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8 January 2008

Nothing new under the Kenyan sun

Kenya's battles with tribalism and corruption are not a recent phenomenon, says ex-UK High Commissio

By Roger Tomkys

Fifteen years ago, when I left Nairobi in the run-up to Kenya’s first multi-party elections, held against all President Moi’s instincts under donor pressure, I sent advice to London that was leaked – not by me – and published.

I wrote that British interests in Kenya had been put at risk under Moi by the increasing corruption, economic inefficiencies and degeneration of the political system. They need not be threatened by change of government, but the democratic process had to be well managed if civil conflict was to be avoided.

Now, for British interests read the future of the people of Kenya. Multi-party, winner takes all democracy in a tribally diverse African society must risk polarising the electorate on tribal lines, as the winners expect to get the economic spoils for their own supporters and constituencies. Kenya survived that risk after 1992 though the benefits in terms of more accountable, less corrupt government have been limited under Kibaki as under Moi. Perhaps I overrated the dangers, but those western governments who then backed one party or another in the hope of some ideal outcome that would transform the system, were playing with fire.

The international context of the 1992 election was that throughout the 1980s, Moi had been a favoured leader for Washington and London; Kenya was stable and our priorities were the Cold War and Commonwealth splits over Apartheid, on both of which Moi had been a steadfast friend. In return, British aid was too uncritically given in his support.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Apartheid regime fell, he was no longer needed and became simply a discredited African old-style “big man”. At the same time, the donor community, led by the IMF, discovered that fast track economic liberalisation , the “Washington Consensus”, was a panacea for all Africa’s poverty.

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Moi, unlike the more flexible and engaging Museveni in Uganda, was pressed to swallow both political and economic bitter medicine without delay. Medicine was indeed needed but progressive dosage would have been safer and perhaps more effective.

Michela Wrong reported that Kenya, long seen as an oasis of stability in East Africa, “is on the edge of meltdown”. The danger Kenya faces now is not new; its realisation would be a disaster for the whole troubled region.

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Wrong’s meltdown was possible then as now; all must hope that now as then Kenya will stop short of the brink.

This does not mean that Britain or the donor community bear prime responsibility for Kenya’s problems today. Whatever may have been the colonial history of, say, Rwanda, Britain did not create tribal divisions in Kenya.

While we tolerated for too long, for international reasons, the abuse of power under Moi, Britain’s role in Kenya since independence has been broadly beneficial, especially in the handling of land transfers in the early years.

But the British Government cannot now take the lead over Kenya’s future. That time has long gone and it would be disastrous for us to take sides in the internal political struggle. African and Commonwealth figures including Archbishop Tutu have more credibility and merit our support.

If meltdown is avoided and stability restored, British, European and western policies should be to give generous economic aid under close monitoring of its effective use across the country as a whole, not just in the interests and heartland of the political victors.

The British Government should set this course for its partners. We should not be over prescriptive about the shape of any political compromise that may result. Somehow, government has to be both accountable to all the people of Kenya, not just to its own supporters.

We cannot solve this conundrum with prescriptions from a Westminster manual, only hope that in the last resort, the imminent threat of civil war will return Kenya to the precarious but pragmatic stability of the 45 years since independence.