Long a shining light, the roots of Kenya’s troubles run deep

Posted: January 18, 2008 in Blog

Through much of the talk about post-election violence in Kenya, conversation and debate inevitably returns to the shock and surprise felt by so many that a country like Kenya– long held up as an example of stability and economic development in an otherwise turbulent region– has descended into chaos so quickly.

The question, then, is perhaps not how a country went from stable and successful to chaotic and economically shattered so quickly. Instead, it is a question of how so many failed to see behind the veneer to reveal the government behavior, tribal differences and the chasm that separates the rich from the poor in so many countries in this part of the world– and to see how quickly, as a result, the stability could, or would, evaporate.

Last week, the New York Times ran an op/ed piece written by Aidan Hartley, a former correspondent with Reuters who wrote a fantastic book called The Zanzibar Chest about his (and his family’s) experience in the region. He retired from journalism when he was barely 30 years old, having already seen too much. He now lives on a farm in western Kenya, where much of the current instability is at its worst.

Here is what he, as someone who was born in Kenya and feels a strong connection to the region, had to say:

“Still, and despite all the talk of another Rwanda, I think Kenya will pull back from the brink. This is mainly thanks to the basic decency of ordinary Kenyans — whose priorities are to work hard, educate their children, fear God and enjoy a few Tusker beers.

Nobody wants to believe Kenya is a typical African basket case. Nor is anybody banking on the swift intervention of the world community: not from Washington, with its string of disastrous foreign policies, or the African Union, which has had unmitigated diplomatic failures in Darfur and Somalia. Kenyans know only they themselves can prevent fresh chaos. Despite all the claims and counterclaims among the candidates, ordinary citizens also know the entire class of Kenyan political leaders is to blame. The African saying that “when elephants fight, the grass suffers” applies tragically. Kenyan politicians are paid more money than many of their counterparts in the West — though they rarely bother to turn up at Parliament.

Kenyan democracy has failed because ordinary people were encouraged to believe that the process in and of itself could bring change. So Kenya’s leaders — and often international observers — interpret democracy simply in terms of the ceremony of multiparty elections. Polls bestow legitimacy on politicians to pillage for five years until the next depressing cycle begins.

In the campaign rallies I attended, I saw no debate about policies, despite the country’s immense health, education, crime and poverty problems. The Big Men arrived by helicopter to address the voters in slums and forest clearings. When they spoke English for the Western news media’s benefit, they talked of human rights and democracy. But when they switched to local languages, it was pure venom and ethnic chauvinism. Praise-singers kowtowed to the candidates, who dozed, talked on their mobile phones and then waddled back to their helicopters, which blew dust into the faces of the poor on takeoff.

The existence of this simmering problem in Kenya came full circle recently as I was reading a magazine piece written by a correspondent who was leaving Africa after nearly two years spent covering, mostly, the eastern part of the continent (the piece picks up as he reviews notes he jotted down on the trip back from a tour of Tanzania):

”Crime out of hand. Met A.I.D. man who is mending from attack in Dar es Salaam. Outside hotel, beaten by lead pipe. Kept yelling to attacker to take his wallet. Shattered elbow. One of most difficult operations. He said he was stupid to go out after dark. Said expatriates are warned to stay inside or in groups. Tanzanians made mess of surgery. He finally put together right by Chinese surgeon in Nairobi.”

I am interested in that last jotting about Nairobi. It suggests that things are ”put right” in Kenya. That is an image Kenya projects internationally, based deservedly on an impressive and progressive past, but, to many of us who have lived there, the image has developed cracks. For its part, the Government appears to be doing more to conceal the cracks than to seal them, and this may be because of the annual summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, which took place there this month. Though I don’t want to sound cynical – I am not cynical – I find the cost of this backslapping affair outweighs its good.

Every year, a different African country spends more money than it can afford to play host to the other African heads of state at the O.A.U. summit. Last year, it was Sierra Leone. The year before, it was Liberia. This year, it is Kenya, and Kenya is spending $10 million and, like the earlier host countries, expending every effort to wipe away any vestige of unrest, to show unity, progress and stability – in short, to put on a pretty face.

The Government has shut down Nairobi University indefinitely, sending home 5,567 undergraduates and about 1,000 postgraduates. The students have been ordered to report to their local police chief or district commissioner every Friday and Monday until further notice. This, the Government apparently believed, would insure there would be no protest demonstrations during the O.A.U. sessions. Further, the Government has threatened to shut down the capital’s leading newspaper, The Daily Nation, for its ”rebellious attitude,” and, just to show its seriousness, the Government last month briefly locked up the editor in chief and five subordinates without charges.

The Nation, a fairly vigorous publication at times, was warned in April that it had got out of line with the Administration of President Daniel arap Moi. An editorial had urged the Government to reconsider its decision to ban a political candidate, Oginga Odinga, from running for Parliament. Odinga was a Vice President in the early days of independence, but he ran afoul of then President Jomo Kenyatta and left office in 1966. The paper was forced to apologize on its front page, saying that it regretted the ”unfortunate impression” that it was ”not in step with the party and the Government.”

A month later, The Nation evidently gave the impression it had got out of step again. The 560 doctors employed in Government hospitals in Nairobi were on strike for higher pay. The paper printed a statement from the country’s one political party, the Kenya African National Union, condemning the strike. Most party statements are signed by one officeholder or another, and since this one was not, The Nation called the statement ”anonymous.” President Moi exploded.

”KANU is the ruling party,” the President said. ”It is the Government and therefore my voice. How then can the publishers of The Nation imagine the views of the party are anonymous?”

The editor in chief, Joe Rodrigues, three senior editors and two reporters were jailed and questioned by the Central Intelligence Division. Rodrigues was let go the following day, and the others were released three days later. The paper again apologized on page 1. The managing editor, Joe Kadhi, spoke to a Kenyan journalist friend about the rank conditions of his cell, the common criminals and drunks he was thrown in with, adding: ”It was terrible. I have never known such torture in all my life.” But the newspaper did not say anything against the Government, nor did it publish any accounts by employees about their incarceration or interrogation.

The Government also has ordered a ”crackdown” on ”all agitators and anarchists” in the country. University lecturers who are thought to lean toward Marxism have had their passports impounded. Labor leaders have come under intense official scrutiny. On the surface, it appears, all will look harmonious when the heads of state hit town.

But I ramble. The other night, a mathematics professor at Nairobi University said he found the present situation in Kenya ”chilling. I feel it in the pit of my stomach.” He said he feared that after all the bright years, Kenya was headed the way of many black African countries – that is to say, down.”

When was the above article written? 1981.

  1. Sue Russell says:

    You are brilliant Christopher. Hey, there is an ad for a journalist at http://www.nugget.ca Why not have a look but I imagine after Uganda, Northern Ontario won’t be an option. Love you and be safe.

  2. Brandon says:

    Mason, you just blew my mind. Luminary.

  3. kpinchin says:

    No. Way. Great article and great insight. Thanks.

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