SINCE the bloody ructions that shattered Kenya in the wake of a disputed election at the end of 2007, the country
has recovered its breath, endorsed a new political system, and is now poised to forge ahead as the region’s undisputed economic motor and diplomatic nerve-centre. Though its own politics remains
fragile under a government of national unity, it has begun to find a balance, if not true stability, on the domestic political front, too. Kenya’s future could be bright if the next election,
expected in August 2012, can pass off peacefully, perhaps with a clear-cut transition to a President Raila Odinga, who was almost certainly cheated out of the top job by last-minute electoral
fiddles last time round.
Despite the bloodshed of early 2008, which frightened away tourists and investors alike, Kenya’s position vis-à-vis its
neighbours is stronger than ever. After dipping two years ago, its economy is growing apace. Mr Odinga, who as prime minister shares power with President Mwai Kibaki more amicably than at first, is
predicting growth of 7% next year and 10% the year after. On a string of criteria, Kenya has reasserted itself as the region’s leader.
But it remains a messy mixture of the ramshackle, the resilient and the energetic. Corruption is still built into a system
of patronage and ethnic share-outs that invariably leaves the mass of poor Kenyans feeling let down. Most unusually for Kenya, a senior politician, Moses Wetangula, the foreign minister, this week
resigned amid accusations of a foreign land-sale scam.
The infrastructure of the capital, Nairobi, is tottering, its traffic
more jammed than ever. Its slums, where at least 60% of its more than 3m people dwell, are a squalid disgrace; when it pours with rain, they become a stinking sewer. Kenya’s roads, including
arterial ones, are pitted with potholes. “Sometimes we feel the whole place is about to grind to a halt,” sighs a prominent businessman.
Though Kenya’s population growth is slowing a bit, after rising from 8m-plus at independence in 1963 to 39m, according to a
census carried out last year, public services can barely cope; 74% of Kenyans are under 34, 64% under 25. Hordes of youngsters cram the slums with little hope of a job. The going urban rate for a
day’s labour is 250 Kenyan shillings, around $3.
Unsurprisingly, crime is a national obsession. Richer people, black and white, have round-the-clock guards outside their
houses. Private-security firms are far more trusted than the police. People are edgy about driving at night between Nairobi and suburbs such as Karen and Langata, 20 minutes to the west.
Yet Kenya is the region’s dynamo. Its banks, hotels and services far outperform those of Dar es Salaam and Kampala, the
main city and capital respectively of Tanzania and Uganda. Big road-building projects are at last under way, many under China’s eye; flyovers should ease the jams in central Nairobi in a year or
Kenya’s mobile-phone penetration is the highest in the region, at 80% for people over 15. More competition should drive
prices for calls down dramatically. You can buy a phone for less than $10; a money-transfer facility known as M-Pesa run by Safaricom, the mobile-phone market leader, has hugely helped peasant
farmers and traders. By some accounts, the amount of cash sent by phones on Safaricom is equivalent to at least 10% of Kenya’s GDP.
Nairobi, the region’s air-traffic hub, has become the place in Africa—after Johannesburg and Pretoria—where people come to
make decisions affecting swathes of the continent. It just beats Nigeria’s Lagos and Abuja and is well ahead of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, seat of the African Union (AU). In July the East
African Community’s five governments (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) said they would enforce a protocol providing for the free movement of labour, goods, capital and services. This
will take time to get going, but Kenya should benefit most.
Many embassies in Nairobi have units dealing with Somalia and South Sudan, the region’s two
biggest headaches. As eastern Congo, Rwanda and Burundi look east for trade and comfort (and have begun to use English as well as Swahili as a lingua
franca), Nairobi is their focus. The UN’s complex on the northern edge of Nairobi is its largest in Africa, hosting an array of agencies, including the world headquarters of UN-Habitat, whose
mission is to improve urban planning and housing, and of the UN’s environment programme, better known as UNEP. Influential international lobbies and conflict-resolution outfits such as the
Brussels-based International Crisis Group are increasingly tending to put their African headquarters in Nairobi.
Somalia’s commercial capital as well as its diplomatic nexus is Nairobi. The UN and AU try to handle the country’s crisis
from Kenya, which is seen by the West, especially the United States, as a pro-Western bulwark in a region that risks being lapped by the waves of Islamic jihadism. Nairobi is a base for many
Western security services watching and seeking to penetrate Islamist groups that have been gaining ground along the western shore of the Indian Ocean. The Kenyans also maintain a longstanding
unofficial alliance with Israel. The Kenyan authorities are nervous about the growth of Islamist self-help groups on the coast and among Kenya’s Muslims, who account for at least 10% of the
population (some Muslims say 25%).
The biggest immediate challenge is South Sudan, whose people are likely to vote for independence early next year, amid
predictions of impending chaos. “It is our next frontier,” says a leading editor. Kenya’s government is helping South Sudan’s fledgling bureaucracy. It has also let tanks be quietly shipped into
South Sudan, in case the north decides to clobber the south, as it has done before. Kenyans are the most numerous foreigners in Juba, the would-be state’s capital, with property agents and a host
of consultants to the fore.
Kenya’s most ambitious plan for South Sudan is to run a railway, oil pipeline and fibre-optic link to Juba from a vast
planned port north of Lamu, to be built mainly with the cash and savvy of the ubiquitous Chinese. The railway may have a spur north to Ethiopia, bringing that country of more than 80m people closer
to Kenyan markets. South Sudan, along with Kenya’s new constitution, is the project closest to President Kibaki’s heart, says a confidant.
But this happy scenario of a burgeoning Kenya expanding its heft across the region depends on its ever-greedy elite sorting
out the mess at home. The most notable event in this respect was the endorsement in August, by a solid majority of Kenyans, of a new constitution to provide for a wider measure of devolution to 47
new counties, and for an executive president who will be hedged about with more restraints than in the past.
But it could still all go wrong
Many seasoned Kenya-watchers are sceptical. They say that the same old elite, with its networks of ethnic patronage, will
commandeer the new system and that corruption will merely be devolved to the new entities, perhaps even multiplying. But a mantra of “cautious optimism” has so far prevailed. “The constitution has
changed the mood of the nation [for the better],” says Murithi Mutiga, a columnist on Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily
Nation. “But the elite wants to subvert it.” The Wetangula case, hope optimists, may presage a bit more accountability, thanks to the new constitution.
Kenyan politics still features minimal debate about ideology or policy. Instead there are ever-shifting alliances, based
largely on ethnicity, between and within Kenya’s five biggest ethnic groups (see chart), with a few others chipping in. Opinion pollsters put Mr Odinga, the undisputed leader of the Luo with an
additional strong constituency among the have-nots and Muslims, well in the lead. But much could change in the next 18 months.
Three factors should help him. First, though President Kibaki, soon to turn 79 and due to retire in 2012, also campaigned
for the new constitution, its endorsement was seen as an achievement for Mr Odinga. Second, he has made progress towards stopping and even reversing land grabs in the Rift Valley, including the Mau
Forest area, which has been devastated largely by land-hungry Kalenjin people in cahoots with politicians connected to a previous presidency. Third, Mr Odinga has promised, albeit with wobbles, to
send leading politicians alleged to have stirred up post-election ethnic violence in 2008 to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Top of the list, everyone says, is Mr Odinga’s erstwhile
ally and leading Kalenjin, William Ruto, now his deadly enemy. Mr Odinga would lose what little of the Kalenjin vote he still has, but might gain elsewhere if Mr Ruto were dispatched. Kenyans in
general strongly back the idea of sending such suspects to the ICC.
Many people argue that the Kikuyu, who, with the related Meru and Embu, comprise 22% of Kenyans, would never let a Luo,
only 11%, be president. But the Kikuyu are now unusually divided. Their most prominent figure, Uhuru Kenyatta—the current finance minister, son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and still
Mr Odinga’s likeliest rival for president—is beset by rivals within his group. It is widely aired that he may also be requested at The Hague for crimes he denies committing.
Moreover, some moderate Kikuyu, including Mr Kibaki, are thought to have come round to the idea that it would be unwise for
their group, which is regarded jealously by many other Kenyans, to hold on to the presidency yet again. And they may well find Mr Odinga, who has put out the hand of friendship to many Kikuyu,
tolerable. If he could win over rising Kikuyu stars such as Peter Kenneth, an assistant minister, he might well be able to gather the necessary 50% of votes cast in the second round of a
presidential race—a requirement under the new constitution.
Kenya remains vibrant yet fragile. The gap between rich and poor, as well as between ethnic groups competing for abundant
resources but dwindling usable land, is frightening. Politics is combustible. But if the country’s new constitution can be more or less respected and the elections of 2012 pass off without
violence, its future as the region’s leader could be assured.