Kenya: Africa's Nightmare Scenario?


The political and humanitarian crisis which has engulfed Kenya following the disputed results of the 27 December 2007 Presidential election has tarnished Kenya’s image as the ‘golden child’ of development in Africa. Its reputation as a stable counterweight against the insecurity experienced by neighbouring states has also suffered.

Since independence in 1963, Kenya has prospered, while many of its neighbours have suffered insurgency, military takeovers and humanitarian crises. This record of stability, and Kenya’s geostrategic position, means that Kenya has for decades been a major player in mediating disputes and absorbing refugee flows from regional conflicts. It has promoted and supported peace talks, and has been particularly active in brokering negotiations between the various stakeholders in Somalia. Kenya has also pushed for regional economic cooperation. With its British colonial past, Kenya has been able to maintain strong links with the UK, both culturally and economically. In recent years, Kenya has also enjoyed a cosy relationship with the US, strengthened by the 1998 American embassy bombing in Nairobi. Both the US and the UK have military bases in Kenya, and have long regarded Kenya as a dependable ally.

However, even before the election violence, Kenya’s record of stability and profitability was eroding. Corruption, crime, electoral malfeasance and poverty are the perennial flashpoint issues of Kenya’s national elections; voting irregularities are nothing new, but popular fury was aroused by the way in which Kibaki was re-installed as President before the vote-counting process was complete. Although the intensity of the post-election violence has abated, there are fears that political and ethnic violence could become embedded within Kenyan politics and spread across the region.

External problems may also trouble Kenya. The last few years have strained Kenya’s ‘special relationship’ with the UK and the US. There are tensions with Britain over compensation to Mau Mau veterans, for human rights abuses inflicted upon them during the Emergency in the 1950s, and with the US over the War on Terror. In addition, the spill-over of arms and refugees from surrounding countries is threatening Kenya’s ability to maintain law and order within its own borders. Islamic refugees from Somalia may add to existing Christian/Muslim tensions within Kenya, whilst instability in border areas will increase the flow of arms into a country already suffering from heightened violence.

A Barrel of Rotten Apples?

When Mwai Kibaki was elected as President in 2002, he represented a fresh start after the authoritarian policies of his predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi. Kibaki came to power on an anti-corruption and democracy platform. But Kibaki’s promises of 2002 now seem risible. The recent Anglo-Leasing financial scandal implicated officials at the heart of government. However, Kibaki never pursued the prosecution of these individuals. John Githongo, who uncovered Anglo-Leasing scandal, resigned in 2005 following threats to his life and remains in self-imposed exile in the UK. Finally, as if to emphasise his disregard for his own policies, Kibaki has encouraged the Kenyan parliament to enact a law which would make it impossible for the Corruption Commission to seriously investigate financial improprieties.

Kenyan gangs have flourished in this lawlessness. The most prominent are the Mungiki, and the ‘Taliban’ gangs; they operate Nairobi-based cartels which profit by ‘taxing’ transportation and providing illegal access to water and electricity lines. In the past year, the Mungiki violently clashed with the police. A series of increasingly bitter reprisal attacks occurred until, in June, the army closed down the Mathare slum area and killed many suspected Mungithi members. However, dozens of innocent civilians were also detained or killed in the Mathare offensive. Criminal violence merged with political and ethnic violence after the December elections, and there have been allegations of security force and criminal collusion in the current wave of violence.

Corruption is bleeding Kenya’s economy. Without an abundance of high-value natural resources on which to rely, the economy owes its success to a history of stability which has allowed it to become a dependable food producer and goods processor. However, decades of corruption in state institutions have resulted in worsening infrastructure, weakening Kenya’s ability to deliver agricultural goods and manufactured products. Combined with increasing violence and corrupt officials undermining businesses in urban areas, the Kenyan economy has struggled to maintain its success. The nexus of political and economic corruption, and the disempowerment of the Corruption Commission, have exacerbated class conflict. When this is allied with growing rural and urban poverty, and systemic ethnic tensions, the likelihood of continued violent protest – and equally violent repression – is high.

The Special Relationship: Help or Hindrance?

Media coverage and analysis of the ongoing troubles in Kenya have tended to focus on the humanitarian, political and ethnic dimensions. However, the crisis has also lifted the lid on the relationship between Kenya and its donors. Kenya has traditionally been a major recipient of external aid, from both states and from the NGO community. British NGOs are particularly active in the country. Kenya’s tradition of stability also means that many agencies have chosen to base their regional headquarters there. However, there are unintended consequences of this seemingly fortuitous position. Kenya is showing worrying signs of developing an aiddependent economy. Indeed, some communities in western Kenya are now incapable of surviving without external help, as the population level has risen above that which can be sustained normally.

Across Kenya, a shadow state funded by aid agencies is emerging. Aid agencies are quick to step in: this was shown by the relatively rapid response by the UN and other aid organisations assisting the more than a quarter of a million people who have been displaced by the recent political and ethnic violence. However, the problem is that the aid agencies permanently substitute for the state, which should be taking the blame for these failings. As the responsibility for the welfare of the population is removed from state institutions, there is little incentive for the government to work harder or put more money into providing services for their citizens. Ultimately, these state institutions are in danger of atrophy. If external aid is no longer forthcoming, Kenya will find the re-building of these underutilised institutions a Herculean task. In addition, aid organisations are sometimes perceived as legitimising authoritarian governments, and/or pursuing agendas which are not always in the best interests of the recipient nation. Success for Kenya is often measured by the quantity, rather than the quality, of aid organisations, and this cannot remain as the yardstick for real progress.

Aid agencies are not the only ones who could be accused of unintentionally funding Kenya’s decline. Kenya is important as an ally and a strategic base for the UK and US. They are major providers of bilateral aid to Kenya, but the ‘special relationship’ may actually be detrimental to Kenya. London and Washington may be less than insistent on a strict adherence to the protocols of good governance, hence the relatively muted criticism of Kibaki from London and Washington. In the language of realpolitik, Kenya’s status as the core geostrategic and economic partner in the region clearly outweighs Anglo-American misgivings about governance in Kenya. Whilst this bolsters the Kenyan government elite, it gives bilateral aid a bitter twist for those further down in society, and may turn the poor against the West in the long term.

Other bilateral issues have caused tensions. A group of Mau Mau excombatants who were active during the Kenyan emergency in the 1950s are threatening to sue the British government over alleged incidents of rape, torture and abuse. Although the case is currently stalled due to a lack of Legal Aid funding, it appears from recently uncovered documents that allegations of the British atrocities are well founded. At present, the British government is unwilling to offer a voluntary apology or provide compensation payments. Should this case come to court, however, its outcome would set an interesting precedent for the citizens of other post-colonial states.

Trouble in the Horn

Kenya has long been a regional buffer zone, absorbing the overspill of arms and refugees from surrounding conflicts. Although the recent troubles have not brought the meltdown many had feared, there are clear warning signs that should Kenya become a nexus of instability, the consequences for east Africa, which has only recently emerged from endemic conflict, would be dire. Kenya could also be engulfed by the Horn of Africa conflicts.

Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Mr Raphael Tuju, is voicing his own frustrations regarding Kenya’s relationship with the West. Neighbouring Somalia has not fully stabilised since the transitional government came to power this year, and Kenya continues to receive many Somali refugees. This situation is aggravated by Kenya’s suspicions that Islamic militants are crossing the border hidden among genuine refugees. In 2007, Mr Tuju called on the international community to do more to help with the refugee influxes from Somalia, Sudan, northern Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). No help was forthcoming, and the Kenyan government expressed their dissatisfaction by closing their border with Somalia, incurring UN disapproval.

Environmental interdependence also raises the stakes of instability. Kenya has played a key role in negotiations over the Nile Basin Treaty and agreements over activity in the Great Lakes area. These agreements depend on each country ensuring the security of its own environment in order to safeguard the wellbeing of regional ecosystems. But if internal instability, especially in the countries surrounding the Great Lakes, allows certain groups to exploit the environment to their own advantage, a cascade effect occurs: it is no longer mutually beneficial for groups to respect the environment. Growing environmental and resource clashes may increase the effects of corruption and political instability.

Although Kenya will survive its current problems, it does set a worrying precedent for African politics and development. When a country held up as an example of successful development stalls, questions must be asked as to how this point has been reached, and whether it represents an early warning for the rest of Africa. Electing leaders on the basis of anti-corruption promises seems to be a pan-African trend. But Kenya, five years down the line, does not give much cause for optimism. The question becomes particularly acute given that there will be a raft of parliamentary and presidential elections in central, east and southern Africa over the next two years. On the one hand, the crisis in Kenya has shown that popular protests can force incumbents to take note; on the other hand, Kibaki’s continuance in power will embolden other autocrats to ignore unfavourable electoral results. The result could be a swathe of bitterly contested elections, with the electoral process itself being destabilising, instead of ushering in political stability.

Equally, the effectiveness of aid across the continent must be questioned. Kenya has been a long-term beneficiary of both private and multilateral aid, and whilst it has been successful to date, its long-term stability now looks uncertain. Kenya demonstrates that progress in developing countries is not linear and assured. With this example in mind, the way in which aid is given across Africa may need to be reconsidered. By resting on its ‘golden child’ reputation for so long, whilst government officials and international donors alike have ignored the reality, Kenya has been allowed to slip unnoticed into a destabilising spiral of violence.

Amy Harris

Research Associate, RUSI 




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