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Mary Walker: Governments of convenience

Mary Walker

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct the country where a banana costs what a two-bedroom house cost 10 years ago. It is Zimbabwe.

Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tas­­a­ru Girls Rescue Centre in Nar­­ok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Wal­ker's updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steam­boat Today.

I am not a political scientist. That having been said, the development of "coalition governments" to solve power struggles in African countries will not work in the long run. Sure, in the short run, convincing the sitting president (and losing candidate in an election) to share power with his opponent in order to avert violence seems like a good idea. In Kenya, it brought an end to two months of ethnic violence, more than 1,000 deaths, and 200,000 people losing their homes. In Zimbabwe, it seems to be helping with inflation so bad that a banana today costs what a two-bedroom house cost 10 years ago. Someone recently told me that a Zimbabwean currency with 15 zeros is absolutely worthless.

I've heard these types of governments called "marriages of convenience." Yes, they are terribly convenient for the men involved in running things; men who refuse to give up the power and perks of their position even in the face of defeat in democratic elections. Rather than accept this defeat, they simply refuse to leave office. Thus, a coalition government is formed to appease the sitting president, give some power to the opposition and quiet unrest. But it is not convenient for long. As one recent editorial in a Kenyan newspaper noted, partners in coalition governments don't codify their power sharing — does it mean cutting the bread loaf in two, or one party getting the bread, eggs and milk and the other party the sausage, butter and jam?

In Kenya, this failure in distinction has just come to a head. Last week, the prime minister sacked the Minister of Education and his permanent secretary. That evening, the president said the prime minister did not have that authority. In the absence of a new constitution that formally outlines the roles of prime minister and president in Kenya's coalition government, they are both right — and both wrong. Convenient, huh?

And in all of the confusion about who has the right to do what, what gets conveniently lost is the fact the Minister of Education and his permanent secretary are involved in $1.5 million gone missing from the Education Department. Men in power always win in this kind of environment — the losers are the people of Kenya trying to feed and educate their children.

It is being said that throughout Africa, coalition democracies are the new wave and the best chance at stability for the continent. Reading between the lines, this means that it will become increasingly difficult for there to be peaceful and legal elections and that the only solution to short-term instability is coalition governments. The long-range problems will just have to be dealt with later, right? Twenty-nine countries on the African continent will hold "democratic" elections between now and December 2011. It will be interesting to see just how many of these elections result in coalition governments.