Kenya: A Tarnished Jewel

Kenya: A Tarnished Jewel

Mini Teaser: From the beginning, Kenya was the jewel in Britain's African crown, an idyllic, wife-swapping, polo-playing, lion-shooting place in the sun for the restless, titled, but often impecunious younger sons of empire.

by Author(s): Smith Hempstone

From the beginning, Kenya was the jewel in Britain's African crown, an idyllic, wife-swapping, polo-playing, lion-shooting place in the sun for the restless, titled, but often impecunious younger sons of empire. The viscounts and the baronets were followed by men whose blood was not so blue but whose hearts were stout, chance-takers to whom neckties and offices were anathema, who wanted nothing so much as to turn a corner of "bloody Africa" into a little slice of Devon or Sussex. Some brought their women with them, intending to stay. And of course there were among them miscreants whose previous lives could not bear close scrutiny, adventurers looking for a fresh start in a country where there were no police records. Nineteenth-century Africa held small appeal for plump and comfortable men.

In the 1890s, British strategic thinkers wanted Kenya not for itself, but to guard the backdoor to Uganda and the source of the Nile, the key, so it was thought, to the control of Egypt, which secured the Suez Canal (completed in 1869) and the route to the treasures of India. To provide the capability of moving troops quickly from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, a railway--dubbed the "Lunatic Line" because of the difficulties in building it (lions insisted on eating the Indian construction workers)--was completed in 1901. Both to guard the tracks and to provide the freight and passengers to pay for the railroad, London wanted white settlers along the right-of-way. So land was free, or nearly so.

But land was worthless if you couldn't survive on it. Everyone knew that West Africa was the white man's grave ("Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin, for few come out although many go in", went the ditty). The third Baron Delamere, father of white settlement in Kenya, might claim that, while he farmed on the Equator, he did not live in an equatorial country. But what did that mean? It meant that a mile-high altitude in the highlands moderated the heat of the tropical sun, producing green forests of conifers and cold trout streams in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Kenya. Kenya, Delamere said, would prove to be "a white man's country." And indeed it did draw nearly one hundred thousand white settlers in its pre-independence salad days. Today, only about four thousand remain.

In addition to dirt-cheap land and an equitable climate, Kenya boasted then (and now) the largest congeries of wildlife in the world. There was money to be made from ivory, rhino horn, hides, and skins. You could (they said) shoot a lion before your breakfast of antelope chops. Some sportsmen called it Eden, and it was very nearly that.

Americans too came to know and love Kenya, this ravishingly beautiful land of white mischief and black magic. Teddy Roosevelt went there on safari in 1909, Hemingway wrote about it in the 1930s, Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner made movies there in the 1950s and 1960s. Americans who didn't know Bamako from Bangui could tell you that Nairobi was the capital of Kenya. A few even settled there.

I first came to Kenya in 1957, lived there during 1960-4 as a foreign correspondent, and visited there many times subsequently. In the early years I found it a quiet, pleasant place. If Africans had few political rights, at least they had enough to eat, education was good by continental standards, medical services were adequate, and the three races--whites, Africans, and people of the Indian subcontinent--lived together in relative amity. The country, with an economy based on coffee, tea, and tourism, was doing rather well.

Today, all that has changed. Foreign investment is flat, foreign aid--the United States put almost one billion dollars, more than half of it in outright grants, into Kenya between 1953 and the present--is falling, tourism is off, and the country is riven with tribal animosity that has cost the lives of more than one thousand Kenyans since 1991. Eden has become a hungry land where ragged urchins beg for pennies, the police beat grandmothers with truncheons, magazines are padlocked, dissent is equated with treason, and where bishops, ambassadors, publishers, foreign correspondents, and lawyers are vilified by the government of President Daniel arap Moi. What went wrong? What, if anything, can be done about it?

A Thin Veneer

Kenya, like most African countries, came half-baked from history's oven. It had slept through the Renaissance and the Reformation, missed the American, French, and industrial revolutions, was still fixated on bride-price and circumcision rites (male and female) when the nuclear age dawned. Somehow, it had occurred to nobody to invent the wheel.

Its institutions were few and weak, its people had virtually no experience with democracy--tribal or colonial--and its leaders tended to be demagogues rather than men who understood governance. Largely absent was any sense of nationhood or commonweal. Kenya inherited from Britain the facade of parliamentary democracy--wigs, woolsacks, and maces--but not the substance. Well-documented atrocities in the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire) in 1961 showed just how thin and fragile the Western veneer was throughout the continent.

Small wonder: democracy, while it clearly has global applicability from Costa Rica to Japan, evolved over generations in Northern Europe to meet the needs of that society at a specific point in time. It rested on certain facts and assumptions largely absent in Africa, a large proportion of whose peoples still lived in Bronze Age tribal cultures. Conformity and obedience, not innovation and initiative, were prized by both tribal chiefs and colonial governors. Literacy, industrialization, and decent per capita incomes, the glue of democracy, were low. The notions of constitutional checks and balances and respect for the rule of law were alien concepts. While some would argue that it was a good thing, Kenya could boast exactly one African lawyer when independence came in 1963.

Weakened by World War II and under heavy pressure from the United States, which had forced the British, French, and Israelis from Suez in 1956, Britain and Belgium were eager to throw down the burden of empire. And perhaps wisely: France would fight for Indochina and Algeria, Portugal for Angola and Mozambique, and its white settlers for Rhodesia, but the eventual outcome would be the same. In the case of Kenya, British disillusionment was hastened by the particularly nasty Mau Mau insurgency of the 1950s, which took thousands of lives. With faded pomp and circumstance, designed in part to conceal the abandonment of Kenya, the British in 1963 turned the country over to the Kikuyu leader, Jomo Kenyatta, who had been earlier vilified as the inspirer of terror.

The first decade of independence did not go badly, and there was hope for the future. While Kenya lacked oil, minerals, and navigable rivers, and was far from its major markets, it had certain assets. While Kenyatta was no democrat, he enjoyed the solid political support of all the tribes with the exception of the Luos, the Somalis, and the small pastoral groups. He had lived in England for many years--his first wife had been English--and was a pro-Western capitalist. Although Kenyatta inherited many parastatal organizations--government-run corporations--from the British and created more (146 still exist, despite the admonitions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), he always understood that socialism, far from creating wealth, only distributed poverty. Until they drifted away into politics or the private sector, the country boasted a small but well-trained cadre of civil servants. It had a small but vigorous entrepreneurial class drawn mainly from Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe. It had a university and would soon have four more, although Kenyans continued to send their brightest sons (and, later, their daughters) to England, America, and India for higher education. (An "underground railroad" carried dissident Luo students down the Nile to Cairo and on to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for their training.) It had a teachable, industrious work force and reasonable internal communications. Kenya could claim sub-Saharan Africa's third largest economy, after heavily-industrialized South Africa and oil-rich Nigeria.

Inevitably, after any successful revolution (including our own) the have-nots are in a hurry to acquire the goods and chattels of the haves, and are not unduly fastidious as to the means they employ to do so. Kenya proved no exception, and blacks who wielded political power became millionaires almost overnight. As one white lawyer who later became a Kenyan judge told me, "If I can emerge from a revolution on the losing side with the loss of only 25 percent of my net worth--and I have--I'm fortunate."

Perhaps the real rot set in with the alienation of the two hundred thousand Somalis who roam across the northeastern fifth of Kenya's territory. Between 1960 and Kenya's independence in 1963, the Somalis almost to a man made it abundantly clear to a series of visiting British commissions that they wanted to be reunited with their kinsmen and Islamic co-religionists in Somalia (independent since 1960) rather than becoming part of an independent, ostensibly Christian Kenya. Once before, the British had played fast and loose with Kenya's territory, ceding to Somalia (then an Italian colony) a hunk of land west of the Juba River, including the port of Kismayu, as the price of bringing Italy into World War I on the allied side. This time, the British--who wanted a peaceful departure from Kenya--simply ignored the findings of their own commissions.

This triggered the so-called Shifta (bandit) War, with independent Somalia supporting Kenya's irridentist Somalis against the Nairobi government. This war, like most others, produced profiteering. The costly conflict lasted five years, and at least three thousand people lost their lives. Although Kenyatta was able in 1968 to negotiate a settlement, Kenya was flooded with automatic weapons in the hands of disaffected men who knew how to use them.

Kenya's Somali rebels turned poachers, slaughtering 80 percent of Kenya's one hundred thousand elephants (for ivory figurines, piano keys, cue balls and Japanese name-stamps), and virtually eradicating the country's ten thousand rhinos (whose horns are prized by Arabian dandies for dagger-handles and by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac). Members of the Kenyatta family, far from trying to stamp out the poaching, muscled in on this bloody racket and became its principal beneficiaries.
The lawlessness of the poaching plague reached its apogee in 1977, a year before Kenyatta's death. But since at least 1975 the increasingly senile president had reigned rather than ruled, with the country being run by a kitchen cabinet that included his Kenyan third wife, the powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo, and other Kikuyu power-brokers. Sensing the approaching end of the Kenyatta era and the Kikuyu ascendancy, these kleptocrats began the systematic looting of the state's coffers.

L'etat, C'est Moi

Daniel arap Moi's political weakness is the second major cause of the cancer of corruption that is eating Kenya alive today. Nobody, possibly not even he, expected the long-time vice president to become a power in his own right on Kenyatta's death, or to remain long in the State House. He was neither sophisticated nor intellectual. His private sector credentials were negligible: he had been a grade school principal, and had only a high school diploma himself. He was the leader of no powerful tribe. His Tugen tribe was one of Kenya's smallest and most disadvantaged, and the Kalenjin-speaking linguistic group of which it was a member accounted for only 14 percent of Kenya's population (the four big tribes, accounting together for more than half the country's population, are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, and Kamba).

It was precisely the personal and demographic weakness of Moi's position that had led Njonjo to commend him to Kenyatta as vice president in the first place: He would be a threat neither to the president nor to other powerful political barons. (This is a phenomenon not entirely unknown in our own politics.) But if Moi lacked a national reputation and popular support, he soon got it the old-fashioned way: He bought it. Scores of briefcases stuffed with money poured into the State House every week, tribute from the countryside, and part of it went back out to Moi's favored minions. Everybody was encouraged to get in on the game--when you're a passenger on the train, you don't blow the whistle--and soon bribes had to be paid for everything: to get (and keep) a job, to acquire a driver's license, to obtain medicine or a bed pan in a hospital, to get your child promoted in school. They called giving a bribe "pouring chai (tea)" and the tea party was crowded. The culture of corruption was fired by the world's highest birth rate, a 4 percent annual increase that doubled Kenya's population in seventeen years. With one million Kenyans trying to enter the work force every year, there were jobs for only three hundred thousand.

Once in office, Moi quickly proved he had the shrewdness to stay there, by manipulating and vastly expanding the system of corruption. True, Kikuyu rule, too, had been corrupt. But the corruption until the end of the Kenyatta era had been kept within bounds, and the administration at least had been relatively efficient. Kalenjin rule brought both unbridled corruption and gross mismanagement (most of the parastatals were headed by Kalenjins and few of them showed a profit, even in good years).

Within four years, some of the Kikuyu, Luo, and Kamba had had enough. In 1982, the air force staged a coup that might have succeeded had the freedom-loving rebels not stopped to rape Asian girls and loot Nairobi's stores. The attempted coup changed Moi, who was already showing signs of clinical paranoia. Where before he had been avuncular and generous with the carrot, he became more and more inclined to use the stick against those whom he could not buy, or at least rent. The old Kikuyu elite (including Njonjo) were forced out of the cabinet, detentions and arrests increased, journalists were harassed and Kenya was declared a de jure one-party state, which meant that those ousted from the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) for insufficient fervor for Moi became political non-persons, ineligible to run for public office.

When I arrived in Kenya as ambassador in December of 1989, the Berlin Wall had been toppled, the Cold War was over, and African urban elites from Dakar to Djibouti were demanding a new political dispensation, a "second liberation" that would free their people from corrupt, authoritarian, single-party, or military rule. Washington, which historically in Africa had followed the lead of the former colonial powers, felt that the time had come to devise a new policy more in keeping with American ideas and ideals. President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker went on record to the effect that, in the future, the United States would give its warmest support (and most of its economic assistance) to those states that cherished human rights, respected the rule of law, and expanded democracy. Kenya was doing none of these things, and I determined to do something about it. (So did a few others among forty-four U.S. ambassadors in Africa, forty of them career professionals, but many gave only lip-service to the cause of freedom.)

Moi was no stranger to me. I had met him in 1957 when he became one of the first eight Africans admitted to the colonial legislature. Moi was no Caligula. If his fingers were sticky, he was not alone among African Big Men to have difficulty in differentiating between public funds and their private fortunes. He had killed fewer political opponents than Idi Amin, embezzled less money than Mobuto Sese Seko, mismanaged the economy no more than Kwame Nkrumah. While minister of the interior during his vice presidency, he had also done some service for the anti-communist cause.

Recognizing that Kenya's "second liberation" could take place more peacefully with him than against him--there is, after all, something to be said for continuity--I was perfectly prepared to see Moi lead that "liberation" and benefit from it. In 1989, he still enjoyed a measure of national respect and prestige. He had only to turn the revolution against the most vicious, venal, and backward elements within KANU, legalize multi-party politics, and move with all deliberate speed toward free and fair elections. To do so would have made himself a hero at home and abroad. What I failed to see in those early days was that Moi was too deeply and intimately involved with the thug wing of KANU to move against those within it; either that or he was too lacking in courage or imagination to try.

With the brutal murder of Foreign Minister Robert John Ouko less than three months after my arrival in Nairobi--there was obvious high-level government involvement--I began to understand the nature of the black mafia with which I had to deal. In a May 1990 speech to a highly revolutionary group (the Rotary Club of Nairobi), I said publicly what I had been saying privately for some weeks: That if it wanted the present high level of U.S. aid to continue, Kenya would have to put its political and economic house in order.

Moi hit the roof, the more so when eight prominent Kenyan politicians (three of them former cabinet ministers) chose the day of my speech to announce the formation of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (ford), a pressure group that called for the legalization of multi-party politics, free and fresh elections (elections were not due until 1993), and a two-term limit on presidential tenure. During May and June, I continued to expand my contracts with the opposition, which further enraged Moi and caused some consternation among the more timid souls at the State Department and elsewhere. (The Central Intelligence Agency traditionally had enjoyed a cozy relationship with Moi, who had a regular late-night checkers game with at least one station chief.) KANU launched a vitriolic press campaign against me. This reached an unprecedented height of hysteria when Kenya's old war-horse and first vice president, the octogenarian Luo leader Oginga Odinga, came to a party to which I had invited him in Kisumu. For nearly thirty years, Odinga had been a non-person: his movements were restricted, nothing he said or wrote could be reported in Kenya, and his son Raila frequently was held as a hostage for his father's good behavior. He was one of the founders of ford and its first interim chairman (Odinga died in 1994).

Two other dissident former cabinet ministers, the Kikuyus Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, applied for a permit to hold a ford rally on July 7, 1990. It was denied, and they publicly canceled the meeting. Nevertheless, the police swooped down on ford on July 4 and 5, detaining the entire leadership with the exception of the charismatic young Kikuyu lawyer, Paul Muite, who went underground. On July 7 (Saba Saba: the seventh day of the seventh month), wild rioting broke out in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities. The General Services Unit, the tough, paramilitary riot police, was called out, shots were fired and the police repeatedly charged the crowds, beating men, women, and children alike with truncheons. During the melee, Gibson Kamau Kuria, a well-known Kikuyu human rights lawyer who had previously been imprisoned and tortured, took refuge in my embassy and asked for political asylum, which I granted. Moi was not pleased that Kuria had escaped his net.

When the smoke of Saba Saba had cleared, at least twenty-nine civilians were dead, hundreds injured, and more than one thousand arrested. I issued a public statement deploring the arson and looting by the rioters, but protesting the severity and indiscriminate brutality of the government's reaction. Three of the detainees--Matiba, Rubia, and Raila Odinga--were held under harsh conditions for nearly a year, despite my protests. The health of the first two was permanently impaired by their ordeal. As Moi had boasted, it looked like multi-party politics would come to Kenya only over his dead body.

ford's high-water mark came on June 18, 1992, when more than one hundred thousand dissidents rallied at the Kamukunji fairgrounds. I did not attend the rally, to which I had been invited, but sent embassy officers to report on events. A score of heads were broken, but only one person was killed. I was accused by KANU of masterminding the opposition, and Foreign Minister Wilson Adolo Ayah publicly called me a racist "with a slave-owner mentality", a violent man who had provided drugs and liquor for young demonstrators. Later, parliament devoted an entire afternoon to debating my shortcomings, and unanimously demanded that I be recalled. Both the White House and the State Department supported me strongly at this critical juncture. Scarcely had the ford leaders arrested at Kamukunji been released than the opposition began to splinter, a destructive process that continues to this day. ford split into two, with the elder Odinga and Muite leading what came to be known as ford-Kenya. Matiba and the Luhya populist, Martin Shikuku, hived off to form ford-Asili ("the original"). Later, when the opportunistic former vice president Mwai Kibaki resigned from the government, he further divided the opposition by forming the Democratic Party (DP), an elitist group whose membership is overwhelmingly Kikuyu.

Since the British covertly continued to support Moi, it became clear that the United States, while it enjoyed great prestige, lacked the economic clout to force Moi to expand democracy. Accordingly, the United States and its allies--Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and Finland--began lobbying in Nairobi and elsewhere for the support of the other donor nations in reducing foreign aid.

Moi was obviously shaken when the donors (ten industrialized nations, plus the World Bank and IMF), meeting in Paris in November of 1991, froze $350 million of the $1 billion in aid earmarked for Kenya. Within a month, Moi had ordered his rubber-stamp parliament to revoke Article 2(A) of the constitution, thus permitting multi-party politics. New presidential, parliamentary, and local elections eventually were set for December 29, 1992.

Dirty Tricks

Having agreed reluctantly to hold multi-party elections, Moi promptly did everything possible--and that was a great deal--to skew them in his direction. It was made as difficult as possible for opposition parties to register and organize, although five splinter groups did take the field, denying the three major anti-Moi parties new recruits. Presidential candidates such as Matiba, Kibaki, and Odinga were restricted in their movements and denied access to the state-owned electronic media. Opposition organizers were warned they would be "burned alive" if they entered certain "KANU zones." Most opposition candidates were harassed, and some were physically prevented from registering. KANU thugs launched a reign of terror in Western Kenya, driving two hundred and fifty thousand opposition tribesmen from their homes and ballot boxes. The registration period was shortened, denying at least one million eligible young Kenyans the right to vote. Meanwhile, the presses worked overtime printing money to finance KANU candidates.

In a free and fair election against a unified opposition, Moi and KANU would have lost decisively. But dirty tricks, personal ambition, and tribal rivalries gave Moi and KANU a tarnished victory. Moi led the presidential field, but polled only 1.9 million votes, 36 percent of the total. Matiba polled 1.4 million votes, Kibaki 1 million, and Odinga 944,000. In the parliamentary balloting, KANU polled only 30 percent of the vote, but gerrymandering, constituency-loading, and the absence of a single opposition slate gave KANU 100 of the 188 seats at stake. Nearly half of Moi's cabinet lost their seats, and little more than a quarter of the KANU incumbents won new parliamentary terms. The opposition managed to win control of most of the largely powerless local councils.

Moi's behavior since the 1992 election has, if anything, been worse than it was before the balloting. He has appointed to parliament discredited quislings defeated decisively at the polls. He has denied development funds and humanitarian relief to districts that voted massively against him, as in Kikuyuland, where he polled exactly 2 percent of the vote. Of the eighty-eight opposition parliamentarians elected in 1992, more than half have spent time in jail since then. Others have been bribed to defect to KANU. At least three independent publications have been padlocked, firebombed, or driven out of business. Moi has accused the country's eighteen Catholic bishops of being in league with guerrillas because they described Kenya as "very sick" in a pastoral letter. The world-renowned paleontologist, Richard Leakey, who headed the Kenya Wildlife Service until he was forced out of office by Moi in 1994-- and is now secretary-general of the unregistered safina (Noah's ark) opposition party--has been beaten by KANU thugs while the police looked on, and made the target of a campaign of vituperation. Leakey, a Kenyan citizen, lost both his legs below the knees after a suspicious plane crash in 1993.

Of the diplomatic corps, only the recently departed German ambassador, Bernd Mutzelburg, and his Scandinavian colleagues have openly criticized Moi's most blatant acts of repression, and only their countries have significantly reduced aid. Kenya had tried without success to have Mutzelburg recalled before completion of his four-year term.

Although by 1994, Paul Muite, the young Kikuyu lawyer, had described the American embassy in Nairobi as "irrelevant" to the fight for democracy, Moi has accused the current business-as-usual American ambassador, Aurelia Brazeal, and at least four other envoys of "meddling" in Kenyan politics. The defense pact that kept a battalion of British troops in Kenya more or less continuously since independence has been allowed to lapse. Moi has threatened to renege on Kenya's agreements with the World Bank and the IMF. Things are going from bad to worse.

What, if anything, can be done to restore the luster to what was once the jewel in Britain's African crown?

Clearly there is not much profit or purpose in reasoning with Moi. Most opposition leaders are on record as favoring a complete cut-off of Western aid. But that probably is not in the cards; having just resumed aid a year ago, the donors would feel silly refreezing it. But it could be, and to a certain extent has been, "refrigerated"--not formally cut off but slowed to a snail's pace. U.S. aid could be further reduced from its present level of $29 million (down from a high of about $80 million). Ambassador Brazeal could be recalled to Washington for prolonged consultations and instructed to take a more critical view of the KANU government, if and when she returned to Nairobi. Kenya's most-favored-nation economic status might be reviewed--if need be, we can buy our coffee, tea, insecticide, and cut flowers elsewhere. After Moi's recent insults to Baroness Lynda Chalker, British minister for overseas development, during her visit to Nairobi, it is even possible that Britain might come to the conclusion that Moi is not a client who reflects much credit on London.

At the end of the day, there is not a great deal the West can do to prevent Moi from turning Kenya into another Haiti if he is determined to do so. But the withholding of nearly $1 billion in foreign aid might well bring to the fore Kenyans who would see to it that Moi modifies his ways, or is replaced by someone who will.

There will be those who will say that what happens in Kenya is none of our business. But America can only be true to itself when it opposes repression and stands up for decency and democracy. That said, however, we should be under no illusion that the United States can on its own install stable democracy. In the end, Kenya's fate will be determined by Kenyans.

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