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Kenya: chaos and responsibility

About the author
Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002
Kenya's much-vaunted presidential election on 27 December 2007 has turned from what could have been a trailblazing exercise in democracy into a catastrophe. A flawed count has been followed by escalating violence that may have taken as many as 300 lives. The crisis has repercussions that go well beyond Kenya’s borders - and raises some tough questions for the country’s foreign-aid donors (see “The crisis in Kenya leaves a guilty stain on the west”, Financial Times, 2 January 2008). Also in openDemocracy on Kenyan politics:
Peter Kimani, " Goodbye, Mr Big Man!" (9 January 2003)
Wanyama Masinde, "A fruitless referendum" (21 November 2005)
Charles Onyango-Obbo, "Kenya after Mwai Kibaki” (20 February 2006)
Peter Kimani, “Kenya's voices of discontent" (26 March 2007)

Until this disputed election and its aftermath, the former British colony had been able to avoid the miserable record of debt, disease and man-made disaster that has scarred much of post-independence Africa.

For the outside world, Kenya is the acceptable face of Africa: a safe destination for a million tourists a year from Europe, Asia and north America to the country of surf and safari; a reliable base, in a tough neighbourhood, for a burgeoning aid industry; regional headquarters for the United Nations; and a country whose military pacts with the UN and Britain have made it a key ally in the “war on terror”.

Now, Kenya is in the grip of a crisis which the “international community” is belatedly attempting to resolve. The events since the election have dealt a severe blow to the belief of foreign investors that the continent has turned the corner, and is on the path to economic recovery.

Democracy’s handicap

The poll should have marked a rare event in Africa - the peaceful removal of an incumbent civilian president through the ballot-box. Instead voters' anger at the claim of Mwai Kibaki that he won a second term - which was made possible almost certainly by electoral rigging - turned to looting across the country, particularly in the western heartlands of Kibaki's chief rival (and former ally) Raila Odinga.

It is a nightmare dominated by the spectres that have corroded or destroyed so many of the continent's states: tribalism, corruption and incompetent management. These have created a generation of Africans let down by its leaders and left without hope. Is this now to be Kenya's fate?

When Mwai Kibaki swept into power in 2002, he was regarded not primarily as a member of Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu; but as a reformer at the head of a coalition which promised clean government and a break from the practices of his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi.

Michael Holman was Africa editor of the Financial Times, 1984-2002. He is the author of the novels Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale (Polygon, 2005; republished by Abacus, 2007) and the sequel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies (Polygon, 2007)

Also by Michael Holman in openDemocracy:

Welcome to the aid business!
(20 June 2005)

Africa: celebrity and salvation
" (22 October 2006)

"Trees for Africa " (18 December 2006)
"Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant"(19 February 2007)

Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe
, (19 March 2007)

The Commonwealth: punching below weight
, (3 December 2007)

African legacies: settler-colonialism, land-politics
, (11 December 2007)

Barely a year later, the man appointed by Kibaki to lead the campaign against graft - John Githongo, himself a Kikuyu - went into self-imposed exile in London. The president and his cabinet, far from tackling sleaze, allegedly initiated a further series of scams. Over the next three years, the coalition fell out and fell apart. Raila Odinga, a member of Kenya's third largest tribe, the Luo - broke away to pursue his long held presidential ambition.

But to see the crisis only in terms of tribe and corruption is to miss a vital element in the Kenyan picture.

Today, over forty-three years after independence in 1963, nearly 55% of Kenyans are subsisting on a couple of dollars a day. Annual GDP growth under Kibaki may have reached 6%, but the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened. The number of unemployed and of landless is increasing. For these people, there is nothing to lose by taking to the streets, driven by frustration and fury that transcends their tribe.

For Kenya's western allies, a crisis confronts them: Kenya has been treated like Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) during the cold war - allowed to get away with its abuse of good governance, because of its perceived role in the "war on terror" (see Paul Rogers, "The United States and Africa: eyes on the prize", 15 March 2007). The cynical attitude that has dominated the first years of this century - if you're not for us, you are against us - has had ramifications beyond the geopolitical and military fields: if you are for us, you also get special treatment from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which also lean over backwards to accommodate an ally's needs.

The west's hard questions

The election of 27 December 2007 and its messy, bloody fallout suggests that Kenya may have embarked on a process which could well see it become "just another African country".

But this is only half the story.

When a catastrophe like Kenya occurs, the question is almost immediately posed in Europe: what can "we" do to put the affected country to rights? Even to ask this question is revealing, for it assumes that there is - or should be - something that Europeans should or can be doing. In fact, there is very little apart from applying rhetorical pressure that we can do; but even such pressure will be meaningless in the longer term unless it is accompanied by critical self-questioning among Kenya's foreign donors.

There are at least six such questions that the turmoil in Kenya should prompt:

* why was so little done by the donors when John Githongo exposed corruption at the highest levels of government?

* why did the World Bank and the IMF continue to do business with a corrupt regime?

* why was the United Kingdom's leading aid agency, the department for international development (Dfid), not challenged when it claimed that the British government's development assistance - which increased to $50 million in 2005-06 - could be effective in a corrupt environment?

* why has the overall aid record to Kenya ($16 billion in official aid alone) been so poor in terms of its results?

* should there be a clearer linkage between aid and good governance, and what should the conditions look like?

* is the relationship between Britain and Kenya any healthier than the relationship between the United States and Zaire in the era of the corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese-Soko?

As Kenya's tragedy unfolds, those in the wider world who claim to be seeking solutions must examine the decisions that have helped lead the country to this point.


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