Topical debates — Kenya

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:58 pm on 17th January 2008.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 1:58 pm, 17th January 2008

I am extremely pleased that we now have topical debates, and particularly pleased that today's is on Kenya, a country with which I have had involvement over the past few years. Like other hon. Members, I want to consider the political and humanitarian dimensions of the issue.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to go to Kenya with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and spent some time speaking to Raila Odinga. I met Kalonzo Musyoka on the day when he moved from his previous party to the Labour party of Kenya. I also met the chair of what was then the party of Mwai Kibaki, the President. That gives some idea of all the changing of parties that goes on. Having spoken to a number of extremely articulate and able politicians, one thing was overwhelmingly clear: that the recent elections would present people in Kenya with a stark choice.

They would be choosing between stability, economic growth and Kibaki's track record of universal primary education, albeit with criticism of the corruption, his Government's centralism and lack of vitality, and change under Raila Odinga, which would provide redistribution and decentralisation, and tackle the poverty agenda in Kenya, with the downside that the party was an unknown quantity and untested in government.

I went back just before Christmas and it was clear that the ODM was way ahead, but there was a fervour of debate and people were looking at the big choice that faced Kenya. Jo Swinson made some important points, but I disagree with some of her comments. It was for the Kenyans to choose, not for us to say, and it certainly was not for any political party to steal the elections, which is what has happened. It is just not clear who stole what.

In the parliamentary elections, as my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley said, there was clearly an overwhelming majority in favour of the ODM. When I visited Kenya last year I could see that people were fed up with politics as they had been, and they did not like politicians. That was reflected in the number of Ministers who lost their seats. Younger people wanted a greater say, and people wanted sweeping changes. The presidential election was clearly going to be closer, and that is where the conflict lies. As long as the results are disputed and people in Kenya believe that the election was stolen, there will be no resolution of the other problems that have arisen. It is therefore essential that the political situation be resolved.

On the humanitarian front, there has been much talk about the various tribes of Kenya. I have quite a large number of Kenyans in my constituency and they had a prayer meeting at the weekend. One of them said that there were only two tribes in Kenya—the haves and the have-nots. The haves are a small group who hold power. The have-nots are a vast mass of people. That is the real political divide in Kenya.

I run a little charity, which some hon. Members support. It works with organisations in the slums of Kenya, in particular in conjunction with the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS. It works in Kibera, Mathare and the other slums in Nairobi. I visited the project before Christmas when, among other things, we had the kids from the slums together for a great big Christmas party. It is sobering to think that most of those children, who have already been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, have now lost not only their parents but their homes and their few possessions. Even worse, the agencies that were feeding them cannot operate, so they have not had food for quite a while.

The Kenya Network of Women with AIDS had to shut down all its feeding programmes because of the violence. World Vision in Kenya has also reported appalling consequences for its programmes, which were supporting some of the poorest people in Nairobi and outside. As that work cannot go on, the UN has to run feeding programmes in the slums. Kibera is not a slum on the fringes of the city; it is right in the middle of Nairobi. One drives past big affluent houses, and just round the corner, or just down the street, one finds oneself in the biggest slum in Africa—in such a rich city. It is an appalling thought that the UN has to run feeding programmes in such a place.

Colleagues have spoken about the importance of Kenya, and they are right. It is a centre for east Africa. I understand that at one point the blockades on the roads were stopping fuel reaching Uganda, and that pressures were building up in Uganda because of fuel shortages and problems with other strategic supplies. Much of the humanitarian work that goes on in southern Sudan and Somalia, and some of the security work there, is based in Nairobi. That is affected by anything that damages the ability of people in Kenya to move about and carry out their business properly.

Others have spoken about Kenya's having been a beacon for multi-party democracy. It is therefore important that we deal with the political crisis and the humanitarian fallout from that. Although it is for Kenyans to decide, there are steps that we in the UK can take, given our historic relationship and our close economic ties with Kenya, to make sure that things keep moving there. The first is to keep on Kenya's case, and especially on Mwai Kibaki's case.

I suspect that some are hoping that after the world has made a fuss and a compromise deal is reached, which people in Kenya are quite capable of achieving, the world will accept that and life will go on, while the underlying question of what happened in the elections is never resolved. It is important that this debate is taking place, and I hope that the scrutiny and the pressure from the Government will continue. A recount is probably not possible because of the tampering with the ballot papers, but there should be an investigation of what happened in the elections. In due course there must be fresh elections. I hope that they will take place in an orderly fashion, and that all the lessons will be learned about how the monitoring is carried out, how the ballot boxes and ballot papers are moved and so on, to avoid a rerun of the disaster.

If there is to be power sharing, my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues in Government should keep a close eye on the nature and basis of that power sharing. There is ample previous experience of coalitions in Kenya. At best they can be inspiring and move the country forward; at worst they can be a grubby deal between politicians horse-trading power and influence. The former is needed, not the latter. We should ensure that there is a genuine sharing of power, not just a divvying-up of jobs. That is difficult under the present constitution, without certain checks and balances, with a very powerful presidency, and with the vice-presidency apparently now occupied as well.

I hope my hon. Friend and the rest of the Government will push for real transparency about who is pulling the strings. Like others, I welcome the mission by the UN and other African Heads of State. However, I notice that almost every communiqué issued refers to talks with Daniel arap Moi. Moi's influence in connection with Kibaki is well known. He was his fund-raiser during the election campaign. This is a president who was thrown out in the previous elections for corruption on a scale that leaves most people gasping. It is important that if there is to be international confidence and transparency, the elected politicians, not those who were chucked out for corruption, are making the decisions and pulling the strings.

I ask my hon. Friend to keep a close watch on what happens with the Kenyan Parliament. When Mwai Kibaki lost the referendum on the constitution and was in difficulties, one of the responses was to put Parliament into recess and keep it there for several months. That must not happen again. I understand from reports that it is not due to sit until March. Can the Minister confirm that? If that is the case, that means that while there is unrest on the streets and there are debates about the nature of the power sharing and the future of the country, Kenyan MPs are in their constituencies, but Parliament is not sitting and holding the President and Government to account, which is really important.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire rightly mentioned the packing of the electoral commission; the same happened with the judiciary just before the election, when the President appointed a number of judges. People say that things should be left to the courts, but there are real fears that that is a difficult issue. I ask my hon. Friend and her colleagues to keep up the pressure on those points and provide the space and certainty so that the Kenyan people can make their own decisions on the proper way forward for their country.

I plead above all that we maintain long-term commitments to the humanitarian work and ensure that that goes through non-corrupt channels. One night I opened the Evening Standard and saw a picture of flattened parts of Kabira. I knew that a number of the children whom I had seen only a couple of weeks previously had lived there. Either those shacks—and they were terrible things—will re-emerge or the international community will say that in this day and age such housing is not appropriate and we should consider providing proper shelter there, and do the same for the other appalling slums. We should ensure that the supply lines for people's HIV/AIDS treatment, some of which is being disrupted, are maintained. Above all, we should ensure that the children will get food.

Kenya has been a country of great wealth, dynamism and enterprise, but it has also been one of massive poverty. As other Members have said, what is happening there now is impacting grossly on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

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