The eruption of violence in Kenya following the rigged presidential elections last week should not come as a surprise to anyone but it probably will. The western world has tended to see the country as a post-colonial model of stability and (relative) prosperity. It has been a good place to do business, dispense aid and enjoy a vacation. Yet tensions have been seething for years, stirred up by pervasive corruption and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the country’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu. It was only a matter of time before they boiled over.

So is the former British colony becoming just another African failure, to be treated with a shrug of the shoulders, while carrying on business as usual with whichever corrupt faction may emerge victorious? Certainly not. Kenya is not only a vital trading hub in east Africa, the most successful market economy in the region and an anti-terrorism ally for the US and UK. Its current plight offers vital lessons for Africa and the outside world about the abuse of democratic process, failure to tackle endemic corruption and tribal tension and the wishful thinking of international investors and governments about their favourite regimes.

Meltdown in Kenya is too ghastly to contemplate. It is not there yet, but the danger exists. There is a threat of ethnic cleansing, starting with a backlash against the Kikuyu. That would put great strain on the ethnically mixed army and police. Some see the danger of civil war, as happened in Ivory Coast, France’s comparable model ex-colony in west Africa. Instead of being a haven for refugees, Kenya could itself see mass emigration.

There are no easy answers to stopping the violence and reconciling the embittered rival factions. Mwai Kibaki, sworn in with unnatural haste for a second term as Kenyan president, was not freely and fairly elected. All the advance polls suggested he would lose. The simultaneous parliamentary elections saw his ruling party decimated, with 20 members of his cabinet, including the vice-president, de­feated. He won only 35 out of 210 seats, against at least 100 for Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. In the presidential vote, however, amid evidence of ballot stuffing and falsification of the figures, Mr Kibaki suddenly emerged the victor. It was both blatant and incompetent.

In profiting from rigging, Mr Kibaki has inflamed resentment in the country against his Kikuyu tribe, to which some 22 per cent of the population belongs. They refused to share the spoils of economic growth. Having fought the 2002 election promising to unify the country and root out corruption, Mr Kibaki has failed on both counts.

Without outside pressure, neither Mr Kibaki nor Mr Odinga is likely to seek a settlement. Each is persuaded of his own righteousness. But they must be induced to meet if only to defuse the violence.

The African Union should certainly attempt to bring them together, but most African leaders are guilty of rigging elections as blatantly as in Kenya, so they may have little moral authority. They need to act in conjunction with the US, the UK and its European Union partners. They should exert pressure on both sides to annul the results of the elections and create some sort of government of national unity pending a new poll.

It should be made clear to Mr Kibaki that his government is illegitimate. If he refuses to accept that, the western powers should suspend programme aid and devote the money to emergency relief and supporting any more muscular AU intervention. Visas should be refused not only to corrupt officials, but to Mr Kibaki and his team.

If Mr Odinga and his inner circle are seen to encourage violence, the same sanction should apply to them. Whatever happens, the outside world must prepare for the worst, while praying fervently that both sides will see reason.

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