldn’t have won without an avalanche of last-minute defectors from Moi’s ruling party.

It all unravelled very fast for Moi, who seemed fully in control of the succession as late as last July. Moi took power on the death of national hero Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya to independence in 1963, and ruled the country in the classic African ‘big man’ style for 24 years until last week. Those who played along with him got very rich; those who opposed him were bankrupted, driven into exile, or even killed. And ordinary people just got poorer.

In 1971, when Kenyatta was still president, Kenya’s economic indicators were about the same as Singapore’s. Now, the average Singaporean earns fourteen times as much as the average Kenyan, whose income is actually about a fifth less than it was in 1971. Yet Kenya is a big, resource-rich country with a relatively well-educated population. Only brazen corruption on the most spectacular scale could have brought it so low so fast, but Moi and his cronies provided it.

Moi’s troubles began with the end of the Cold War, which brought pressures on one-party systems everywhere to democratise. In Kenya there was also a strong internal demand for democracy, so in 1991 Moi was forced to let other parties form and to promise free elections — at which point Kibaki, who had been finance minister for thirteen years and then vice-president for ten, resigned from the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), and formed the first serious opposition party. His democratic credentials are impeccable, but until recently he was a marginal figure and a failure.

Moi won the 1992 and 1997 elections by manipulating tribal rivalries (over 3,000 people were killed in politically motivated ethnic violence in the two elections) and by straight bribery. Indeed, the scams and rip-offs by Kanu politicians and officials grew even bigger and bolder in the 90s, as money was now needed for buying elections in addition to the normal nest-feathering purposes. It got so bad that foreign aid donors froze the annual $500 million that they gave to Kenya; it would just be stolen by government ministers if they sent it.

What tripped Moi up was the constitutional provision banning him from seeking another term. His plan was to ensure that power passed to a reliable successor: just as he had ensured that nobody ever inquired into how the late Jomo Kenyatta’s family got so incredibly rich, so he would pass power on to somebody who would block inquiries into the origins of his own vast wealth. And who better than Kenyatta’s 42-year-old son Uhuru? One good turn deserves another.

It was a blunder of historic proportions: in reaching down a full generation to pick Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, Moi made the fatal mistake of alienating his partners-in-crime of his own generation. The first to bail out, in August, was Vice-President George Saitoti, a man deeply implicated in the regime’s corrupt dealings, but others of the same ilk followed rapidly.

Mwai Kibaki, who had been waging a lonely battle against the Kanu machine for a decade, saw his opportunity and invited the Kanu defectors to join him in the National Rainbow Coalition. They did, and together they have won. But that is the problem: some of the most accomplished thieves in the country are leading members of the winning coalition, and will require the reward of a cabinet post in which they can resume stealing from the Kenyan people.

When they asked George Saitoti what was the coalition’s policy on chasing down the crimes of the past, he replied: “We will not be driven by retribution” as well he might, given that he was a leading figure himself in the massive Goldenberg scam of the early 90s, which defrauded the Kenyan state of almost half a billion dollars. So have the Kenyans really been fooled again?

Maybe not. They voted for the least bad option, and despite the presence of so many crooks in Narc, it IS different. Kibaki has promised that his first moves will be to pass two anti-corruption laws that were blocked by Moi and to enact a new constitution that breaks the dictatorial powers of the presidency. He has promised to stand down at the next election, and Uhuru Kenyatta, who is not personally corrupt either, is now the leader of the Kanu opposition. Moreover, and most importantly, Kenya has a vigorous free press. There is still hope.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“The slogan..party”; and “In 1971…provided it”)