Pamoja tutashinda - Kenya after Moi

Aidan Hartley reflects on the prospects of Kenya cleansing itself of corruption under its new government.

Summary - Kenyans were euphoric after the elections last year. Everyone knew that Moi would be voted out, but the peacefulness of the transition was surprising, given widespread fears of civil strife. A year later, the honeymoon for Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition, or Narc, has ended. Though Moi has fallen, the legacy of Moi and Kenyatta is everywhere: Kenya cannot recover from 40 years of misrule overnight. The kleptocracy created by Moi destroyed investment and wealth and led to Kenya’s international isolation and the collapse of the rule of law. Kibaki’s rallying cry was “Pamoja tutashinda” – together we shall succeed – but this has not been easy. Narc is a loose coalition of parties representing numerous ethnic blocs, and these have bickered constantly. However, the consensus is that the cacophony of debate is healthy. At last Kenyans can express themselves freely, and the media has never been so liberated. Kibaki is an old-school “gentleman politician” who has discouraged personality cults and left his ministers to run their own portfolios. His boldest populist move was to declare universal free primary education, a move that won approval even though it caused chaos in the classrooms. IMF and World Bank approval were wooed back with the passing of the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act and the appointment of an anti-corruption czar. However, all is not well. MPs quickly awarded themselves a massive pay hike and generous car grants, and cabinet ministers were soon linked to procurement scandals. Moreover, a disproportionate number of public appointments have gone to members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. Everyone agrees that the priority is to get Kenya back to business. In November new loans were negotiated with the IMF and World Bank. While more debt is hardly cause for celebration, the country’s dilapidated infrastructure needs attention before there can be any hope of economic recovery. The bottom line is the need to kick-start private investment, which has been scarce since the 1980s. Kenyans were shocked to learn in 2003 that their once-destitute neighbours in Tanzania were now better off than they were. Investors are waiting to see if Narc can really conquer corruption. Agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy and Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of flowers. However, tourism, once the nation’s largest foreign exchange earner, has been hurt badly by terrorism. Violent crime is still rampant in the cities and the police remain incompetent and corrupt. Narc’s popularity has declined but it still has the support of 57% of the population.

Soon after elections a year ago Nairobi's media found a poll to quote that claimed Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world. On the ground the euphoria was indeed palpable and infectious, giving a sense of release perhaps comparable only with the 1994 polls in South Africa. That millions of voters had gone to the polls and removed president Daniel arap Moi and his Kanu party so overwhelmingly, with 70 per cent voting for Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), was predictable.

Yet that it actually happened, and so peacefully too, was the real surprise, given the fears of civil strife. It was later revealed that Kanu thugs had been equipping private armies such as Mungiki, a neo-Mau Mau sect that publicly circumcised women and committed murders. It seems to have been the sheer magnitude of defeat that ensured a swift and smooth transition. When it sunk in Moi reportedly quipped to his aides, "Well, they can boil in their own fat". He might as well have said, "Apres moi, le deluge".

Unfortunately Kenyans had precious little fat left to boil in. And this surely is the point as the honeymoon period for Kibaki ends a year on. Moi and his cronies may have fallen from power. Yet the legacy of Moi and indeed his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta are everywhere, reflecting 40 years of misrule from which Kenya cannot recover within a single parliamentary term.

"Corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya," Kibaki declared at his inauguration speech. Corruption was the central voting issue, because ultimately it was this culture of theft that had destroyed investment, led to Kenya's poverty, crime, international isolation and general collapse in the rule of law. Under Moi Kenya became a kleptocracy: in the so-called Goldenberg scandal alone, for example, $400 million of foreign exchange was looted from the Central Bank in a single week.

Kibaki's rallying call was, "Together we shall succeed," - pamoja tutashinda. But this has not been easy. Narc is a loose coalition of parties, representing ethnic blocs and big individual egos, which have bickered ever since. Most contentious has been the argument over a promise Kibaki evidently made to reward Luo leader Raila Odinga, the kingmaker in this alliance, with a new executive appointment of prime minister. Recent polls indicate that a large majority of Kenyans support the creation of a prime minister, 58 per cent of whom want the post to have executive powers alongside the president. The row within Narc has fed through into the process to debate and draft a new constitution that would create the post of premier. Narc promised a new constitution within 100 days of taking power. This target has been persistently set back, with the nation left aghast at the comic scenes of 600 delegates - few of them lawyers mind you - squabbling over their per diems and often totally unrealistic or superfluous clauses.

The near consensus is that this cacophony of debate across Kenya's leadership and society is ultimately healthy. A host of issues were raised in the decade between the legalisation of opposition parties and Moi's defeat, but at last Kenyans are able to give free rein to their expression - and the media has never been more liberated. "The [opposition] campaign was so widespread," observed East African journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, "that when the Moi regime caved in and the democratic space began opening up, no one realised just how wide it was…"

Septuagenarian Kibaki is from the old school, a "gentleman politician" who likes his golf and whisky at the Muthaiga Club if he's not too busy. He has studiously avoided creating the personality cults that obsessed Kenya's first two leaders, and so far only a commemorative 40-shilling coin bears his image. He evidently believes in the democratic cacophony. Moi was a man of prodigious energy who frequently intervened in public spats and his ministers' affairs, while Kibaki avoids his predecessor's "roadside policy declarations" and keeps policy-making to cabinet meetings.

Left to run their own portfolios, ministers - who are not as qualified as many would like, but are certainly of a higher professional calibre than ever before in Kenya - have implemented some bold measures. In October transport minister John Michuki ordered "matatu" taxis to fit seat belts and speed governors. When Moi tried this a few years ago he quickly changed his mind after the taxis left the nation's commuters stranded. This time, Narc stood firm and beat the strike, to national applause.

The president's leadership style in 2003 may not all have been intentional. He has suffered ill health, deriving initially from a car crash he survived while campaigning and later in early 2003 due to a "blood clot in the leg" that set rumours circulating of a stroke. Kibaki appears to have recovered well, while a smooth transition was made when his first vice-president Michael Wamalwa died of ill health while in office and was replaced by the ebullient but elderly "Moody" Awori. But Kenyans are clearly concerned about succession and do not wish to have a president put out of action or die in office. A nationwide December poll of 1,774 people conducted for the East African Standard proved voters still gave resounding support for Kibaki and Narc (more on that later) but 62 per cent of those polled thought Kibaki should not run for office again. The largest percentage of support was for foreign affairs minister Kalonzo Musyoka, who is among the younger cabinet members. Being both intelligent and experienced from his Kanu days, he made a stir in 2003 with his strident criticisms of Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe.

In terms of governing, Narc got off to a cracking start reminiscent of New Labour after Britain's 1997 elections. Kibaki's boldest populist move was to declare universal, free primary education. People felt Narc had its heart in the right place, though it led to overcrowding and chaos in classrooms. Narc knew it could not pay for this project without foreign donor support. After years out in the cold Kenya couldn't make progress with the IMF and World Bank, however, until two long-awaited bills were passed: one the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act, the other covering public officer ethics. Kibaki created a justice and constitutional affairs ministry and appointed John Githongo, a former executive in Transparency International, as anti-corruption czar. The swingeing removal of dodgy public officials culminated in October's sacking of 23 judges of the High Court and Court of Appeal. Fortnightly cabinet sessions on corruption are held and an inquiry was launched into the Goldenberg scandal. The East African Standard poll found 83 per cent want those guilty of corruption to face justice (together with 78 per cent who want those who perpetrated human rights crimes to be prosecuted). So, no truth and reconciliation process here.

But Narc's anti-sleaze rhetoric hasn't always rung true. Among the first acts of legislation MPs passed was to award themselves a massive pay hike, together with car "grants" of $40 000 each. It wasn't too long before cabinet ministers were linked to a fresh generation of corruption, such as procurement and tendering scandals. A Narc call for public officers to declare their wealth became a laughing stock when it became clear that the information is not for public scrutiny.

And the number of appointments to public offices of members of Kibaki's Kikuyu community, together with tribes within the same linguistic group, have led to a general feeling that there is a "Mount Kenya Mafia" helping itself to the spoils of victory. Kenya's politics remain profoundly ethnic and based on pork barrel patronage networks. Little wonder: a large number of Narc politicians originally cut their teeth in Kanu. And though the "Mount Kenya" tribes represent the largest percentage of voters - and educated, middle class citizens - they cannot rule with any genuine political stability unless they accommodate less populous groups such as the Luo.

Kibaki has also had his embarrassments, though after the thuggish Moi years these were often somewhat comical. Talk of honouring Mau Mau guerrillas was dealt a blow in June when the government welcomed as a state guest "General Joseph Mathenge", who had allegedly fled from colonial forces to Ethiopia in the 1950s. After living on room service for several days the old cove turned out to be an Oromo peasant named Lemma Ayanu. Later in the year three ministers were captured on police video bargaining with street prostitutes. Eyebrows were raised when a female cabinet minister was carjacked at midnight and turned out to be with a Roman Catholic priest. And at a party over the recent festive season the First Lady publicly lambasted Kibaki after the vice-president hailed Kibaki's polygamous wife number two as the 'Second Lady'.

Everybody agrees the priority is to get Kenya back to business. In November the Narc government finally negotiated fresh loans with the IMF and World Bank, nominally worth around $475 million, though they will be drip fed and strictly tied to reform progress. Taking on yet more debt is hardly a cause for celebration, but the infrastructure is in such a critical state of collapse it needs attention before there can be any economic recovery. Kenya is now seeking to reschedule its debt while hoping the IMF/World Bank deals will pave the way for increased bilateral aid. In October Mwai Kibaki became the first African president to pay a state visit to Washington since George Bush came to power. The visit reflected US recognition of Kenya's new democratic image, as well as US gratitude that Nairobi has worked seriously alongside the United States in the fight against terrorism (while remaining non-aligned during the Iraq War).

The bottom line is to kick-start private investment. Moi's terminal years failed to dampen people's hard-working, middle class aspirations. Yet there has been scant investment in the economy since the 1980s. United Nations figures indicate that Kenya garnered $50 million of foreign direct investment in 2002, between five and six times lower than neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda. In 2003 Kenyans shook their heads in disbelief to hear that Tanzanians, once East Africa's destitute citizens, are now better off than they are on a per capita basis. Overall investors still seem to be sitting on the fence, waiting to see if Narc can really tackle corruption - and avoid disintegration as a coalition at least until the next elections in 2007.

During 2003 little improved in economic terms. Narc claims to have created 400 000 jobs. It's a figure apparently pulled out of nowhere, and only 14 per cent of Kenyans believe it.

Most Kenyans still live in the countryside and agriculture, the mainstay of the economy in GDP terms, was blessed with good rains in 2003. The mismanaged coffee and tea sectors remain in long term decline, while only horticulture ticks over well. Kenya is the world's biggest exporter of flowers. Tourism, the nation's largest foreign exchange earner, was dealt a body blow by repeated terrorism scares. Kenya has repeatedly been made an al-Qaeda target: the US Embassy bomb in 1998, followed by the suicide bomb blast at a Mombasa hotel in November 2002, together with a failed missile attack against an Israeli charter the same day. Several plots to attack Western targets were revealed in recent months, leading to a crackdown that led to arrests of Muslims and the discovery of weapons caches. Kenya just can't shake the image of being dangerous. Robberies, murders and carjackings are still rampant in urban areas. Kenya's police forces remain both execrably incompetent and corrupt. But crime is also fuelled, like terrorism, by anarchy and civil conflict in the Horn region, particularly in neighbouring Somalia.

Narc is less popular today than it was a year ago, but the majority is still there. After the first 100 days in power polls gave Narc 92 per cent of voters' support. The December East African Standard poll found 57,5 per cent of Kenyans were still happy with Narc's performance. The government scored best for providing free education, but worst on fighting crime. Those polled listed the most important issues facing them as poverty, unemployment, HIV/Aids, corruption, personal security and then the constitutional review process. The least popular institutions in Kenya are the police, members of the constitutional review process and parliament. Slim majorities believed that the Narc coalition would survive until the elections in 2007. They believe Narc would win again - but with a presidential candidate other than Kibaki.