an ignored call to reveille

NAIROBI As blank-eyed men hacked away lives with machetes and women packed families on trucks to flee with their lives, 45,000 Kenyan soldiers sat…


As blank-eyed men hacked away lives with machetes and women packed families on trucks to flee with their lives, 45,000 Kenyan soldiers sat on their guns.

The lounge act within the barracks as ethnic killings and displacements raged outside was enough to give Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda — who rose to power 13 years ago after the rebel army he commanded put an end to a bloody genocide — reason to pause.

“It might not be fashionable and right for the armies to get involved in such a political situation,” said Kagame, in a recent interview with Reuters.

It is a break with an unwritten rule that, in Africa, you dare not whisper an army by name.

“But in situations where institutions have lost control, I wouldn’t mind such a solution.”

An amoral, under-paid Kenyan police force has mailed in its response to Kenya’s meltdown.

The rule of law has been ceded, in absentia, to gangs with nothing better to do than loot and murder.

Though a shaky order has now been restored, a mood of impunity has been allowed to set within the fabric of Kenya like an ignored stain.

Helpless masses have done what any of us would do, looked to authority for protection.

With the police showing disdain for doing much, other than marching through Nairobi streets in well-armed packs — a visual definition of an “asymmetrical response” if ever there was one, all eyes fell on the army as a force to restore order.

But the grunts were not ordered, or allowed, to intervene. Few were surprised at this.

Remember, you dare not whisper the name of the state-funded usurpers of thrones and backers of dictators. Let the tiger sleep, lest he become hungry when woken.

Indeed, presidential hopeful (and, many would argue, an architect of some of the post-election violence) Raila Odinga, ignored the brigades at home, calling for a peacekeeping force to be summoned either from the United Nations, or the African Union, which in 2005 created a standing force for just such emergencies.

No men and women in blue helmets arrived, though, even as the body count shot up from 600 to 1,000 in the space of two weeks and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared a diplomatic way to browbeat Kenya (its key African ally in its “War on Terror”) without actual sanctions.

In his desire to force peace on Kenya rather than wait for it, Kagame has unveiled a very Kenyan, and — let’s be frank — very African problem.

Few leaders here see the soldiers they entrust to guard borders or send abroad as peacekeepers in disproportionately high numbers as agents of the state to be used to protect people from themselves.

The men at the helm are too consumed with protecting themselves from their own army’s designs. Despite being the sexiest sounding of all political terms, the coup d’etat is the reason.

Between 1951 and 2001, only three African countries — Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius — could count themselves free of a coup or an attempted one.

Political power is beholden to the gun in Kenya as elsewhere in Africa, and those holding guns are unpredictable.

Seeking to control the rogues but necessary loose canons in the barracks and pave the way for stability, the history of the Kenyan military, which has never had to fight a war, is a narrative of emasculation.

An attempted mutiny within the military in 1964 prompted president Jomo Kenyatta to raise pay and improve working conditions to pacify passions.

In 1971, an unorganized coup attempt from its ranks saw Kenyatta, again, improve conditions but also strip the post of minister of Defence, resting complete control of the force in the president.

That proved useful a decade later.

At midnight on August 1, 1982, a startling announcement crackled over the airwaves of Voice of Kenya radio, as members of the air force contended they had overthrown Daniel arap Moi’s government. They were defeated six hours later.

More than 900 were jailed, including Odinga, who was alleged to be involved.

Dozens were hanged.

Moi, as the commander-in-chief of the military, snapped his fingers and ordered the entire air force disbanded.

To counter any remaining political designs within the army, the Kenyan police force was swollen and allowed to sprout paramilitary wings, like the feared General Service Unit.

They wear camouflage uniforms and report directly to the president.

Moi’s dictatorship was to be one cloaked in democracy, not khakis. But armed soldiers who lack purpose are never a good long-term strategy.

So Moi meddled with the ranks. Ethnicities loyal to him were put into key posts. Institutions key to him were placed under protection of the army.

In fact, there is a barracks across the street from my apartment, sited with Orwellian strategy — “Those who control the past control the future” — beside the government television broadcaster, KBC, which for decades has force-fed propaganda to the people.

When I run out of beer at inconvenient moments, this barracks serves as a bar of last resort.

My well-connected apartment security guards, plied with a $1.50 tip, trudge past the walls topped with razor wire and return, covertly, with warm beer, bottled exclusively for soldiers at half the price we civilians pay.

Keeping the grunts happy is easier when they’re suitably softened.

One can only assume the unseen soldiers who (presumably) live within the walls next to my house were roused into action in defense of KBC in 2002, when Moi ceded power to president Mwai Kibaki and hundreds marched on the propaganda station to throw mud at it.

What hasn’t happened inside the walls, as seen from my birds-eye perch, is revealing.

There has been no bugle call for reveille, trucks massing at the gates or faces made stern by a mission to protect the country from itself.

Like so many others on this continent, the Kenyan army is about keeping power, from forces outside and within, nothing more.

Even Kagame must now realize that protecting people is outside its mandate.

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.