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Kenya – What does the future hold for East Africa’s powerhouse?

‘Pole Pole’ is a well-known Swahili proverb that encourages one ‘to take things easy’ and not to get caught up in the stress of day-to day life. Kenya, a country with immense economic potential, constantly high economic growth, and the capability to become the motor of East African economic development, cannot abide by this proverb anymore- reforms are needed.

The future of Kenya will be heavily shaped by the stability of the 2013 presidential elections and by the reforms that are undertaken in the aftermath.

Following the 2007 presidential elections, Kenya experienced its most severe political crisis since independence in 1968. Although president Mwai Kibaki’s government was able to generate constantly high economic growth, attract many foreign investors, and create a formidable mobile industry, he was unable to respond to the election trauma of 2007 effectively. He did not sufficiently address the inter-ethnic and inequality issues that were the roots of the 2007 post-election riots, this year’s riots in Kenya’s costal region, and could again be the roots for a a potential civil war following the 2013 presidential elections.

The 2013 presidential elections might even bear more room for conflict than the previous elections because Kenyans are now allowed to vote for both county governors and senators under a new constitution. This could lead to even more competition and rivalry. The recent clashes between the Orma and Pokomo, two ethnic groups in the costal region of Mombasa, exemplified the potential for social unrest especially at the local level. Yet the constitutional change that facilitated these conflicts was crucial domestically because it would help decentralize the highly centralized Kenyan state and most importantly might devote some state funded social projects to regions that have been neglected by Nairobi’s policy makers.

Kenya’s elections have historically been preceded and followed by violence since the 1990s and this can be mainly attributed to the government’s failure of penalizing politicians that call for inter-ethnic violence and the government’s failure to address inequality.
The failure of holding politicians accountable that stir up ethnic clashes is a crucial issue, as two major presidential candidates for the 2013 elections, though charged by the International Criminal Court with displacing, torturing and killing civilians, have not  been prosecuted by the Kenyan judiciary and intend to run for the presidency in 2013. Politicians are key actors, as they and their political parties often draw on ethnic strongholds to generate votes. The parties’ rhetoric often influences the masses easily and therefore, Kenya’s failure to hold its politicians accountable when it comes to respecting election results and monitoring hate speech is a key issue.

While Kenya is currently predicted to have an economic growth rate of 5% for the year 2012, according to the World Bank it has not been able to tackle the huge issue of inequality in the country, which is the main source of extremism. The official unemployment rate is 40%, which is obviously a bit lower in real terms because of Kenya’s immense informal sector, but still consists largely of young people that easily fall victim to the populist ethnic rhetoric of some political leaders, or the growing Muslim extremism along the Swahili coast. Instead of trying to translate some of the economic successes of the country into redistributive public goods, like education or health care, Kenya’s top politicians lead the world in the ratio of Politician’s salary with GDP. Moreover, Kenyan MPs recently agreed to build a modern parliament building in which the additional 350 seats, according to the BBC, would cost $5000 apiece. This irresponsible behavior, in a country that still suffers from enormous levels of poverty, fuels distrust in Kenya’s government and leads to the growth of secessionist groups such as the ‘Mombasa Republican Council’. Its support among many living along the Mombasa coast stems from the feeling that the taxes paid to Nairobi’s centralized government do not benefit them.

Kenya, is today attempting to create a common market with Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda to increase competition and efficiency and has the huge responsibility of leading this potentially groundbreaking endeavour   Political and social stability in Kenya, along with its continued economic growth and improving infrastructure, would send an important message to states such as Somalia and Tanzania, which also face great levels of Muslim extremism, and to states like Rwanda who wish to further diversify and grow their economies through East African free trade. Kenya has the responsibility to be a model for other African states that are facing similar preconditions of high economic growth, ethnic rivalries, and Muslim extremism, since it has the financial and institutional capability to reform.

Usipoziba ufa utajenga ukuta
– If you do not fill the cracks you would have to build a wall

–  George Bauer


(Featured image: No Derivative WorksPaternité by Zoriah, Flickr, Creative Commons)

About George Bauer

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