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Tapping Africa’s barometer

Observations on Kenya

In Kenya, one of a handful of African nations in whose runes the continent's future is read, the state is growing steadily less visible and less relevant.

The fading away began last year soon after the optimistically titled Grand Coalition Government was formed. It is so riven by partisan and tribal divisions that it fails to do much for Kenya's 40 million or so people. Its leaders have made small steps towards reforming the electoral commission that presided over a disastrous poll in late 2007, but they have so far failed to deliver reforms of the trigger-happy security forces, corrupt and inept judiciary, the broken constitution, or land ownership - the issue that underpins everything here.

Most heinous is the deliberate stalling in bringing anyone to justice for the deaths of 1,500 people during weeks of ethnic violence sparked by the disputed election. The reason for the prevarication is simple: some of the main instigators and financiers behind the violence are politicians in government and even cabinet.

Kenya's administration was forced together last year under huge international pressure led by the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. These efforts stopped the killing but, as the renowned anti-corruption activist John Githongo puts it, "At Kenya's darkest hour we apparently had no Kenyan individual or institution that could be trusted to intervene in the situation." Githongo believes the catalytic role played by Annan and foreign diplomatic missions meant "we lost a good chunk of our sovereignty". Faith in the Kenyan state was lost, too, and like a religion without believers, it has begun to ebb away.

With both sides of the political divide in a unity government, there is no opposition to criticise or hold the executive to account. Foreign diplomats, international human rights activists and Kenyan journalists play this role instead.

Outsiders are also applying the pressure for justice. A confidential list of ten of those most responsible for the post-election violence - dubbed the "Waki envelope", after the judge who led a commission of inquiry last year - was recently handed by Annan to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Luis Moreno Ocampo gave Nairobi until the end of September to get the sticky wheels of justice in motion. The politicians' response was to drop plans for a special tribunal and announce that perpetrators will be prosecuted by the existing judiciary, a dysfunctional organ that has a backlog of 800,000 cases and in which Kenyans have little faith.

While the politicians fiddle, the serial failure of rains and crops is turning the countryside into a dust bowl. Figures suggest that between a tenth and a quarter of people are going hungry, but it is the World Food Programme and international aid agencies - not the government - that provides relief. When politicians did intervene this year, it was to conspire with businessmen to boost the price of maize and sell stocks for profit.

Faced with water shortages and power rationing, Kenyans are either doing without these basic services or, if they can afford to, buying them at great expense. Diesel generators and rickety tankers marked "clean water" are increasingly common in Nairobi.

Police can still be seen manning roadblocks in order to supplement their meagre salaries by extorting drivers, but in the capital's slums and in rural areas gangsters and vigilantes hold sway, running protection rackets and meting out summary justice.

Kenya is not Somalia or Congo, but things are falling apart in one of Africa's barometer states: this year Kenya slid further down the list of the world's failed states compiled by the Washington-based Fund for Peace. At number 14, it was the country's worst ranking yet.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives