News 2008


Next for Kenya

Int. Herald Tribune

Chris Hennemeyer

11. March 2008

A month ago, as killing, burning and looting swept through Kenya, the chances of a peaceful solution looked remote, and many pundits were predicting another Rwanda. Fortunately, the patience and personality of Kofi Annan, combined with arm-twisting by the U.S. and Europe, has resulted in a political deal. Now comes the hard part.

An accord between Kenya's political elites is a necessary first step to national recovery, but it is not sufficient. Ordinary Kenyans are worse off today than they were before the contested elections. Despite Kenya's economic growth in the past several years, few of the benefits have trickled down, and the country that many foreigners know as an exotic safari destination is still the third world. Life expectancy is 52 years, annual per capita income is less than $1,300, and there's a 6 percent HIV prevalence rate.

Although much has been made of the ethnic dimension of Kenya's recent troubles, ascribing the violence to enmity between Kikuyus and Luos misses the point.

Tribalism may be convenient shorthand for what ails Kenya, but the real problem lies in a fierce competition for resources, especially land.

If Kenya is to recover from its bloodletting and begin healing, it must tackle the issue of land access. As everywhere in Africa, land is not mere real estate, but it is inextricably tied to tradition, identity and prestige. Thanks initially to British colonial policies, Kenya has what has one of the world's most warped patterns of land distribution.

The post-colonial government of Jomo Kenyatta used land for its own purposes, currying favor with wealthy supporters by allowing them to acquire plantations at bargain prices, and wooing the poor by encouraging them to settle outside their traditional areas. This approach also was adopted by several of Kenyatta's successors.

Frighteningly, as Kenya's population continues to explode - it has doubled since 1980 - there are millions of additional people who have neither access to land nor the skills to find a job in the nonagricultural economy.

Kenya is not the only place where economic inequity and social unrest have set deep roots in the fertile soil of landlessness. But its leaders now have the opportunity to galvanize both domestic and international support to take on this most pressing problem.

Chris Hennemeyer, is Washington Africa Regional Director for International Foundation for Election Systems