KENYA: MORE THAN HALF FULL!
March 26, 2007
Jennifer Cooke’s excellent discussion of recent developments in Kenya is nonetheless too equivocal when it comes to the proverbial bottom line: Is Kenya better off or worse off today than when Mwai Kibaki came to power following the 2002 elections? From the perspective of conditions in the country at the time, Kenya has made significant progress. And when compared to conditions existing at the height of authoritarian rule in 1992, the Kenya of today bears little resemblance to the country of fifteen years ago.
Notwithstanding the perpetual noise and factional fighting among members of the country’s political class, nor five years of rudderless government under President Kibaki, Kenya is today one of the most democratic countries in Africa. The country’s resurgent economy, which has moved from zero growth and declining per capita income to real per capital growth for the first time in fifteen years, has reestablished Kenya as the economic hub of eastern Africa. Economic expansion, based on strict adherence to the Washington consensus, also appears to be benefiting the rural poor in addition to the urban rich and urban middle class. Put simply, after nearly two decades of paying the price of “bad governance,” Kenya is back as the anchor state of the region.
Why has Kenya rebounded to the top of the regional pecking order despite the ineffectual leadership of its president? A combination of three developments provide tentative answers. First, the very ineffectiveness of Kibaki and the fact that he has been a weak leader has provided both the public and private sectors with opportunities that were systematically denied under former president Moi. While Moi both micro-managed and corrupted Kenya’s once vaunted public administration, Kibaki has largely left it alone, allowing it to recover – though it is still short of the capacity it once exercised to provide basic services to ordinary Kenyans. And whereas Moi hobbled the private sector by entering into “crony partnerships” with successful firms that eventually destroyed these businesses, Kibaki’s government has left them alone. This has freed the business class to do what Kenyans do best – be entrepreneurs and make money.
Members of Kenya’s professional class – doctors, accountants, lawyers, journalists, and others – have similarly been freed to practice their respective crafts in a manner consistent with professional norms. This has in turn transformed civil society from merely a panoply of courageous groups seeking to open up political space, as was the pattern in the 1990s, into a series of economic interest groups similar to what one finds in advanced industrial democracies. These groups have in turn targeted parliament for representation and redress when the government and bureaucracy do not respond to their needs.
Second, Kenya, as Jennifer Cooke has described in her essay, has come a long way in the building of democratic institutions. The National Assembly, the press and civil society, in addition to the country’s public administration, are in much stronger condition today than they were in 2002. Together, these constitute institutions of countervailing power that make it unlikely that Kenya will slip back into authoritarian rule.
Third, and as a result of the first two factors: Although clientelist politics are alive and well in Kenya – witness the factionalism among what are supposed to be political parties but are in fact little more than coalitions of personal political machines – the possibilities for a return “big man rule” as practiced by Moi and Kenyatta are remote. Clientelism and ethnic politics persist, but the stifling personal rule of the past is gone because key institutions have emerged and are planting roots in Kenyan society.
Is Kenya yet a consolidated democracy? Probably not. Is continuous economic growth at the current annual rate of 6 percent guaranteed? No. But Kenya has turned the corner, and should be recognized for doing so by the international community, especially the United States and the World Bank. Instead of hectoring the political class over its inclinations towards corruption (forgetting that such corruption is driven by the need for political finance), Kenya’s principal partners should applaud the country for what it has achieved compared to its neighbors. Instead of fawning over the corrupt and sultanic regime of Uganda’s Yorweri Museveni because it passes an anti-terrorism law or sends troops to Somalia, the United States should encourage Kenyans to stay the course. Put simply, democratization takes time, but it works. If the Bush Administration were serious about its stated support for democratization across Africa, it would be more supportive of what is emerging in its most promising regional ally. Ditto for the Bank. Instead of shoveling budget support to the likes of Ethiopia and Uganda, it should recognize and support real institutional reform in Kenya.
Joel D. Barkan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa and Senior Associate at CSIS Africa Program and writes extensively on East African politics.
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