At the Root of the Crisis in Kenya

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Many observers have expressed at least some surprise at the post-election crisis in Kenya, a crisis that has so far left more than six hundred people dead, at least 200,000 people displaced and is affecting the economies of the entire region. Kenya has been known as one of Africa’s most stable and peaceful countries. The Kenyan economy has been growing over the last several years and tourists until a few weeks ago had started to return to the country’s national parks and Indian-Ocean beaches after being scared off by the 1998 U.S- embassy bombing, other terrorist activities along the coast and crime in Nairobi. How could things become so unhinged in Kenya when things were going so well?  The short answer is, things were not going so well for most Kenyans.

For anyone who has spent more than five minutes off the well-worn tourist paths, who knows something of the rapid rural to urban migration born of rural poverty, and who knows about the powers concentrated in the Kenyan presidency, the post-election crisis is terribly regrettable but not totally surprising. In part this is because the economic growth over the last few years has taken place without a corresponding improvement in the quality of life or standard of living for the majority of Kenyans, regardless of the ethnic group to which they belong. Although Gross Domestic Product per capita has been on the rise in the last few years, most Kenyans have struggled to find decent work and unemployment has hovered around forty percent. Every year, tens of thousands of young people leave impoverished villages to look for education and work, particularly in Nairobi. All too often they find neither. The competition for work is intense and family connections or links to one’s ethnic community are often the key to survival.

Further, connections to government are extremely important and, in Kenya, the government is practically synonymous with the presidency.  Although political reforms did decrease the power of the presidency during the late 1990s, the Kenyan presidency remains extremely powerful. Whoever is president in Kenya has tremendous power over appointments and the purse strings throughout the country. The great fear, a fear that self-interested politicians have sought to intensify in their attempts to win or preserve the support of their ethnic kin or coalitions, is that ethnic groups without a connection to the presidency will suffer from discrimination when it comes to appointments and the location of government projects.

The post-election crisis does not reveal that ancient tribal hatreds are at the core of Kenya’s problems, as some may suggest, but that widespread poverty and an imperial presidency are at the root of Kenya’s problems.  Although the solutions to Kenya’s troubles will not be easily achieved, they are, I propose, rather obvious.  First, many more Kenyans, of every ethnic group, need to share in the benefits of economic growth. Second, and just as important, power in Kenya’s political system needs to be dispersed so that the stakes are lowered and people will believe that their livelihood and that of their ethnic group does not depend so completely on who wins the presidency.  Dispersion of power may mean some kind of federalism or the strengthening of the legislature vis-à-vis the president. Kenyans must decide.

Crisis means opportunity.  The silver lining to these difficult days in Kenya may be that Kenya’s leaders have an opportunity to tackle the developmental and political problems that have gone unaddressed for too long. The key will be to ensure that short-term solutions and politically expedient coalitions that benefit politicians personally do not prevent the necessary reforms that will benefit all Kenyans from taking place. If the United States is serious about promoting stable democracies in a region of the world that is becoming more strategically important, it will encourage Kenyans to focus on these problems and to forge their own Kenyan solutions. If authentic development truly begins to take place and political power is dispersed, I firmly believe that great days lie ahead for Kenya.
By Robert A. Dowd, C.S.C., Chair of AFJN Board, Assistant Prof. of Political Science, Notre Dame University
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