Valuable lessons Kenya learnt in 10 years

The 2007 election was a lesson that it is not particularly safe to rig elections and, left to itself, the political elite will bring down Kenya. At the height of the violence that followed the presidential election, riot police move to dismantle a burning roadblock in Nairobi. FILE

On this day 10 years ago, Nakoulem Esekon, 4, was eaten by hyenas. Weak with hunger, her mother had left the starving child resting under a tree as she went to look for water and forage for food in her famine-ravaged Turkana home.

In the wastelands of the North, where human suffering is endemic and even the seasons are a monotonous harshness of dry heat, time can seem to flow like mud: nothing changes.

But a decade is actually a long time. Had that child been living today, her chances of attending free school — and being served a free plate of boiled beans and maize —would be a lot higher.

Progress, for some, is measured by the number, and size, of cars in the garage. For the Nakoulems of Kenya, it is measured by the distance between the tree and the nearest school, and therefore, a free meal.

This decade, with its tumultuous embarrassments, has taught Kenyans that true development is equality of access to opportunity. To those at the base of the pyramid, that access sometimes makes the difference between life and death.

This same day 10 years ago, Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist, had a swollen jaw. She had been beaten by private guards at Karura Forest, where she had gone to plant trees. The watchmen said they were guarding it because it was “private” property.

Today, corruption has lost its brazen notoriety, but it is no less immoral. The wholesale invasion of public spaces has ended: but the reclamation of those on which the survival of the nation depends, such as Mau Forest, has not even started.

On December 24, 1999, Mr Francis Lotodo, now dead, was in the Cabinet and had given orders to Marakwets to leave West Pokot District forthwith.

The traditional, tribal warmonger, with a cartoon beer belly and an imperfect grasp of reality, is now extinct. His place has been taken by a more suave Western-educated reptile, with access to e-mail, SMS and hate radio.

First woman PC

Ten years ago, President Moi appointed Kenya’s first woman PC, Mrs Philomena Koech. It was an occasion of such moment that Mr Moi had forewarned the Kanu National Delegates Conference of the impending appointment.

Kanu, for 40 years the party of Kenyan dictators, is nearly dead and a local woman has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nairobi of a decade ago was an urban wasteland, where human suffering was no less endemic than in its rural polar opposite, Turkana, and where the danger of being eaten by hyenas, albeit in the human form, was no less real. The crowds of street people, their excrement caking the pavements, the muggings and shootings and the potholes, which were more consistent in their population that the few stretches of smooth tarmac, were metaphors of a desolate, beaten society.

Kenya is in the tight hug of the before-the-election-violence and after-the-election-violence polarity, a piece of shallow but vicious analytical malfeasance, which has wrestled history to the ground, torn it into two contrasting pieces, and pegged it down like wet skin, with the antics of the political elite writ large, in blood.

This polarity ignores the fact that one big mistake may have defined the decade, but it was neither alone, nor was it the only event with influence on the future. The stealing of elections, the chopping off of heads and burning of houses reveals a great deal about society, as does that plate of beans in Turkana.

The 2000s was the decade that taught Kenya what it could do. It revealed that an African country without enormous resources can defy donor agencies and grow on the sweat of its own people and the ideas of the managers of its economy. The Kenyan economy today, in GDP terms, is three times what it was 10 years ago. And the distribution of that wealth, while not perfect, is getting better with devolved funds feeding resources at the village level.

In this decade, we repaired our infrastructure and built 26,000 kilometres of roads; arteries taking the nutrients of progress into the hinterland.

We doubled the value of our exports to nearly $5 billion, cut poverty by almost 10 per cent and kept more children in school, as a percentage of the total, than at any other time in the past.

In 1999, there were 15,000 cell phone subscribers. Today, there are 16 million. This is not unique, it has happened in other African societies, perhaps to a lesser extent, but it does show a willingness to create the right policy environment for the fast adoption of technology and for Kenyans to adopt it and make it work in their lives.

A professor at the University of Paris, writing about the election violence, described the 2002 election as a “lucky near miss”.

The political transition of that time, many Kenyans would like to believe, was not an accident, but the product of deliberate decisions: Mr Moi had made no significant efforts to rig the election and they were therefore reasonably free and fair. Mr Moi was also willing to give up power and President Kibaki’s opponent, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, was willing to concede defeat.

The election of 2007 was a lesson that it is not particularly safe to rig elections and, left to itself, the political elite and its factotums will bring down Kenya. It also exposed the moral cowardice and dishonesty of the Kenyan nation.

President Kibaki won re-election with 230,000 votes but lost the parliamentary majority to his rival, Mr Raila Odinga, in an election that was mismanaged and in all likelihood rigged. An investigation by a foreign judge, no less, and two years of back-and-forth debate, have not confirmed the truth about that fiasco. Kenyans have a dogged determination not to allow objective facts to dilute their prejudices.

It is left to history, more honest and dispassionate, to pick over the rubble of fact, half-fact, propaganda and jingoism: Did Mr Kibaki inflate his vote, thereby robbing Mr Odinga of the presidency? Did some voters elect ODM MPs and vote for Mr Kibaki? Did ODM stuff ballot boxes in some of its strongholds? Who lied? Was the violence spontaneous or was it planned?

Tribal elders

The survival of the Kenyan nation in the coming years will depend on the cleanliness of its elections. And the Kenyattan concept of government as a council of wise, tribal elders lording it over the nation and plundering its economy, so ably replicated by Mr Moi and, to a lesser extent, by Mr Kibaki is, in future, a recipe for disaster.

The other primitive polarity where Kenyan politics becomes a competition between the Kikuyu and the Luo, with the Mungiki and Kalenjin youth providing the strong arm and the rest of the tribes playing sycophant, is another route to the chasm.

In the second multiparty decade, the Kenyan voter lost all individuality. Choice as the culmination of a rational evaluation of options was replaced by the ossified, prehistoric beast of tribal euphoria, where the masses are whipped by their tribal chieftains into their tribal paddocks, then driven like buffalos in the plains of 17th century North America, in waves of political hysteria.

The political party was replaced by political SPVs (special purpose vehicles), mongrels made up of tribal parties and cobbled together just for the election. Because they have no ideology, enduring policies or systems to keep members in check, political SPVs are the authors of the indiscipline of Kenyan politics. The political party, rather than alliances and coalitions, is the road to a stable polity.

And a political system that delivers more of the plates of beans and less of the violence has to be stable.


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