Despite its athletes, writers and conservation efforts winning international acclaim, Kenya’s divisions, corruption and poverty gap are curbing its potential.
Kenya is both anchor and powerhouse. Positioned at the heart of east Africa’s internal and external trade, with the port of Mombasa the gateway, it drives the regional economy. It also provides ballast against the instability emanating from neighbours Somalia and South Sudan, where conflicts fed by corrupt governments have fuelled the growth of Islamic extremism, a chronic refugee crisis and regular mass starvation.
Western powers see Kenya as a key ally in battling these crises, whether through its support for US-led counter-terrorism initiatives or as host to bureaux of the world’s aid and development agencies. Kenya’s relatively permissive political culture makes it attractive to the media, technology companies and entrepreneurs who dislike the lack of freedoms in neighbouring Ethiopia and Rwanda. However, a recent government-led clampdown on the media threatens to bring Kenya more into line with the region.
Terrorism has taken its toll in Kenya: the Somalia-based Al-Qaeda-linked group Al-Shabaab has launched regular attacks in the country since 2011, when Nairobi sent troops across the border to fight jihadists. In recent years the Islamists, under pressure from African Union soldiers and US drone strikes, have posed less of a threat, allowing tourism to rebound and comforting investors and citizens alike.
In 2010, Kenya finally passed a long-promised new constitution that devolved much power to the counties, established a bicameral parliament and an independent judiciary. The limits of that constitution are still being explored.
Politics remains a largely tribal affair and elections are commonly marred by ethnic violence. Since the end of one-party rule in 1992, every election bar one has featured varying degrees of bloodshed. The worst, a decade ago, left more than 1,100 people dead. Last year’s polls were an improvement on that dismal performance but still more than 100 people were killed, mostly by trigger-happy police.
Things that need fixing
Corruption: This is, was and may always be the bane of Kenyan politics. Looted government funds make every election a zero-sum battle for control of state coffers.
Infrastructure: Even new roads in Kenya seem to spawn potholes in their first rainy season; older ones require a rally driver’s talent. The result is increased expenses for importers and exporters – and frustration all round.
Debt: A Chinese debt trap is being sprung on many African nations and Kenya is not immune. It is borrowing billions of dollars to fund infrastructure projects that make the current government look good but will become a future government’s problem.
Athletics: The best long-distance runners flock to the small, high-altitude town of Iten, turning it into an unlikely magnet for the world’s top athletes.
Conservation: Kenya plays a leading role in protecting endangered species. It is home to the Save the Elephants research and conservation organisation, based in Samburu, and offers refuge at Ol Pejeta to the world’s last two remaining northern white rhinos.
Literature: Kenya’s literary scene is flourishing and is led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who switched from writing in English to Gikuyu in the 1970s to protest the colonisation of language. New writers, including Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Muthoni Garland, are winning over readers both at home and abroad.
Kenya’s biggest foreign-policy success in recent years was proving that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is incapable of bringing sitting heads of state to justice. When the ICC’s prosecutor found her Kenyan witnesses disappearing or recanting she was forced to drop president Uhuru Kenyatta’s crimes-against-humanity case, charges which stemmed from violence following the 2007 poll. At the African Union, Kenya found backers for its self-serving claim that the ICC is a racist affront to sovereignty. Elsewhere, Kenya has sought to burnish its regional leadership credentials by sending troops to join Somalia’s forever war and seeking to help negotiate an end to another civil war in South Sudan.
Two things to watch
Media: Kenya’s domestic media is among the continent’s most free, so a government decision in late January to shut three of the country’s biggest television channels (one, owned by the Kenyatta family, kept broadcasting) over their decision to provide live coverage of an opposition rally was a shock. It was also a misstep that led to comparisons between Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, whose rule was defined by oppression. The TV stations returned to the air after a week but perceived censorship continued and, in March, eight columnists for the Daily Nation newspaper resigned, citing a lack of editorial independence.
Environment: Kenya is a leader in renewable energy. Geothermal power stations that draw energy out of the lithosphere of the Rift Valley, hydroelectric dams and wind turbines all contribute to the national grid. One of Africa’s largest wind farms, in the Turkana region, is due to come online soon, while Kenyan companies such as M-Kopa are pioneering mini-solar solutions that allow poorer people access to cheap electricity. Kenya has also banned plastic carrier bags and the country is at the heart of global efforts to combat plastic in the oceans, a move partly driven by self-interest in a bid to keep tourists flocking to its beaches.
President Uhuru Kenyatta epitomises Kenya’s political elite: wealthy, foreign-educated and a son of the country’s first president after independence. He won his first term in 2013 and a second last year but the elections left Kenyatta facing a crisis of legitimacy after a boycott by the opposition handed him victory. Kenyatta has bet big on infrastructure projects but they increasingly look like bad deals meaning his legacy might be the mortgaging, not the securing, of his country’s future.
Kenya’s GDP grew by 4.8 per cent in 2017, a significant dip from the previous year. But the World Bank believes it will recover to 5.5 per cent this year. Yet while the headline figures may look good, they mean little to the millions of poor. Almost half of Kenya’s 49 million people scrape by on less than €1.60 a day, frustrated by the yawning poverty gap and their continued exclusion from the nation’s growing wealth.
“The 2010 constitution was supposed to signal a rebirth of the state. Since 2013, Kenyatta’s administration has sought to abort this endeavour, risking a return to brutish, kleptocratic authoritarianism.”
Journalist, cartoonist and curator of online magazine ‘The Elephant’
“Democracy needs buy-in to succeed. Most Kenyans don’t believe that institutions work; that’s going to be a problem. But I have hope, mostly because of the creativity, ingenuity and resilience of Kenyan people.”
Writer and political analyst
“The greatest danger facing Kenya is the disenchantment of ordinary people with the political process.”
Professor of democracy at Birmingham University
Kenyan citizens succeed in spite of, not because of, the state. Uhuru Kenyatta will leave the country as he found it – tribally divided, corrupt and unequal – having squandered the opportunity to effect real change.