x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

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