Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
On July 7, 1990, fear spread around Kenya. It stretched from the capital, where the opposition had called demonstrations to press for a multi-party system and constitutional changes, right into rural areas.
When a lorry carrying packed milk, under a now long-discarded school-feeding scheme, approached a rural schoolyard during a break, schoolchildren ran into their classrooms because the black stacked crates looked suspiciously like the helmets of armed police.
Some schoolchildren were picked up by their parents from school, too anxious about their safety to let them stay in school.
Opposition leaders and their supporters were beaten up and arrested on the streets by police, forcing some to flee into foreign embassies and into exile in the ensuing crackdown by security forces.
This past holiday season in Kenya was quite a contrast to the preceding year.
While in 2008 December was dry and dusty, last month was marked by heavy rains across the country, making for soggy barbecues and muddy cars for the many urban Kenyans who usually like to spend Christmas with their families in the rural areas.
The rains have killed 20 people and displaced many more through flooding. But they are vital, given the country’s reliance on agriculture, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP and employs about two thirds of the entire population.
With corruption scandals mounting and his government reeling from public disapproval, President Mwai Kibaki called his first news conference in years — to talk about his wife.
A U.N. investigator has castigated Kenya’s police force for hundreds of alleged extra-judicial killings and called for both its chief and the Attorney General to be fired immediately.
In a scathing indictment of the east African country’s security forces, Philip Alston, the U.N. rapporteur on extradicial executions, said he had received overwhelming evidence during a 10-day tour of systematic, widespread regular and carefully planned killings by the police. He said they were “free to kill at will” and did so with impunity for motives ranging from private disputes to extortion, to shooting a suspect instead of making an arrest. “The Kenyan police are a law unto themselves and they kill often and with impunity, ” said Alston, a law professor from Australia. In a statement laced with angry sarcasm, he accused the police of failing to provide him with virtually any of the information he sought, including the number of officers in the force. He supported allegations that police had killed 500 suspected members of the notorious Mungiki crime gang in 2007 in an attempt to exterminate it and 400, mostly opposition, demonstrators during a post election crisis last year — as reported by an official inquiry. Army and police are also accused of torturing and killing at least 200 people in an offensive to suppress a rebel movement in western Kenya.
Alston demanded the immediate dismissal of Police Commissioner Hussein Ali but did not stop there. He said long-serving Attorney General Amos Wako, who he accused of consistently obstructing attempts to prosecute those in high positions for extrajudicial executions, must also go, calling him the embodiment of a system of impunity. Alston added that Kenya’s judicial system was bankrupt and another obstacle to achieving justice. And he even attacked President Mwai Kibaki for remaining completely silent about impunity.
Alston’s condemnation was perhaps the most high profile and powerful in recent years but it follows numerous reports by human rights groups about extrajudicial killings by the police. Ali, an army general who has led the force for five years, has survived numerous other controversies.
The government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, who as a sideline produces a popular television cop squad drama, immediately rubbished Alston’s statement, saying he had not been in the country long enough to draw accurate conclusions. But Kenya’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Nation, noted in an editorial that this was a routine response from the government and the U.N. official’s report could not be dismissed so lightly, an opinion shared by the other big daily, the Standard. But the government appears set to ignore even such high profile criticism, as it has done with allegations against the police in the past.
The case also underlines the divisions within Kenya’s unwieldy Grand Coalition government, set up almost a year ago to end ethnic bloodletting after the disputed election that killed around 1,300 people. Alston was invited to carry out his investigation by this very government, although it is not clear who did so. He said Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Justice Minister Martha Karua had expressed concern about his report. Odinga was quoted in the Nation as saying: “We must act on the report. No one will be spared. I am not willing to compromise on this one.” He doesn’t seem to have spoken to Mutua.
But whatever Odinga says, nobody is holding their breath for a radical overhaul of the police despite wide public disgust over their tactics. A recent opinion poll showed that 70 percent of Kenyans surveyed felt the coalition government had achieved nothing since it was formed last April. Only 33 percent thought any political or business leader guilty of organising the election violence would ever be convicted. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who led mediation to end the crisis, warned that political manoeuvres delaying the establishment of a tribunal on the violence threatened the country’s stability.
Will Kenya ever tackle these fundamental problems? Will violent police ever be brought to book?
A new book on corruption in Kenya is considered so explosive there that copies are only being sold under the counter in Nairobi by some book sellers too nervous to display them openly.
“Within these pages, we stand eyeball to eyeball with corruption. The book is an ironclad tell-all that mercilessly bares all to the light,” said the local Sunday Nation newspaper in a review of Michela Wrong’s book. “It feels dangerous to just read, let alone write.”
President Mwai Kibaki’s naming of a key ally, Uhuru Kenyatta, as his new finance minister to replace another supporter, Amos Kimunya, does not come as a surprise to some.
Kimunya, who stepped down last July after he was accused of corruption in the handling of the sale of a luxury hotel, has also returned to parliament — replacing Kenyatta as trade minister.
Kimunya was not reinstated even after he was cleared by an official enquiry into the controversial sale of the luxury Grand Regency Hotel in the capital.
The long wait for someone to fill the finance position suggested to some that Kibaki was not comfortable bringing his ally back, given his tainted name.
His appointment to the trade ministry could mean Kibaki did not want to lose him from the cabinet altogether, although some analysts say it was a move to save face.
Pundits also say Kibaki did not have much room to manoeuvre in picking Kenyatta. Many MPs who support the president are parliamentary neophytes without much experience in running a powerful ministry like the treasury.
Long-suffering Kenyans have once again had their hopes dashed of a new era of political progress freed from the depredations of their notoriously venal politicians, after a wave of high-level corruption scandals and factional squabbling inside the government.
President Mwai Kibaki first won power in 2002 riding a wave of popular support for his promises to end the corruption and misgovernment of his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. Disillusion soon set in with massive graft scandals that mirrored the worst of the Moi years tarnishing Kibaki’s image as a reformer.
Then hopes rose again last April when a “Grand Coalition” was formed between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to end two months of brutal ethnic bloodshed after a disputed election, in which at least 1,300 people died and 300,000 were forced from their homes. Despite the formation of the biggest and most expensive government since independence to pander to the interests of both sides in the election dispute, there was optimism that a wind of change was blowing after decades of abuse by politicians pursuing only narrow tribal and regional interests as well as lining their own pockets.
Kenyans sick of the old political class had swept away more than 60 percent of parliament in a powerful vote for change. The new law-makers were said to be of a different cloth, more professional and educated and interested in the welfare of the nation .
Early signs were promising with Kibaki and Odinga reported to have struck up a strong and productive relationship and cooperating on policies that brushed aside the protests and pressures of powerful political pressure groups.
But the early optimism generated by the post-election settlement has dissipated less than a year later. Squabbles between Kibaki’s PNU party and Odinga’s ODM, who accuse the president’s close supporters of bypassing them to force through controversial decisions they oppose, are so bad that a new 12-member committee has been set up to mediate within the government. The MPs, already among the world’s best paid, refused to back down on voting themselves fat tax-free allowances despite heavy criticism and pushed through a media bill seen both at home and outside Kenya as a blatant infringement of the rights of the country’s vibrant press – a powerful democratic force.
But worst of all, the recent revelation of a string of scandals ranging from the tourist authority to the theft of millions of dollars of petroleum products are a clear sign that not much has changed. The sheer scale of the accusations of graft has shocked many Kenyans. The most damaging is over the diversion of precious reserves of maize, Kenya’s staple food, to bogus millers while almost a third of the population are facing famine because of a long drought. As myriad scandals came to light, the heads of the cereals, petroleum and tourism authorities were all sacked. “In one year only, Kenyans have been treated to a magnitude of corruption they have never seen,” said Okong’o O’Mogeni of the Law Society of Kenya.
Foreign analysts say the coalition government is likely to survive its many disputes and will probably last until the next elections scheduled in 2012. None of the parties benefitting from the bloated coalition government are thought likely to want to precipitate a political crisis before then and much manoeuvring is focused on who will make a run for the presidency when Kibaki has to step down after his second term. The relative stability, unexpected when the post-election crisis ended in April, has encouraged positive forecasts for Kenya’s growth by 2010 in contrast to many other frontier markets.
But when will Kenyans get the honest politicians so many of them yearn for, so that this country can develop its full potential as a gateway to a wide swathe of central and eastern Africa and meet the government’s goal of turning it into a prosperous, well-governed country by 2012?
It was not the most encouraging message after a year that had few silver linings for the country of 36 million, still recovering from a bout of post-election violence early last year.
After a decade of rampant destruction of the Mau forest water catchment in western Kenya, the country’s coalition government seems firmly united in trying to save the complex before more serious damage is inflicted on the economy.
U.N. officials say this is no longer simply an environmental issue but something that has huge importance for the whole country. Already two of the top three foreign exchange earners — tourism and tea — are feeling the impact of falling water levels which have also forced the postponement of a major hydro-electric project.
Only a few months ago, it seemed all doom and gloom for the Kenyan economy as post-election violence threatened to wipe out gains and stymy growth.
Tourists were cancelling safari and beach holidays in their droves. Gangs were rampaging around the agricultural heartlands. And few would dare to journey on roads full of boulders, burning tyres and knife-wielding youths.
Yet even back then, some analysts argued that East Africa’s strongest economy should be able to withstand the electoral crisis, provided it was brought to a rapid halt.
And stop it did, after President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga buried their differences over who won the Dec. 27 vote in a coalition government formed in April.
Now foreign and local investors have given a resounding thumbs-up to Kenya’s economy via the largest InItial Public Offering in the region’s history. The offer for mobile operator Safaricom was over-subscribed by 532 percent, shares leapt 50 percent in the first hours of trading and 860,000 people bought shares via the IPO.
So is Safaricom indicative of Kenya’s recovery, or is there still a long way to go?
Have investors got over the shock they received earlier this year?
How does Kenya compare to other sub-Saharan African nations — neighbours Uganda and Tanzania; or heavyweights South Africa and Nigeria — as an investment destination? Which are the sectors to put money in?
And can the shaky coalition hold?