How Kenya lost its way

For decades Kenya was the African success story, yet the election has exposed bitter divisions. Now

"If Kibaki is named president, Kenya will never be the same again," said the businessman at the wheel of the SUV. Abandoning Kisumu, whose trashed commercial city centre was still smouldering, we had just cleared a roadblock manned by two drunken youngsters brandishing machetes, checking cars for suspected government supporters.

At the shack of an airport, scores of terrified families were jostling for places on the first planes out. Forty passengers had spent the night sleeping on the floor, desperate to leave the opposition stronghold. Many were Asian traders, traumatised by the looting of millions of dollars in stock. The other main targets of the rampaging pro-Odinga Luo mobs - members of Kisumu's Kikuyu and Kisii tribes - had fled to local police stations for shelter.

Kenya isn't supposed to be like this. Congo and Côte d'Ivoire certainly, or Rwanda at one time. But not Kenya. For decades, this country's reputation as one of the most stable democracies on the continent, the user-friendly face of Africa, has made it a draw for nearly a million tourists a year. That image had clearly been shattered in a split second for two American tourists pleading for seats at the airline counter. "Look, we've just seen a woman burnt alive in front of us. We HAVE to get out of here," the man was saying.

The tourists are not the only ones reeling. Kenyan human rights organisations denounce "a coup d'état" and Kenyan pundits hang their heads in shame. "We truly have become a banana republic", one newspaper columnist told me, while the country's foreign backers struggle to digest the enormity of the situation.

Kenya matters to the west. The only African nation deemed sufficiently tranquil to host several UN agencies, it serves as headquarters for hundreds of non-governmental organisations, multinational companies, banks and media organisations. Its fast-growing economy, dwarfing those of its nearest rivals, Uganda and Tanzania, was thought to be a motor that could pull the region into prosperity.

British troops train here, US warships moor off its coastline, and its proximity to the volatile Horn, combined with the government's enthusiastic support for George W Bush's "war on terror", made Kenya a likely venue for Africom, the new US military command planned for this year.

Repeatedly targeted by al-Qaeda, used as a conduit for hard drugs pouring on to European streets, Kenya is regarded by western diplomats as a country upon whose domestic strength or weakness hinges not only the stability of the region, but the security of their own nationals. "If Kenya's house is in order, we are all the safer for it," said one diplomat.

Now it is clear that its house is in total disorder. The electoral contest between President Mwai Kibaki and the feisty opposition leader Raila Odinga, the closest in Kenyan history, has exposed an ethnic fissure whose depth was no secret to ordinary Kenyans, who are more tribally polarised than at any time since independence in 1963. For months, Kenyan websites have been citing the ominous formula of "47 versus 1": the pitting of Kenya's 47 smaller tribes against the Kikuyus, the largest and most economically successful group, from which Kibaki and his closest ministers hail.

Elected in 2002 as the head of a multi-ethnic coalition, Kibaki has been widely criticised for having ruled African old-style: doling out top positions to his kinsmen, showering Kikuyu areas with resources, and sabotaging a constitutional review process that originally aimed to dilute State House's near-monarchical powers.

Within minutes of Kibaki's re-election being announced on 30 December, after a vote-counting exercise whose rigging had become embarrassingly obvious, the riots began. There was nothing haphazard about the violence: in the slums of Nairobi, the hills of the Rift Valley, on the streets of Kisumu and in the coastal resort of Mombasa, Kikuyu premises were set on fire and Kikuyu residents beaten and lynched.

Just as it was possible in the former Yugoslavia to tell residents' ethnicity by which houses had been attacked, the pattern of damage in looted areas faithfully reflected the ethnic passions at play. In areas loyal to Odinga's ODM movement, Luo premises went untouched, while passing traffic was flagged down by firebrands looking for the hated Kikuyus. That so many of Kenya's shanty towns are ethnically mixed hugely increases the prospect of lavish bloodshed, with militias of Luos and Kikuyus, armed with machetes, steel bars and knives, launching raids into one another's areas of control and guarding access routes.

The form ordinary Kenyans' frustrations are taking is certain to fuel an agonised debate about the nature and severity of Africa's "tribal problem". But there is a strong argument to be made that Kenya's chaos actually exposes a very different divide: that between a smug political elite and the desperately poor.

Despite revelations of grand corruption reaching to the highest levels of his government, voiced in part by his own former anti-corruption chief John Githongo, Kibaki has continued to enjoy the support of western aid ministries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. After the years of economic stagnation under his immediate predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, the 6 and 7 per cent growth rates notched up since 2002 convinced many aid officials that Kibaki was a leader worth backing, to the tune of $800m annually.

Ironically, a government whose ministers and civil servants had been implicated by Githongo in conspiring to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in a scam involving a company called Anglo Leasing had of late been showered with in ternational awards for good governance and the efficient restructuring of its administration.

In private, western aid officials acknowledged that question marks about government probity existed, but insisted that the country's "overall trajectory" was positive. They were particularly impressed by Kibaki's introduction of free primary education - funded by our own Department for International Development (DfID), which gave £50m in aid in 2007. They saw the move as a precious investment in the future.

Yet there was worryingly little evidence that the country's growth rates were trickling down to Kenya's poorest. Instead, every survey showed divisions between the rural poor and urban elite widening. In Nairobi, in the throes of an astonishing building boom, the wabenzi - the wealthy classes - shop at 24-hour malls and relax on the green lawns of their gated communities. But two out of every three Nairobi residents live in slums whose squalor is unrivalled on the continent, and Kibaki has failed to produce the half a million new jobs a year he promised.

The paradox is that many poor Kikuyus in the capital actually voted for Odinga and the ODM, and against their own supposed champion. They had come to the conclusion that Kibaki and his chums, loyal patrons of Nairobi's plush golf clubs, were fundamentally anti-poor.

They were particularly incensed by the government's ruthless street clean-up, in which tens of thousands of the corrugated iron kiosks on which ordinary workers depended for food and supplies were flattened to make way for flower beds. Jua kali - Kenya's informal commercial sector - is the mainstay of the poor. "What use is free education if you have no business, if you cannot make a living?" asked Joseph Kariuki, one of Nairobi's many Kikuyu small entrepreneurs.

In their quest for bourgeois respectability, the Kenyan authorities had gone so far as to ban smoking outdoors in the centre of Nairobi - something that even the most health-obsessed city council in Europe would hesitate to attempt. At makeshift roadblocks on the routes into the shanty towns this past week, machete-wielding Kikuyu youngsters stood, defiantly puffing away, sending a two-fingered salute to the men in charge.

However, amid the alarm at the poisonously ethnic nature of the violence breaking out across Kenya, more encouraging trends risk being missed. If the presidential vote was too heavily compromised to be trusted, the more straightforward parliamentary vote revealed a great deal about how Kenyans view their government. Twenty of Kibaki's ministers and key lieutenants were rejected. So was Nicholas Biwott, a stalwart supporter of Moi, as were the former president's sons: Africa's tradition of fawning respect for its elder statesmen sustained a great dent. A generation of "dinosaur" leaders, many in their seventies, was in effect given a clear thumbs-down by the electorate.

The average age in Kenya is just 18. Since the 2002 polls, three million new voters have been added to the country's electoral roll. The rebuff that these jobless, prospectless youngsters delivered to a political elite seen as out of touch and morally bankrupt deserves respect.

It also deserves to be heeded by an inter national community which, under pressure in the wake of the Gleneagles summit to increase lending to Africa, was determined to believe - not only of Kenya but of countries across the continent - that corrupt, ethnically biased governments can nonetheless make constructive development partners.

When Githongo sought exile in Oxford and went on to expose the Anglo Leasing scam, western governments, with the World Bank in the lead, did little more than express genteel dismay. The outspoken British high commissioner Edward Clay, who offended Kenyan ministers by accusing them of gorging until they "vomited on the shoes" of foreign donors, was replaced on retirement with a far more emollient diplomat; and the World Bank representative Colin Bruce, who rents his lodgings from the presidential couple, has continued releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

As this story goes to press, Kenya is plunged into the most widespread political violence since independence. Already the official death toll across the country stands at 148, although human rights organisations believe that the true figure is far higher; 75,000 people have been internally displaced.

If President Kibaki can survive the tumult on the streets, which seems likely to worsen rather than diminish, he will still struggle to establish legitimacy over a parliament in which the ODM holds the majority of seats.

"Kenya is on the verge of a meltdown," warns Githongo from exile. "It's not clear its architects realise its repercussions."

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot