[kictanet] An African exception and role model by Jeevan Vasagar, Monday December 31, 2007, , Guardian
alice at apc.org
Mon Dec 31 11:36:15 EAT 2007
Why it matters
*An African exception and role model**Jeevan Vasagar*
*Monday December 31, 2007*
A few years ago, Kenya's government sponsored a competition to invent a
new national dress. Ministers hoped citizens would trade their
buttoned-up western suits for the slashed collar and cape of the "Kenyan
cloak" and forge a unified national identity in the process. Kenyans,
who knew better, rejected the fancy dress en masse, preferring to get on
with the more urgent business of putting food on their family's tables.
The episode was a reminder of why Kenya is an African exception. In a
region awash with trouble, it is an island of stability - its people
renowned for pragmatism, cohesiveness and their ability to ignore their
By contrast, neighbouring Sudan recently ended a civil war in the south
only to confront a new crisis in Darfur, Uganda has suffered years of
conflict at the hands of the Lord's Resistance Army and Somalia remains
a basket case. Since independence in 1963, Kenya has not been troubled
by bloodshed on a comparable scale. Instead, it has acted as an honest
broker in peace talks - Sudan's southern peace deal was signed in the
lakeside town of Naivasha. It is a base station for aid agencies and a
haven for refugees. Kakuma in northern Kenya is one of Africa's biggest
refugee camps, home to some 90,000 people.
Unlike Zimbabwe, its postcolonial rulers did not turn on the whites.
Unlike Uganda, they did not kick out the Asians. Kenya's ethnic
diversity has been an unexpected strength. Although the Kikuyu,
President Mwai Kibaki's tribe, accounts for a fifth of the population
and has traditionally had the loudest voice, no single ethnic group has
been strong enough to tyrannise the others. There is plenty of tribal
friction, as well as tensions between Christians and the Muslim
minority, but this has never brewed the havoc seen elsewhere.
In recent years, Kenya has been a political role model. One of former
president Daniel arap Moi's few decent deeds was to leave office
gracefully after losing the 2002 election. Government sleaze continues,
but corruption no longer paralyses the economy as it did under Moi.
Public life has opened up. The basement of Nyayo House, in the centre of
the capital, Nairobi, no longer houses torture chambers.
Unlike many Africans, Kenyans can laugh at their leaders. When the first
lady, Lucy Kibaki, stormed into a newspaper office to complain at its
coverage, she became a laughing stock as comedians donned drag and a
towering frizzy wig to parody her.
Kenya's economy is one of Africa's best. Its highlands are blessed with
the ideal blend of sunshine and cool altitude for growing tea, coffee
and flowers - it's the world's biggest exporter of tea and supplies
Britain with many of its Valentine's Day roses. It has a hardworking,
educated workforce, many of whom speak good English, thanks in part to
its colonial heritage. Mombasa is one of Africa's finest harbours, and
Nairobi is an air transport hub for the continent. Transport is crucial
here; the country was forged around the British-built railway line
snaking from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and Nairobi began as a railway
The economy is emerging from the paralysis induced by corruption and the
lethargic quangos that stifled business under Moi. Privatisation has
gathered pace under Kibaki and the country has been touted as an African
tiger. But economic growth remains painfully slow and the number living
below the poverty line keeps rising. Progress is critical. Nairobi is
still one of the world's most unequal cities, home to lavish gated
compounds with servants and swimming pools as well as Kibera, Africa's
The country has one of the highest profiles of any in Africa. Its
flourishing wildlife make it a massive tourist destination, and a
substantial chunk of Africa's foreign press corps make their base there.
That focus may explain why it has twice been attacked by al-Qaida - in
1998, when the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed, and in 2002, when
Israeli tourists were targeted in Mombasa. The country is a key western
ally in the fight against al-Qaida in Africa.
If Kenya descends into anarchy, one of the continent's brightest lights
will have flickered out, but the most immediate wider effect will be
felt by other countries in the region, who stand to lose their most
*Tough road from independence*
*1961* Jomo Kenyatta is freed from prison. The independence activist was
jailed by the British.
*1963* Kenya gains independence from the British. Kenyatta becomes
Kenya's prime minister and later president.
*1978* Kenyatta dies in office and is succeeded by Daniel arap Moi.
*1982* Kenya becomes one-party state.
*1987* Opposition groups suppressed. International outcry over political
arrests and abuse of human rights.
*1991* Agreement to reintroduce a multi-party political system.
*1992* Moi re-elected.
*1997* Demonstrations calling for greater democratic reform. World Bank
holds back on $5bn of credit. Moi wins another election. Opposition
cries foul play.
*1998* Attack on US embassy in Nairobi, right, kills 224, injures 4,500.
*2002* 10 Kenyans and three Israelis die when a hotel in Mombasa is
destroyed by a car bomb.
*2002* Mwai Kibaki wins a landslide victory to end Moi's 24-year rule.
*2003* International Monetary Fund begins lending to Kenya after
anti-corruption measures are put in place.
*2004* A draft of the new constitution is finalised, outlining
limitations to parliament and reining in presidential powers. Massive
crop failures and drought cause havoc.
*2006* Government ministers are alleged to have received kickbacks from
a mysterious company. Finance minister resigns.
*· *Jeevan Vasagar was the Guardian's east Africa correspondent from
2003 to 2006.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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