Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Kleptocracy in Crisis

Kleptocracy in Crisis
Three of the happiest years of my life were spent living and working
in Kenya. Today I sit in the relative calm of northern Uganda and
view, with great sadness but no great surprise, the events of recent
weeks. I would have kept my counsel had I not read three articles on
the subject in recent days, one really irritated me and the other two
inspired me to scribble this piece. The first article was in the
Washington Post, by Caroline Elkins, a Harvard professor and author of
a history of the end of colonial rule in Kenya, Britain's Gulag. I
have read the book, along with the much better, Histories of the
Hanged by David Anderson. Sadly her thesis degenerated into an
anti-British tirade within a few chapters and never recovered. As one
critic offered, "I shudder for those of her students who expect
academic rigour: Elkins doesn't let facts stand in the way of a good
rant". Her WP article, followed the same trajectory.

I much preferred the latest two essays by Richard Dowden on the Royal
African Society's website, http://www.royalafricansociety.org/
But it was the excellent Op-Ed piece in today's [ 08 Jan] Nation, a
Kenyan daily newspaper, that really galvanized me into type. It is at

Like the author of the op-ed piece, Macharia Gaitho, I am not surprised at the crisis in Kenya, its
been a long time coming, but the factors have been in place for many years.
What we are witnessing is a concatenation of events, most beyond the
control of Kibaki, Odinga or any current leader: Here are a few:

Ever-increasing population pressure ( 9m to 30m in 45 years)
Over 80% of the population squeezed onto less than 10% of the land ( 80% of Kenya is arid or semi-arid land)
A very young population (the average age is just 18 years)
An economy that cannot keep pace with population growth
Or the
Rising expectations of the rural and urban young and poor
Ever-increasing Urbanization
A yawning chasm between the rich and the poor
A leadership that shamelessly misappropriates the nation's resources
and exploits the poor, primarily through promoting tribal differences
Endemic corruption at every level of society

The result, a huge population of young people whose relatively simple
expectations, the dignity of a job and some disposable income to buy
the odd Tusker beer, watch the Premier League on TV and maybe one day buy an old
Toyota, appear to be receding with each passing day. Long-term
sustainable improvement in the quality of their lives, is no more than
development jargon

There is an unknown number of young men without jobs in Kenya. Thirty
years of military experience and six years in humanitarian aid work in
Africa has convinced me the most dangerous creature on Earth is a
young man without a job. This is as true of Newcastle, New Orleans and
Najaf as it is Nairobi. It is the dignity and sense of purpose that is
as important as the salary. Men without jobs view themselves as
outside society, disenfranchised and owing nothing to their community
or society in general.

Not only do they not have a job, there is little hope of ever finding
one. They do their best to find some means of 'income generation'
-selling puppies, songbirds, sunglasses and mobile telephone
paraphernalia, filling in potholes [and then digging them out again]
and general panhandling - only to have their noses rubbed in the mud
daily by sneering Wabenzi and patronizing Muzungu in their SUVs.
Moreover, though tourism is a vital part of the economy it also
enables poor Kenyans who come in contact with tourists ( and for that
matter immigrant Europeans and Asians, expats in NGOs, missionaries
and the UN) to see 'how the other half live' and to contrast their own
lives and prospects. These hugely angry young men [and some women] are
fertile ground for the seeds of anarchy and social upheaval. The
portent to this storm has long been obvious in the high levels of
violent crime endemic to the country, not for nothing is Nairobi known
as 'Nairobbery'. The rise of the secret and violent Kikuyu sect,
Mungiki and its mirror organization, the Kalenjin Warriors, was also a
harbinger of terror to come.

Complacent, comfortable institutions like the UN, other International
Organizations and NGOs have ignored the gathering clouds and offered
no more than to help Kenya rearrange the deckchairs on their Titanic.
Who knows how many millions have been spent on sensitization workshops
and 'income generating activities'. Even when disaster happens, the
first into the breach are the UN and NGOs. Where are the government
institutions, where is the Corporate Social Responsibility of Kenya's
big businesses and the donations of Kenya's super-rich?

What we are witnessing is the culture of co-dependency. The Kenyan
government is doing the minimum to help the urban and rural poor, the
victims of current violence. The 'aid industry' critically dependent
upon such disasters to justify their existence, jobs and fundraising,
are again vying for time on CNN. In some respects, the 'aid industry'
is complicit in the disaster, refusing to tell the truth to power, for
fear they be PNGd and jumping into the breach at the first opportunity
and without caveat. In their actions and attitudes I can hear echoes
of 'The Whiteman's Burden' – 'we [Westerners] have to save the poor
Kenyans because their Government and civil society cannot'

Even through the narrow prism of the TV camera, it is clear to see
that the majority of those committing acts of violence in this civil
upheaval, are young men, of every and any tribal and political
affiliation. Their only common denominators are anger, frustration and
poverty. They have nothing so they have nothing to lose and are
focused on destroying all and everything, I suggest this is classic
nihilism. I would make Frantz Fanon's, in The Wretched of the Earth,
mandatory reading for every would-be Kenyan leader. What we are
witnessing in Kibera and Eldoret he describes as 'catharsis through
It is mendacious and misleading for observers to imply that this
social conflict is primarily about Kikuyu- Luo tribal enmity. Though
tribal differences are a strong feature of Kenyan society and a factor
in this crisis, it ignores the fact that Ex-President Moi, one of
Kibaki's closest advisers and both Moi's sons and the long-time
enforcer for the for the Mount Kenya mafia, Simon Biwot, all deposed
from their Parliamentary seats, in this election, are of the Kalenjin
tribe. It is groups of young Kalenjin men, the so-called Kalenjin
Warriors who have been putting the Kikuyu to the sword. If this was
simply tribalism, Kibaki would surely have pressured Moi and the Kalenjin leaders to intervene.

Blaming yesterday's colonialism and today's tribalism is to suggest that Kenyan's, both the leadership and the people, have no responsibility for current events and no control over their futures, that it is their inexorable destiny. No amount of blaming the past can excuse the appalling leadership of today. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

In his excellent book on Command in Battle, Rick Atkinson describes
how every night, the then Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in
the Gulf War, General Patraeus, asked the same trenchant question,
"Tell me how this ends". Here are my offerings.

I concur with Macharia Gaitho, the Genie is out of the Bottle. At best
we will have slow return to simmering discontent. A government of
compromise, presided over by an uncomfortable partnership of Odinga
and Kibaki will maintain power, using the crude tools of patronage and
tribalism. Neither man has much to offer that is radically new or
different. Both are aged, as rich as Croesus, hugely self-absorbed and
remote from the people, though Odinga casts himself as a populist.
Either or both will fight for the status quo and will use the tools of
state to crush any resistance.

The young, unemployed and disenfranchised, will return to violent
crime, mostly robbing the poor but occasionally the rich, and the
pressure will slowly build up until it explodes again in the future.
Spinoza offered, "There is no hope without fear and no fear without
hope". Maybe he is right, maybe the fear created by this current bout
of violence will galvanize Kenyans into radical change. It will take
much courage and huge effort. The biggest hurdle will be to break down
the 'culture of the Mzee', a veneration of the elderly, particularly
old men, a deeply entrenched taboo that suffocates, original thought
and innovation, the prerogative of the young.

In practical terms, there must be a more equitable distribution of the
nation's wealth, mainly through the creation of jobs, lots and lots of
them. Building a modern national infrastructure, roads, railways,
electrical grids and water and sewage systems would employ a lot of
people for a very long time. It would also be a far more useful way to
spend foreign aid than 'workshops on sensitization, income generation
activities, IECs' and the usual paraphernalia of the 'aid industry'.

I am making these comments as a Muzungu, living [ relatively]
comfortably in northern Uganda. I am however,
not a fool, I can see the same dark clouds on the horizon as I saw in
Kenya, perhaps bigger and more ominous. The population is growing at a
frightening rate and the nation's leadership is in an advanced state
of cognitive dissonance. Corruption is pandemic and the leadership
presides over another shameless kleptocracy. To watch Ugandan society
up close and personal is to observe Darwinism in action, only the
strong survive.

But the young, and they are huge in number, want more than a life of
subsistence. Urbanization is almost as rapid as population growth. Not
so much because there is no land to work, there is more than in Kenya,
but because the young want more than a life in a hut, with a parafin
lamp and to hoe a row of maize. Among their many aspirations, they too
want at least to be able to watch the Permier League on TV at the
weekends. Those few hours in front of the TV are used for far more than supporting a favorite team (though the support borders on the fanatical) It provides the [predominantly] young men with a meeting place to discuss the issues of the moment, including politics and also gives them a window on a wider world, one with seemingly endless opportunities and wealth. Here's a thought: Is football a revolutionary force which will shape Africa's future?

Predicting the future is no more than entertainment but without the
sort of radical action I have suggested, I am pessimistic for the
future of Kenya, Uganda and indeed much of Africa. I offer only this
quote from a man much cleverer than I.
A world of this magnitude of inequality is inherently unstable. Peace
is in the palm of the devil
- Fouad Ajami

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