Thursday, 22 April 2010

Kenya on the edge

(Report from my friend, Balazs Szendroi)

"Knowledge Is Power"
(Motto painted on the walls of thousands of schools around rural Kenya)

"In case of accident, do not admit liability"
(Advice printed on all Kenyan car insurance certificates)

Kenya is a beautiful country. The breathtaking views along the descent into the Rift Valley, the sounds and colours of hundreds of thousands of flamingos on Lake Elementeita, the picturesque herds of wildebeests, gazelles, zebras and giraffes in the National Parks, whose movements are closely monitored by lions resting in the shade, and the calls of Colobus monkeys hiding in the trees in Kakamega Rain Forest make an instant impression on the traveller.

But there is more that impresses in Kenya: its people. With a population well over 35 million, many living on subsistence agriculture in mud-huts or tiny tin houses glued onto each other, Kenya is unmistakably "third world". But there is enormous vitality around: commerce is booming, Matatu taxis shift men and women around at breakneck speed with casual disregard to the Highway Code, and people are loudly discussing business and politics (as well as the Premiership) in bars and restaurants. And anywhere one goes, one immediately sees signs of two further factors that hold out hope for the future: education and modern telecommunications.

Many Kenyans take the job of educating their children very seriously. Fathers work in Nairobi, hundreds of miles away from their families, so that they can make enough money to pay for a better school. There are colourful billboards everywhere that advertise evening courses, colleges, universities public and private, and all manner of other educational institutions. The level of tuition is, to be sure, enormously variable, but there are ambitious examples of good educational practice.
One is Starehe School, where Kenyan youngsters from all walks of life are taught in wonderful surroundings by a dedicated staff, pupils being selected purely on the basis of academic performance. With almost 100 applicants to every place, it is perhaps not surprising that Starehe tops the KCSE (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education) tables. At the next level, there is Strathmore University, rapidly rising to the top of the league table of Kenyan universities. This Catholic institution, with a soft-spoken, thoughtful and very impressive Vice Chancellor, started life as a college of accountancy, but has now different programmes in Business, IT and Hospitality as well, with a Law School and a Mathematics Institute opening soon and a Medical School in preparation. One can only wish them well.

Kenya is of course but one of many developing countries completely transformed by the ascent of modern telecommunications. But there is a local twist, which is rapidly turning into a global phenomenon: M-pesa, the mobile phone based money transfer system. At a fraction of the cost of other money transfer schemes, and with a local agent in every village, collection of mud-huts and by every roadside, M-pesa is truly available to all. First banks tried to outlaw it; now they have to live with it, allowing direct transfer from bank accounts into M-pesa. Never mind politicians and their taxes: as a bank director confirmed to me, this is a real challenge to local banks.

A propos politicians. It was repeated all over, by many different people, that politics and especially politicians is where the problem of Kenya really lies. Since Independence, the country has seen a succession of presidents with a dictatorial streak, divide-and-rule mentality, and a liking for personally owning huge swathes of the countryside. A succession of coalitions was formed and then disowned, often along tribal lines. The most recent incumbent, Kibaki, was elected President in 2002 on the promise of clearing up the political mess, only to be uncovered as the true mover of many of the latest major corruption scandals. He strengthened the power of the largest tribe, the Kikuyus, at the expense of others. It is universally acknowledged, and gradually also proven in court, that he held on to his presidential seat in 2007 only by rigging the election. This lead to by far the worst tribal violence that the country saw since Independence, not on the scale of Rwanda, but still killing over 1000 people, and seriously damaging the social and economic fabric of the country.

Tribalism is rife, and its role cannot be underestimated. Kibaki's opponent in 2007 was Raila, who comes from the Luo tribe, from the west of the country. His supporting coalition includes a medley of corrupt politicians riding different tribal tickets. He is now Prime Minister, as a result of a compromise reached after the 2007 violence, and he has established a power centre somewhat independent of the President's office, even though the present Constitution does not make this easy.

There is now a proposed new Constitution on the table, which would in particular clearly separate out the powers of President, Government and Parliament. The proposal appears not to have taken on a tribal dimension, and it is supported by both President and Prime Minister. There are signs that, despite protests from the Catholic Church, this new Constitution will be accepted in a referendum in the summer; this would move the politics of Kenya in a very positive direction.

One actor who may yet play a role in the future of Kenya is the President of the United States. Obama looms large in the country; it is not hard to find restaurants where the obligate picture of President Kibaki is dwarfed by an enormous Obama poster. Obama's father is a.Luo, putting him in an interesting position with regard to the tribal aspect of Kenyan politics. His administration has so far refrained from getting too involved, restricting itself to denying visas to the most obviously corrupt Kenyan political leaders. But it is rumoured that Obama's next visit to Africa will be to Kenya; at that point, he cannot but get drawn in, with possibly very exciting consequences.

Obama's first Africa appearance, his speech in Ghana in July 2009, spells out his likely approach: an emphasis on good governance, and a strengthening of institutions at the expense of individuals.

Modernization, improving human capital via education, leading to steadily improving living standards, or further descent into corruption, unaccountability and tribal violence. Whither then, Kenya?


  1. Nice post. I remember to have read sg. like 1/4th of the budget of the country is for the salary and other personal expenses of the goverment and parliament. So there's a lot to improve.

  2. I wish we had mobile payment in the UK... :-)

    Minor point: it is standard advice everywhere not to admit liability in a car accident on the scene. This same advice is given to drivers in Hungary, UK and the US. The point is a legal one, not a moral one. Liability is to be decided later, with cool heads, by professionals.