At Large

Kenya’s Sad Safari

From a post-colonial model to economic and social basket case.

By 8.21.09

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The economic and social breakdown of Kenya is indeed tragic. What once was supposed to be a model post-colonial lesson for Africa has devolved to a nation teetering once again on the edge of turmoil.

At independence in 1963 Kenya appeared to have it all: a thriving tourist industry, excellent cash crops of coffee and tea, a major regional port, a growing manufacturing capability and, most importantly, an education system that was producing thousands of literate middle school students every year. With its hero, the Kikuyu leader, Jomo Kenyatta, as its head of state and his political and tribal rival, the Luo chief, Oginga Odinga, as the vice president, the country offered an example of successful African political cooperation. At least that's how it looked, and how the press characterized it.

In reality the white farmers were selling out or investigating the possibilities of doing so. The younger white Kenyans were encouraged by their relatives to emigrate -- U.K., Australia, South Africa, etc. More and more black Kenyan college students went abroad but upon return found that unless one had excellent political connections jobs in government were dead ends.

In the business sphere it was clear that approval for new or expanded investments had to go through an increasingly slow bureaucratic process as poorly paid government staffs at all levels were increased to accommodate the new African employees. The result was an immediate growth in gratuities offered to overcome the business delays.

What had been a reasonably pristine political environment pre-independence devolved into something more akin to the "dash" system of payoffs traditional in West Africa. This gift giving was required at all levels, but it actually was reasonably orderly during the original Kenyatta-Odinga years.

Daniel arap Moi came in as president at Kenyatta's death in 1978 and corruption soared in amount and character even as foreign investment grew. When Moi finally left in 2002, governance had become so warped that as one longtime Kenya observer noted, "Even the corruption had become corrupted." There was no aspect of life in that East African country that was not being exploited. Foreign aid was squandered; vast criminal schemes were hatched; and the usually stable $1 billion yearly tourist industry began to deteriorate, some say due to terrorism fears.

Mwai Kabaki's victory over a chosen Moi successor was initially hailed as a turning point from the earlier days of political and economic malfeasance. It didn't last long and as a British diplomat was quoted by the Financial Times in 2004: "The ministers have become gluttonous." However, an even more damning line was written by a columnist from Kenya's own Daily Nation, Kwamchetsi Makkha: "It was such a dysfunctional administration that normalizing it [the dysfunction] scores points." Graft, ethnic discrimination, and political economic corruption that had flowered during the Moi years simply "matured" during Kabaki's first term. What appeared as economic boom times quickly deflated with the drop of commodity prices and rise of political infighting. Accountability and responsibility were nowhere to be found.

Greater Nairobi is essentially divided in two: one is a metropolitan area distinguished by high rises, suburban estates, luxury cars and a middle class awaiting the next eco-ethnic outbreak. A few kilometers beyond the plush life are the tribally segregated slums of newly rebuilt corrugated iron housing sites of the recent riots. This is a community reflecting the country as a whole, where 70% of the population is calculated as below 30 years old and where 50% live on less than one dollar a day.

The orgy of tribal violence that began in the last days of '07 and lasted into February '08 resulted in hundreds of dead and wounded as well as the destruction of thousands of stores and dwellings in city, town and village slums.

Today Kenya is run by a ruling coalition of the aging and ill President Mwai Kabaki, heir to the Kikuyu dominance of the earliest Kenyatta years, and the prison-schooled son of the early Luo leader, Oginga Odinga, Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University-trained Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The slums of Nairobi, everyone agrees, will breed the next cruel cycle of violence. This time, however, the major tribes of Kenya represented there, as strong as their rivalry remains, are united in agreement that the cause of their shared deprivation is the current failing government.

The natural beauty of the country camouflages the tribal animosities that have always existed, held in check first by colonial power and then by Kikuyu domination. The signs exist that tribal predominance, while continuing to be important, is not the sole critical factor. The ethnic challenge is matched now by the economic divisions of the haves and the have-nots. Kenya roils, seemingly powerless to change.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.