SUDDEN TRAGIC DEATH
The helicopter crash that killed Kenyan Security Minister George Saitoti on Sunday morning was a foggy event in more ways than one.
There was a literal haze blanketing the Ngong Hills, a forested ridge just southwest of the capital city of Nairobi, when the aircraft containing six people crashed and burst into flames. Saitoti was sitting beside an assistant security minister and two bodyguards. Two pilots were flying the helicopter.
Saitoti, 66, was on his way to a fundraising event at a Catholic church in Ndhiwa, Nyanza Province, which borders Lake Victoria. Saitoti had announced his plans to run for the presidency last year, riding on his reputation for tough national security policies.
An investigating police officer told Agence France-Presse that a lack of visibility due to poor weather conditions likely caused the tragedy. But other sources added that the helicopter was new and well-equipped to deal with inclement weather.
A Tough Professor
Saitoti was a former professor of mathematics, and he looked the part. His graying hair and wire-frame glasses gave him the look of an academic, but his broad shoulders, potbelly and notable height made him an imposing figure. He spoke and gestured like the seasoned politician he was: authoritatively, with a clenched fist here, a dramatic pause there, an occasional hand to his heart.
In a speech made shortly before his death, he called for an end to political division in the country. “Kenyans do not want violence during elections,” he said. “Kenyans want the freedom to be able to [have] the leaders that they desire.”
If anyone could claim to represent national unity, it was Saitoti. Kenya is riven by ethnic differences, but the security minister was of mixed heritage. Rather than pit one group against another as many Kenyan politicians have done, his mission as security minister was to protect all Kenyans against external threats — including the Islamist terrorist group al Shabab, which has wreaked havoc in neighboring Somalia and is suspected of a series of bombings within Kenya’s borders.
Riding the Wrong Coattails
But as a member of the administration of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, Saitoti’s chances of winning the presidency were slim. Kibaki’s approval rating is at an abysmal 6 percent, according to the Standard Digital, a Kenyan news outlet. The president has some achievements during his tenure — for example, he established a free primary education system and made legitimate efforts to repair the economy after GDP growth stalled, and even reversed, under former president Daniel Arap Moi’s 24-year rule.
But Kibaki’s many critics accuse him of running a corrupt administration. An opposition movement coalesced in 2005 when he submitted a new constitution to a public referendum. At that time, a politician named Raila Odinga, who once supported Kibaki, led a successful campaign to reject the constitution. He subsequently started a new party called the Orange Democratic Movement, named after the image of an orange that was featured next to the ‘no’ box on the 2005 constitutional referendum ballot.
The ODM came to represent general opposition to Kibaki’s rule. When the president campaigned for re-election in 2007, Odinga ran for the opposition and was predicted to win. Kibaki is of the Kikuyu tribe, and Odinga, of the Luo tribe, used ethnic stereotypes to rally popular opinion against him. It seemed to be working.
But when all the ballots were counted, Kibaki was declared the winner. He was quietly sworn into a new term at twilight, an hour after the results were announced.
In response, many Kenyans rioted, and the post-election unrest quickly turned violent. About 1,500 people died in the country-wide conflict, and ethnic tensions reached an all-time high. Many protesters claimed electoral fraud, pointing to wide discrepancies between exit polls and official results.
To ease the violence, it was soon announced that Odinga would serve as prime minister in an uneasy coalition with Kibaki. That arrangement persists to the present day. The two men both stood behind a new version of the constitution, which passed a referendum in 2010.
Now, Odinga is once again gearing up for the election. As in 2007, his campaign is ethnically charged, taking advantage of tribal divisions and exacerbating tensions. There is plenty of animosity to go around among Kenya’s kaleidoscope of ethnic groups, but the Kikuyu people, who make up one-fifth of the population, frequently find themselves a common target. They have a reputation for playing a too-powerful role in Kenyan politics, although they were persecuted under Moi. Odinga exploits this bias to win favor with a wide spectrum of voters.
Kibaki cannot run for another term after his mandate expires in 2013. To some extent, Saitoti, who is partly Kikuyu, represented a continuation of his administration, which hurt his odds.
Current polls show Odinga poised to take over the presidency next year, whereas Saitoti’s chances were so slim that many polling surveys did not even include his name. In the end, his death is unlikely to change the results of Kenya’s next election — but it will certainly result in some reworking of political alliances amongst Kenya’s highest circles.
Crossing The Line
Saitoti was best known not for his status as a presidential candidate, but for his bold initiatives in the fight against al Shabab. He pushed for greater Kenyan involvement in Somalia‘s fight against the terrorist group, and the Kenyan military has made significant inroads against al Shabab in southern Somalia.
The operation, called ‘Linda Nchi,’ or ‘Protect the Nation,’ began in October. But, as is often the case when one country attempts to combat insurgencies on foreign territory, the battle has lasted for longer than was intended.
“Our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all,” said Saitoti last year on his decision to send troops into Somalia.
“It means we are now going to pursue the enemy, who are the al Shabab, to wherever they will be, even in their country.”
Eight months later, the fighting continues. After Saitoti’s troops touched down in Somalia, the Islamist violence there crossed borders of its own — it has spilled into Kenya.
It is believed that al Shabab is responsible for a series of fatal bombings that have taken place in Kenya within the last several months, making the Somali insurgency a domestic security problem for the Kibaki administration.
Some of Saitoti’s critics blame him for inciting the wrath of al Shabab militants. Currently, the government is taking precautions to tighten security in Nairobi following al Shabab threats to bomb the city’s skyscrapers.
Out of the Sky
In that context, it is easy to see why Saitoti’s death has sparked rumors of foul play. Al Shabab is an obvious suspect, as they regularly express a desire for revenge. Just last Thursday, Kenyan helicopters shelled the Somali port city of Kismayo, though they have yet to dismantle the Shabab stronghold there.
Al Shabab released a statement saying they were “very happy and satisfied” about Saitoti’s death. They did not, however, claim responsibility.
“Kenyans should know that neither would their country ever prosper nor their security improve under the heels of such men. Better off dead!” said a post from the organization’s public Twitter account.
Fresh from the tragedy, there is no word yet on who will be tapped to take over the Linda Nchi operation. For now, Kenya is in the middle of three days of mourning for its fallen official.
“Minister Saitoti will forever be remembered as a hardworking and determined public servant who dedicated his time to the service of the Kenyan people,” said Kibaki, according to AFP.
Investigations into the cause of the crash continue.