Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Novelty alone is not enough to realise the Kenyan dream

In many ways, Kenya is a bellwether for East Africa as well as for the Afrcian continent.

Between the usual rhetoric of the election campaign, foreign media hyperbole, the candidature and the victory of the presidential aspirant accused of crimes against humanity, there hasn't been much space for Kenya to seriously discuss decentralisation and local government.

Local government is not an exciting subject. Some would say it is the dullest of topics. But the election of officials at the county level might be the most important legacy of Kenya's March 4 vote: for the first time in the nation's modern history, power was shifted away from the capital and towards the country. These are the tentative first steps away from a historically unresponsive and highly centralised government of the Nairobi elite towards a meaningful devolution of power.

Or at least there is hope of such steps in that direction. East Africa's most important country still grapples with decades of government mismanagement and corruption, inequities in distribution and access to land, periodic inter-communal tension, and crime and violence in its major cities.

This is one version of Kenya. A rising economy, the hub of business, media and academia in East Africa, buoyed by innovative companies, universities and research institutes, big and small, is another. A country where school attendance tops 90 per cent but almost half the population still lives in poverty is yet another.

In all of these dimensions, and more, there is some truth. In these many Kenyas, there is more at stake than control of power. The latter was inevitably the focus of media coverage and political analysis at election time.

Among the many Kenyas, consider a few: the Kenya of the Somali region, so often reduced to a battlefront against extremism and poverty, is simultaneously a testament to the resilience of a place blighted by drought and the destiny of arbitrary borders.

There is the Kenya of outstandingly ecologically significant flora and fauna, not just a collection of savannas and landscapes attracting tourist dollars but a place where the battle for conservation in Africa will be won or lost. Where once poaching was suppressed, new global economics have seen it resurge: if this fight cannot be won here, other less prominent, less well-resourced African countries will surely fail.

There is the Kenya of agriculture, a leading, year-round supplier of vegetables, tea and flowers to more northerly climes, despite having only a fraction of its land suitably fertile for the purpose.

The Kenya of the coast, and site of recent communal troubles, is a trade lifeline to the region but also a place that harbours resentment and unhappiness over decades of neglect from the centre.

In the Kenya of ideas, despite impressive achievements and economic growth rates, there is still so much frustrated potential, where university graduates still accept positions as labourers because there are not enough skilled jobs in the new knowledge economy.

It is trite to suggest one country is the model for all others, even if that comparison is conditional, limited to neighbouring states with similar histories and circumstances. But in so many ways, Kenya is a bellwether for the region and for the continent.

Presidential elections understandably grab headlines, and the outcome of this vote remains subject to legal dispute.

If the result stands, Kenya will enter an initial period of international uncertainty as the new president's trial in The Hague looms.

But for the millions who voted, for president, senators and county governors, the daily trials will be of a different kind.

Novelty is good - a new president, a new constitution and a new system of government - especially when the old is discredited and distrusted. But novelty alone is not enough to deliver on the hopes and aspirations of 40 million Kenyans. And with the fortunes of Kenya goes the region.


Aly Verjee is senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute

On Twitter: @AlyVerjee, @RVINews

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

On our sixth birthday, today’s news told visually

Today in print, we are doing something different: we use only photos, graphics, illustrations and headlines to capture the news in a one-off collector’s edition.

 Rolling out the structure for the set. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Star Wars: Episode VII evidence in Abu Dhabi desert

After more than a week of speculation, The National has what are believed to be the first photos of a Star Wars shoot in the Abu Dhabi desert.

 INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - APRIL 16:  A general view of Urquhart Castle, Drumnadrochit on April 16, 2014 in Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18, 2014.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Map of seperatist movements around the world

The conflict in Ukraine is a classic example of competing aspirations and identities – here’s a look at seperatist movements around the world.

 Hassan Abdullah, who goes by the name Abu Mahmoud, an Emirati fisherman, poses for a portrait at the Al Rughayalat Port. Abu Mahmoud was born and raised in Fujairah city and has been working as a fisherman since 1968. “I’m a shark man”, he says, “I was born in the sea.” Silvia Razgova / The National

In pictures: Fishing communities in the Northern Emirates

Fishermen in Fujairah and Umm Al Qaiwain worry that new regulations to protect fish stocks are harming their trade. We look at both communities through the lens of our photographers.

 The cast of Fast & Furious 7, including Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel, centre, on set at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Fast & Furious 7 filming in full swing at Emirates Palace

Filming for Fast & Furious 7 has started and we have the first photos of the cast and crew on set at Emirates Palace hotel this morning. Visitors staying at Emirates Palace say they have been kept away from certain areas in the grounds.

 Omar Al Miskini was honoured as Outstanding Male Driver with Special Needs at last month’s Gulf Traffic Week.

In pictures: Special needs driver an exemplary example in the UAE

Photos of Omar Al Miskini, 40, who was named exemplary male driver with special needs by Abu Dhabi Police during the Gulf Traffic Week


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National