The Rot In Kenya’s Politics

Blurry video of a policeman beating a demonstrator; a photograph of angry slum-dwellers storming a food depot; headlines featuring the word “violence.” That, more or less, sums up the news from Kenya, or at least the news that has filtered into the general consciousness over the past few weeks. Unless you were paying very close attention, you were probably tempted, as I was at first, to dismiss these events as yet more evidence of Africa’s ungovernability. Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone; tribal enmity plus poverty equals violence; another country evolving into a “failed state.” Doesn’t it prove, once again, that Africa is an exception to all of the rules about global development, democratization, “progress”?

Actually, it doesn’t. In fact, the closer one looks at Kenya, the less exceptional Africa seems. What was most striking to me about the violence in Kenya in recent weeks was not how much the country resembles Rwanda but, rather, how much it resembles, say, Ukraine in 2004 or South Korea in the 1980s. Perhaps the real story here is not, as one headline had it, about “The Demons That Still Haunt Africa” but about how Africa is no different from anywhere else.

I am exaggerating here, somewhat, to make a point. Of course Kenya is special, as all countries are special, and of course there are some notably bloody Kenyan ethnic conflicts. The Kikuyu tribe, which constitutes about a fifth of Kenya’s population, has dominated the country’s politics and economics since independence — and is profoundly resented for it. Among other things, the disturbances of recent weeks have included a wave of attacks on the Kikuyu sections of a Nairobi slum, and cross-tribal violence, with the Luo, in the Rift Valley.

But step back a few paces, and look at the broader picture. The immediate cause of the current unrest was not ancient ethnic hatred. The immediate cause was political. As happened in Ukraine, an election was held and one of the candidates appears to have stolen it. This was no piece of subtle fakery, nor did it involve anything so legalistic as a supreme court. On the contrary, with television cameras rolling, Kenyan paramilitary police stormed the conference center where votes were being counted — and where the challenger, Raila Odinga, was said to be ahead of the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki — and expelled journalists and foreign observers. Soon afterward, an election official emerged to declare Kibaki the winner. Violence, apparently prepared well in advance, broke out immediately. There will be many explanations for the viciousness of what followed, but one of them, surely, is that this particular election fraud took place at a crucial moment in Kenyan history.

As any student of revolution knows, popular uprisings generally take place not in the poorest countries but in those that have recently grown richer. In 2007, Kenya’s economy grew 6.4 percent, a figure that will rapidly translate into fewer infant deaths, better nutrition and steadier jobs — as well as increased ambitions, both personal and political. The more hope you have for the future, the more frustrating it is to be badly governed.

And Kenya, famously, is extraordinarily badly governed. On the international “perceived corruption” rankings put together by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Kenya came in 150th, alongside Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries that are recovering from long-term civil wars. Year on year, Kenyans told the organization that they pay more and more bribes, too. Judges are for sale, lawmaking is arbitrary, government jobs are doled out according to ethnicity, not merit. No wonder there is widespread frustration.

Thus there is nothing mysterious about the anger or the unrest, nothing that requires more Live Aid concerts or global outpourings of emotion, nothing especially “African” about Kenya’s problems at all. Kenya needs a cleaner, more democratic, more rule-abiding government; it needs to eliminate the licenses and regulations that create opportunities for bribery; it needs to apply the law equally to all citizens. The West can help Kenya change these things by encouraging these values through the nature of the aid it gives and the strings attached to that aid. Ultimately, though, Kenya’s political elite will have to decide what kind of country they want their children to live in. Yes, there are cultural factors, and, yes, Kenya is unique, but in the end politics, not culture, lies at the heart of the country’s current problems.

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