Nairobi Star Newspaper John Githongo: Kenya Badly Needs a Nationhood Reboot

Kenya's slide into temporary anarchy after failed elections at the end of 2007 shocked the world. The country had been seen as a force for stability in a turbulent region.

Its robust economy, sophisticated urban middle class, good infrastructure, and other advantages made it an economic, political, and social hub for East Africa.

Then came ethnic violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed and some 350,000 were displaced, stunning Kenyans and the rest of the continent.

This wasn't supposed to happen here. A 2002 election saw the kleptocratic administration that had ruled Kenya since independence peacefully removed from power and President Daniel Moi replaced by his onetime Vice President Mwai Kibaki.

In 2003 Gallup polls found Kenyans to be the world's most optimistic people. Economic growth averaged more than 5 per cent between 2003 and 2007. Industries rendered moribund by graft and incompetence were revived.

The introduction of free primary education brought 1.3 million children to school for the first time. Mobile telephones and FM radios became widely available, various other infrastructure improvements were made, and salaries for police and other civil servants were increased.

The government repeatedly committed itself to tackling graft, and by improving tax collection (to more than Sh300 billion a year), Kenya dramati-cally reduced its dependence on foreign donors.

The country enjoyed a boom in urban real estate and stocks; between 2003 and 2007, 500,000 Kenyans bought shares for the first time. Kenya, it seemed, was finally fixing the flaws in its hardware — its physical environment and the system for developing it.

The signs were everywhere, from the Japanese cars clogging the streets to the appearance of new schools, cafes, stores, and villas.

The subsequent near collapse into ethnic war should be thought of as a dramatic national software crash — a crisis of relationships. For all its progress, the new government continued to tolerate corruption, even at the highest levels, and to lend new currency to old ethnic grievances.

The new ruling elite, perceived as largely hailing from Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group, shunted aside the largely Kalenjin-led elite of Moi's day, leaving virtually everyone feeling excluded.

Kenyans realised we have a fairly strong state in terms of executive power, but a weak sense of nationhood and a high level of impunity when it comes to graft and human-rights abuses. The 2007 elections exposed underlying schisms. Indeed, in a cruel irony, the much-vaunted middle class — supposed to be the driver of modernity — became and remains the most vociferous of Kenya's new ethnic nationalists.

Software providers like the church, previously one of the more respected arbiters of national disputes and a champion of the poor, were also polarised, weakening their ability to intervene effectively.

Today Kenya is consumed by a sense of foreboding about the future, especially the 2012 election. To prevent another outbreak of violence, the country badly needs a software upgrade — an improvement in personal relations.

Corruption and ethnic hatred must be fought. Regional economic and political integration would also reboot the software of a number of African countries by subsuming local conflicts into a larger project.

These things are easier said than done. But unless the basic software issues of nationhood are addressed, no amount of infrastructure development or economic growth will save Kenya and its neighbours from future convulsions driven by resentments not captured by World Bank statistics.

Indeed, where the right software is lacking — and people distrust their neighbours and leaders — rapid growth can actually increase political instability. Other nominal democracies such as Uganda and Cameroon are at risk for similar reasons.

In Kenya, at least, our national crisis forced us to confront our problems. And we have started to address them while building bridges, roads, schools, and hospitals. More important than these physical structures is creating an idea of Kenya—a collective identity.

At the moment, that identity involves a great sense of shame, felt acutely when fellow Africans walk up to us and say, "Sorry about what happened to you chaps." But it can also prove our ultimate salvation.

Githongo is a trustee of the Zinduko Trust and head of Twaweza Kenya. This article was first published in Newsweek.

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One Response to Nairobi Star Newspaper John Githongo: Kenya Badly Needs a Nationhood Reboot

Anonymous said...

That is very true but achieving it is a big problem,because the culprits are the prosecutors and at the same time the judge