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Trouble in Kenya

October 2, 2009


This is the final post in a weeklong series about East Africa. One would think that having Somalia as a neighbor would be trouble enough for any country, but Kenya is suffering from other challenges both natural and manmade as well. As I reported in the post entitled The Plight and Hope of East Africa, Kenya is suffering from drought and famine [“Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes,” by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 8 September 2009]. Gettleman writes:


A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land. The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones. Ethiopia. Sudan. Somalia. Maybe even Niger and Chad. These countries have become almost synonymous with drought and famine. But Kenya? This nation is one of the most developed in Africa, home to a typically robust economy, countless United Nations offices and thousands of aid workers.”


Kenyans might perceive the devastating famine as an act of God; but, they blame politicians for their suffering [“In Parched Nairobi, Politicians Blamed For Drought Crisis,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 22 August 2009]. She writes:


Drought in this part of Africa is hardly new, and the scenes playing out in smoggy Nairobi are amounting to repeats of 2005 and 2000. This time, however, the crisis is exacerbating Kenyans’ frustration with a coalition government established after weeks of post-election violence last year. People are blaming politicians for the crisis, not nature.”


In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, taps are running dry, electricity is being rationed, and frustration is growing. Kenyans know that drought is a periodic occurrence in East Africa and they are angered that corrupt and incompetent politicians have failed to do anything to mitigate the challenge.


[Kenyans] say that the effects of recurrent droughts are exacerbated by systematic government failings. The government currently has 500,000 metric tons of maize in strategic reserves, for instance, but the monthly requirement to feed the population is 300,000 tons, and the crisis is expected to continue for at least two months. The government is also being blamed for the systematic destruction of the country’s primary water catchment area, the vast Mau Forest. Despite repeated warnings by environmental agencies, the area has been devastated over the years by politically motivated land grabs by Kenyan elites and settlements of people who have chopped down trees to make and sell charcoal. As a result, rivers that feed lakes, water farms and hydroelectric power plants are drying up. Though the government has pledged to stop the destruction of the forest, it has not yet taken any action. And other conservation efforts, such as promoting drip irrigation and drought-resistant crops in arid areas and diversifying power sources, have not progressed much. So when the rains failed in parts of Kenya this year, the effects on Nairobi were predictable. The rationing of power and water began. Food became more expensive. The cows began lumbering into the city’s outskirts, dirt-blown industrial parks and suburbs from the dried-up countryside.”


Kenyans clearly understand what some environmentalists have been encouraging for a while — the time has come to start adapting to climate change [“Adapt or die,” The Economist, 13 September 2008 print issue].


“‘I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention. But I’ve changed my mind,’ says Al Gore, a former American vice-president and Nobel prize-winner. ‘Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help.’ His words reflect a shift in the priorities of environmentalists and economists. … Two things have changed attitudes. One is evidence that global warming is happening faster than expected. … Second, evidence is growing that climate change hits two specific groups of people disproportionately and unfairly. They are the poorest of the poor and those living in island sates: 1 billion people in 100 countries. Tony Nyong, a climate-change scientist in Nairobi argues that people in poor countries used to see global warming as a Western matter: the rich had caused it and would with luck solve it. But the first impact of global warming has been on the very things the poorest depend most: dry-land agriculture; tropical forests; subsistence fishing.”


Kenyans see the country’s failure to adapt as a failure of its corrupt political system. Donors that could help ease Kenya’s plight have been slow to emerge because of Kenya’s corruption. As Gettleman reports:


Donor nations have been slow to respond, and a United Nations-led emergency appeal for $576 million is less than half financed. Part of the reason may be the growing disappointment with Kenya’s leaders. They have been poked and prodded by Western ambassadors — and their own citizens — to overhaul the justice system, the police force and the electoral commission. The outcry followed a widely discredited election in 2007 that set off a wave of violence, claiming more than 1,000 lives. But Kenyan politicians seem more preoccupied with positioning themselves for the next election in 2012 than with cleaning up the mess from the last one. Few reforms have been accomplished and corruption continues to flourish, as the grain scandal currently under investigation has made painfully clear.”


When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Kenya in August, she pushed hard for the Kenya government to begin reforms immediately [“Clinton Pushes Kenyan Reforms,” by Mary Beth Sheridan and Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 6 August 2009].


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton [urged] Kenya … to move faster to resolve tensions lingering from a disputed 2007 election that precipitated the country’s worst crisis since it gained independence. Clinton went further in a meeting with Kenyan leaders, urging them to fire the attorney general and the police chief, who have been accused of ignoring dozens of killings carried out by police death squads, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. Clinton also raised the possibility of banning some Kenyan officials from traveling to the United States if the government does not move more quickly to prosecute those responsible for post-election ethnic violence that left 1,300 people dead. The organizers are widely suspected to include senior officials and cabinet ministers, many of whom have family members in the United States. … ‘The absence of strong and democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence, human rights abuses, lack of respect for the rule of law,’ Clinton said at a news conference after meeting with [President Mwai] Kibaki, [former opposition leader Raila] Odinga and security officials. Kenyans remain deeply frustrated with the coalition government, which they say is bloated with well-paid officials concerned more with their own survival than with the welfare of the country, swaths of which are in the midst of a hunger crisis.”


The U.S. is moving quickly to ensure that Kenya’s politicians don’t perceive Secretary Clinton’s warnings as empty threats [“US vows to punish Kenya for reform failure,” by Barney Jopson, Financial Times, 25 September 2009].


The US has vowed to punish the Kenyan government for failing to act on its reform pledges by banning several senior figures from travelling to the US and putting all multilateral aid proposals for Kenya under ‘intense scrutiny’. Washington has grown increasingly frustrated with Kenya this year as months of diplomacy – including an August visit by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state – failed to prompt action on reforms agreed after last year’s post-election crisis. The measures announced on Thursday are similar to those the US and European Union have imposed with limited success on president Robert Mugabe and his allies in Zimbabwe, another country where a disputed election led to a dysfunctional power-sharing government. But in Kenya they underline just how far the reputation of its leaders has fallen since the crisis. They are also a reminder of the country’s importance to the rest of the world as a regional economic hub and a base for aid agencies and the United Nations.”


Other East African countries, especially countries like Rwanda and Uganda, must also view Kenya’s lack of progress as disappointing. If an East Africa Community is to flourish, Kenya is a critical key because of its ports. Kenya has a lot going for it, but bad governance is stifling its future and exacerbating current challenges. With the end of the recession looming just over the horizon, Kenya should be positioning itself to take advantage of the opportunities that will emerge. Instead, it is allowing political in-fighting to undermine those opportunities.

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