Kenya in 2007: Glass Half Empty or Full?
March 16, 2007
Four years ago, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki came to office on a wave of hope and expectation, as well as a platform that focused first and foremost on improving governance and combating the scourge of corruption. Together with the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a diverse alliance of opposition parties, Kibaki handily defeated the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which had ruled the country for nearly 40 years. Twenty-five of these were under the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Daniel arap Moi. The elections of 2002, which many observers had anticipated with some trepidation, were instead largely peaceful and deemed the most credible and fair in Kenya’s electoral history. The new political dispensation was hailed in some quarters as a “second liberation” and a “giant step forward” for Kenyan democracy.
Where does Kenya stand today, as it once again enters what is likely to be another messy and highly contentious election year?
Much of the early promise and progress of the Kibaki administration has given way to disillusionment, drift, and factional wrangling, and a number of major policy failures and missteps have generated doubt among Kenyans as to whether the country can truly escape its traditional politics.
Investors, financial institutions, donors, and others look at success in the prosecution and punishment of corrupt officials as an indicator of progress in governance, particularly because accountability is among the strongest disincentives for misconduct and abuse of power. But in Kenya, the exigencies of holding the NARC coalition together and appeasing its various factions have undermined the government’s willingness to go after the truly corrupt within its ranks. NARC brought together a raft of powerful individuals, a collection of opposition politicians and KANU defectors, many of whom were deeply compromised during the Moi years. Survival instincts and coalition politics have unfortunately, but not surprisingly, trumped the leadership’s commitment to accountability.
In a promising early step, the government established the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) in 2003, but to date only one relatively senior official has been convicted by the Attorney General’s Office, and here sentence was eventually commuted by President Kibaki. Education Minister George Saitoti (vice president under Moi) resigned in February 2006 after a Commission of Inquiry recommended he face criminal charges for his role in the Goldenberg foreign exchange scandal in the 1990s. The Kenyan High Court overruled the commission’s recommendation in July 2006, and Saitoti was reinstated to office three months later. Finance Minister David Mwiraria and Minister of Justice Kiraitu Murungi likewise resigned after former Governance and Ethics Permanent Secretary John Githongo implicated the two (along with Vice President Moody Awori) in the Anglo-Leasing procurement scandal, which took place on Kibaki’s watch. Murungi too was reinstated as Minister of Energy in November 2006.
In November 2006, with the alleged support of both former President Moi and President Kibaki, Nicholas Biwott was officially instated as chairman of KANU by the government’s Registry of Societies, replacing Uhuru Kenyatta in what some have called a “government-assisted” party coup. The Kenyan High Court has since reinstated Kenyatta, pending investigation into his challenge to the ruling, but the fact that the Kibaki government, however embattled, might tacitly ally itself to one of Kenya’s most notorious thugs attests to the continued power of political expedience. That Biwott, and by association Moi, were back in force on the political scene angered many in Kenya who held that unless these leaders were held to account for past deeds they will continue to shape Kenya’s political future, and for the worse.
Nonetheless, a number of factors offer reason for hope. Kenya’s economy is on the rebound. Overall economic growth is estimated at around six percent in 2006, with major gains in tourism, telecommunications, and agricultural exports, and improvements in education and health. Further, the forces that helped oust a corrupt regime in 2002 are still very much alive, in particular a vocal and increasingly competent media, a strong and vibrant civil society, an independent national legislature, an open and active political debate, and widespread public outrage at the excesses of government theft and diversion. A younger generation of leaders, both in and out of government, is quietly working to put in place systems and institutions that eventually can help curb the incentives and opportunities for corruption. These are the factors that will build a national constituency for good governance, which in turn will sustain reform over time.
It is easy to dismiss the government’s initial reform efforts as hollow or insincere, but they have had some positive effects. Although none of the most egregious offenders have been brought to book, legislation enacted during Kibaki’s tenure—on public procurement, public officer ethics, financial accountability and the like—have kept legislative and public attention on the kind of systemic reforms that will be necessary, regardless of eventual political leadership. There is ample room for improvement here. A glaring gap is conflict of interest among public officials: MPs recently gave themselves yet another enormous (and publicly unpopular) pay hike, and there are numerous instances of officers having oversight of sectors in which they have business interests. Reform in that area may be a long time coming, but public opinion and a few courageous legislators may be beginning to chip away at that system of negative incentives.
Similarly, the various commissions of investigation set up under Kibaki—on the Goldenberg scandal and on land grabbing, for example—have again brought a very public spotlight on the methods and opportunities for corruption. The workings of these commissions was widely covered in the press and followed intently by the general public. While the guilty have so far escaped incarceration, the fact these cases have been so widely reported and debated, that investigations continue, and that a number of individuals resigned under public pressure, is a remarkable shift away from practices of the past.
The Kenyan press, both print and electronic media, has been a consistent bright spot and will continue to serve as one of the most powerful tools in the fight against corruption. It is outspoken and competent, increasingly engaging in proactive, investigative journalism, and it has not been cowed by official attempts at intimidation. The commando-style raid on the Standard Media Group’s editorial offices and printing plant, ordered by Kenyan Minister for Internal Security John Michuki for what he claimed were subversive activities, was perhaps the most chilling sign of regression over the last four years and will remain an inexorable black mark on Kibaki’s record. That said, it is widely agreed that Michuki’s action backfired on the government and if anything further emboldened the press.
Civil society remains a formidable social and political force, and there are opportunities there to build a much broader, national constituency for reform. The international community can encourage business leaders, academic institutions, advocates, and analysts to look beyond parochial concerns and to build networks around cross-cutting issues like corruption. There remains an important role for adversarial advocacy, but at the same time there are opportunities for selective engagement with the government on systemic reform. A broad constituency that represents diverse sectors and can build consensus around the costs of corruption and systemic reforms may help “de-politicize” the issue and strengthen the hand of would be reformers in government.
The Kenya National Assembly has also evolved into one of the most independent, perhaps the most independent, legislature in Africa and is becoming an effective check on the executive branch. The National Assembly plays an increasing role in the budgetary process and exercises real oversight via the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Investment Committee of government expenditures. With the support of the press these committees have exposed corrupt practices at the highest level and forced the resignation of several ministers. The Assembly, via its system of specialized committees, is also becoming a sounding board for civil society.
A final reason for optimism is the Kenyan public, whose hopes and expectations for change were buoyed by the ouster of Moi and the democratic elections of 2002. Public expectations are such that it will be very difficult to fundamentally reverse the trend toward greater openness, accountability, and decentralization. Disillusionment with the pace of change and the broken promises of the 2002 election may in fact push many Kenyans to look beyond ethnicity, personality, and campaign slogans to rally instead around issues that have bearing on their daily lives and on Kenya’s future.
For all its problems, Kenya on balance remains a positive story in democratic transition. Kenyan democracy is messy and boisterous, but in contrast to the situation in some of Kenya’s neighbors, the space for political discourse and debate is large and growing. Moreover, the possibility and expectation of further change are strong. These factors bode well for Kenya’s democratic future, and should be acknowledged and encouraged, both by Kenyans and by the country’s international partners.
Jennifer Cooke is Co-director of the CSIS Africa Program and editor of Africa Notes.
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