News 2008


High time to lose patience in Kenya

The international community should explicitly link emergency aid to frankly political objectives



From Saturday's Globe and Mail

February 2, 2008

In the past few days, a number of outside voices have offered advice on the crisis in Kenya. “We can't just sit by,” said the chairman of the African Union, opening its annual meeting in Addis Ababa on Thursday. “If Kenya burns, there will be nothing for tomorrow.” The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, favours a military coup d'état. “It might not be fashionable, but in situations where institutions have lost control, I wouldn't mind such a solution.” Less draconian approaches may also work, but only if Kenya's problems are seen in a larger light.

Kenya has not been as peaceful as some suppose. In the 1950s, 50,000 people died in the Mau Mau Rebellion, a land war among the Kikuyu people, as much as a revolt against British rule. In 1969, all Africa was shocked by the assassination of Tom Mboya, one of the most inspiring politicians of his generation. In 1978, I was in Nairobi when the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, died, and foreigners were confined to their hotels for three days for fear of violence. To prevent a clash between the Kikuyu and their main rivals, the Luo, the ruling party chose an “interim” leader from a smaller group, the Kalenjin; Daniel Arap Moi stayed in power for 24 years.


Since then, Kenyan leaders have fomented ethnic rivalries, often in the run-up to elections. In the western Rift Valley in 1992 and along the coast in 1997, bloodshed was widespread enough to disrupt the tourist trade. And now the grisly scenes of neighbours hacking each other to death are awakening memories of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and Rwanda, and the fear of an unleashing of what Joseph Conrad called Africa's “suppressed rage.”

Conrad meant something primal and savage, and he attracted charges of racism and paternalism. But his observation may hold true in another sense. Since independence, Africans have been remarkably long-suffering and fatalistic in the face of persistently bad government. Without such patience, Africa would have been even more violent. In the 1990s, when Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zaire and Somalia were all at war, eight in 10 Africans were still living in peace. But it was a false peace.

When not plundering the public purse or worrying about paying next month's salaries, governments were buying presidential jets or paving potholes in the capitals rather than equipping rural schools and clinics, on which most of the people depended. Worse, they claimed that they were at the mercy of outside forces and did not set their own priorities. The economy was ignored. Small farmers, the source of Africa's greatest wealth, were overtaxed or exploited. Large companies were granted monopoly rights while small businesses struggled for breath, trying to keep their heads above the paperwork and the bribes. As a result, the continent lost half its foreign markets to other developing countries. Africa was the only part of the world growing steadily poorer, and its leaders were far from sharing the pain.


But, propelled by outside pressure, new forces were at work. In 1991, a small country in West Africa became the first African state to change governments at the ballot box; Benin has had four peaceful presidential elections since then. Kenya, which had only two leaders in 39 years, waited until 2002 to do the same, but almost within months it was plain that little had changed. The new president, Mwai Kibaki, a former vice-president and minister of finance, was accustomed to the old ways. He appointed a tough anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, who submitted a report incriminating three senior ministers, but it was Mr. Githongo who suffered the consequences, leaving Kenya for Britain, for his own safety. After an outcry, the ministers were dropped from the cabinet (but not otherwise punished); two of them were reappointed last month, after the disputed elections.

Economically, thanks to tourism, horticultural exports (cut flowers and green beans) and the high salaries of expatriates working for UN and international humanitarian agencies headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya's growth used to be twice the continent's average. Now, it is doing less well than its poorer neighbours, Uganda and Tanzania, and growing only half as fast as the rest of Africa. Part of the reason is the country's lack of energy and mineral resources, but poor public management is also to blame. These economic pressures are making corruption all the more criminal. But what is happening in Kenya is not just an expression of misery or ethnic jealousy. It is also an explosion of rising expectations fuelled by past success, the knowledge that the country's wealth is being hijacked by a small elite, and the Internet.

As elsewhere on a diverse continent, good things have also been happening. In November 2005, by more than a million votes, Kenyans blocked proposed amendments to the constitution that would have given the president more power. (This is one of the reasons the results of the Dec. 27, 2007 elections are suspect.)

Like Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, which prevented their presidents from running for a third term, and the voters in Ethiopia who challenged the results of the May 2005 elections in the streets, Kenyans have been putting their feet down and demanding change. Individuals are also making a difference. In just three years, a former businessman has put an end to dishonest practices at the Kenya Revenue Authority and doubled tax collection. Kenyans are also shedding old notions of being victims rather than masters of their own fate. Stressing the importance of investing in infrastructure, the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has observed that the British built the railway from the coast to the interior in just five years in the late 19th century, but Kenyans have not added an inch to it since Independence.


So how can the international community respond to Kenya's – and Africa's – impatience for progress? It can seize the assets of senior officials who, until now, have salted away their loot in Western banks with total impunity. (Estimates suggest that $500-million have been stolen in Kenya alone in the past three years.) The world can continue to provide direct support to community groups, human rights activists, democratic reformers and those promoting a free press. And, in a number of cases, the answer may be to make foreign assistance more openly political.

In theory, foreign aid was always intended for countries committed to helping themselves and treating their citizens properly. Assessing that commitment required delicate political as well as economic judgments. In the past 10 years, so-called governance issues have moved to the centre of the development debate; but Western donors have been reluctant to cut anyone off, except in extreme cases like Zaire and Burma. This skittishness ignored decades of evidence that good policy, human rights and citizen involvement are essential to spreading the benefits of economic growth.

Making aid more political does not mean using it as a convenient instrument of foreign policy. There is no objective reason why Afghanistan should be Canada's largest aid recipient, any more than Sudan should be its second. But if the goal is to fight poverty, the way a government treats its citizens – including its journalists, entrepreneurs and small farmers – should be central to the level of aid it receives.


Over the past 20 years, Kenya has been one of the few countries on Earth to have been punished repeatedly for corruption. Even Canada, for historical and political reasons one of Kenya's natural partners, has reduced its aid and concentrated on countries such as Ghana, Tanzania and Mozambique that have shown they can use their own resources effectively, not just other people's money. As a result, there is little room for cutting Kenya off. The Kenya Revenue Authority closed its tax loopholes for very good reasons: Only 5 per cent of the budget is funded by aid, compared with 40 per cent in neighbouring countries. Even Zimbabwe receives more help.

However, the country might qualify for greater aid – including funds for expanding that railway – if it agreed to hold new elections under proper international supervision and accepted the presence of full-time inspectors to certify that funds voted by Kenya's parliament for programs like primary education and fighting HIV/AIDS actually reached their targets. If that were done, the chances of outside money being managed better would also improve.

The offer of an emergency aid program could tip the balance in favour of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's current mediation efforts. But it would have to be large, and the international community – the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and Kenya's two major aid donors (the U.S. and the European Union) would need to act quickly. The initiative would also have to build on a genuine political consensus.

But there is not much that outsiders can do for a country bent on self-destruction. If the offer failed, or if Kenya's politicians don't pull back from the brink for their own reasons, the country could slip into a low-grade civil war of the kind that crippled another one-time success story on the other side of the continent (Côte d'Ivoire). Or, like Togo, where 800 people died in the wake of the 2005 elections, Kenya may settle down again, for a while, and disguise its rage under a calm that is truly deceptive.

Robert Calderisi is the author of "The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working" and a World Bank official from 1979 to 2002