The old colonials associated with the “happy valley” also used to call Kenya “God’s own country”. It remains an attractive, even spectacular country, with a metropolitan lifestyle and tourism industry which is the envy of most African countries. Its capital Nairobi has on its fringes Africa’s largest slum – three-quarters of a million people on 550 acres, not adopted by the city council, dependent on NGOs for such services as exist, living in shanties owned by landlords with strong links to the ruling elite.
It has by African standards a relatively large and diverse economy with a modest manufacturing base, and a sturdy private sector. Associated with that is a thriving middle class, diverse and free media, and a strong civil society. Its 38 and a half million people – growing at an annual rate of 2.6% – enjoy a GNI per capita of $770. Annual economic growth (in 2008) of 3.6%, though less than before the 2007 election, maintains the healthy improvement in economic activity under President Kibaki, who replaced in 2002 President Moi’s 24-year ascendancy.
Kenya has few natural resources of the kind that have made Nigeria, are making Ghana and will make Uganda rich (and perhaps cursed). Its most notorious scam – the Goldenberg affair – was based upon fraudulent subsidies for gold exports – a resource whose incidence in Kenya is negligible.
What it has is a well-educated people, with a developed entrepreneurial spirit and sense of purpose and common interest (tested to the point of destruction in 2008). They are relatively progressive and dynamic: mobile cell phone subscribers in 2007 were 42 and internet users 8.7 per hundred: both figures are nearly twice the sub-Saharan African average, and the proportion of the population using the internet is ahead of India’s – not bad, against the social and economic background. Although value added in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors have declined in recent years, the informal economy is large (no-one knows how large) and keeps people going even in hard times. In 2007, FDI was over seven times larger than in 2000, and official aid two and a half times. Time required to start a business is reckoned by the World Bank at 30 days in 2008 – 24 days quicker than in 2005.
This dynamism masks one of the world’s most unequal societies. The World Bank (source of most statistics in this piece) cannot quote 2008 figures for important indicators like income share of the poorest 20%, life expectancy (probably over a decade shorter than in India in 2007), contraceptive prevalence, HIV prevalence, malnutrition or primary school completion rates.
The country – about the size of France – contains almost every measure of diversity – measured by topography, aridity, ethnicity, religion – and unevenness in development reflects the evolution of the country’s politics since Independence 46 years ago. The first 15 years, the Kenyatta era, saw extensive land transfers to African owners, as all but a residual few settlers of European descent left. There is still large-scale commercial farming, but land pressures have led to the break-up of many large estates into smallholdings.
Increasing competition for resources and high population growth has sharpened the edge of ethnic politics, particularly in areas where traditional populations and incomers meet. The end of the Kenyatta era and the ascendancy of President Moi led to a deliberate effort to shift the balance of advantage towards his own Kalenjin peoples of the Rift Valley and to weaken the former Kikuyu dominance which Kenyatta had fostered.
Poor governance resulted from the thoroughgoing subversion of most of the major institutions of the state through corruption, political interference and nepotism. Concerns about governance and Kenya’s reluctance to embark on economic reforms of privatisation and liberalisation led to recurrent crises in her relations with the international financial institutions and major development partners.
The 1990s, however, saw a loosening of the KANU single-party system and the development of opposition. The anti-KANU parties which, until 2002, seemed too fragmented to defeat President Moi’s ascendancy did combine in a Rainbow coalition whose flag-bearer, Mwai Kibaki, defeated Moi’s chosen successor – Kenyatta’s son – that year.
The Rainbow Coalition campaigned on a programme of reform: of the Constitution, to relax the centralising tendencies of the presidency; of institutions, particularly the justice and law and order sectors; of the economy – to improve growth and introduce major poverty-reduction measures like universal primary education; and to tackle the defining characteristic of the country’s politics – corruption, both grand and petty.
Around the time of President Kibaki’s election in 2002, polls showed Kenyans to be among the most optimistic people, and the most proud of their country. The shine has gone, as disillusionment has dulled hope.
After 2002, reform stalled, save for the introduction of universal primary education – with heavy donor backing. Constitutional reform was blocked by disagreements between the erstwhile reformers-in-opposition become government; the drive against corruption was obstructed by its own corruption at the heart of government, the enfeeblement of the institutions set up to tackle it, and the frustration and eventual flight into exile of the man (John Githongo) whom the President had appointed his top official and adviser on corruption.
Meantime, the issues which had set up internal tensions within the victorious 2002 coalition broke it up and led to its principal leaders standing against each other in 2007, and then to bitter disagreement over the result.
Kenyans’ easy pride in their country’s fabled stability took a huge knock when the post-election dispute in late 2007/early 2008 led to vicious inter-ethnic and political violence which left over 1,100 dead and 350,000 displaced.
A successful fruit and vegetable-export sector sits alongside recurrent food shortages among Kenya’s own people. Having been the only third world member of the International Wheat Council back in the early 1970s, Kenya is now a wheat importer. Recurrent scandals involve profiteering from the sale of the country’s maize reserve against hungry times, followed – as happened in 2009 – by the discovery when famine strikes that the cupboard is bare and Kenya is forced to go cap in hand for international food relief.
One of the best known current sayings from Kenya is “it’s our turn to eat”. It also says the most important thing about the defining characteristic of the country’s politics – namely the quest of Kenya’s ruling elite for personal enrichment through politics. It is not the most corrupt country in Africa, but its grand and petty corruption are a daily preoccupation of beneficiaries, victims and reformers: it comes 146th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for 2009 – equal with such models of probity as Russia, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone, for examples, but shamefully after much poorer countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, and even after notorious Nigeria.
The way corruption has worked in Kenya in the multi-party era is that competing leaders have sought through political power to lay hands on the state’s revenues and the other levers of self-enrichment, in order to pay the personal debts incurred in fighting elections, to build up a fighting fund for the next election (the key to maintaining their hold on power), and to benefit their own people and districts to the extent necessary to persuade voters that the politicians’ interests are theirs. Hence, each election produces people who regard their entitlement to eat as the natural fruit of victory; and, because all aspire to a place at the trough, all have an interest in a culture of impunity.
Along the way, nepotism and favouritism, and the thoroughgoing distortion of the administration of what was until the 1970s a well-run country has spawned imitators at lower levels, so that most ordinary transactions cost the citizens a premium beyond the face-cost of the service; and deny them services of the standard and extent which Kenya’s revenues could afford if they were not mismanaged.
As things stand, Kenya is becalmed between severe weather systems. Her power-sharing government is in internal conflict: it was the basis of a truce between the former presidential rivals and their supporters, but not a peace agreement. The major issues predating 2007 and those which have arisen since remain largely unresolved. The next election is due in 2012. Many fear that, if there is no explosion before then, there will be a repetition of the disorder and violence unleashed after the 2007 election, aggravated by the organisation and arming of ethnic militias by the political elite.
And yet. Life goes on. The non-indigenous communities of long standing survive and prosper, keeping a low profile and cultivating their gardens and businesses. Tourists still flock to the delights of bush, mountains and coast.
Kenyans, despite the fragility of their present political modus vivendi, still retain a sense of common interest, and work hard for personal targets which are common to most of them. If confidence in their leaders is at a low ebb, still the country seems resilient. Growth – 3% perhaps this year – helps.
In the region, Kenya remains the key to access to the ocean, and peace in Sudan emphasises the importance of that. The UN has in Nairobi the only two of its organisations based outside the northern hemisphere. Nairobi’s diplomatic corps is larger than anywhere else around.
Somalia’s disorder is the most sinister external contagion, bringing into focus again the country’s vulnerability to Al Qaeda attacks first demonstrated in the blowing up of the US embassy in 1998. These worries, and the piracy off the Horn, are engaging Kenya’s old western allies in propping up the country’s own defences – but wondering how sound is the basis structure to which they pin their battle-colours.
And yet. Kenya has been drawing down on its resilience for many years. Without fundamental reform, it risks sliding into the basket category, which would be disastrous for Kenya and for its region.