Two recent developments have slightly raised the world’s awareness of Kenya – previously limited to its reputation as the safari capital of the world and its production of a series of outstanding long-distance runners.

Looking forward in hope. A woman waits in line to cast her vote at a primary school in Nairobi's slum district of Kibera in August 2010.

Noor Khamis / Reuters

The country could bask in the reflected glow of Barack Obama’s historic election as US President in 2008, given that his late father was a Kenyan. In addition, the country is credited with the introduction of M-Pesa, a cellphone money-transfer technology that is now the object of worldwide study and replication.

Back in the 1950s, Kenya achieved international notoriety thanks to the bitter conflict between the British colonial authorities and the Mau Mau rebels but, once independence was achieved in 1963, the country under its first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, pursued a pro-Western free-market course that contrasted markedly with the African socialism propounded by its neighbour, Tanzania. Kenya remained a one-party state after Kenyatta’s death in 1978 and replacement by Daniel arap Moi – and a failed coup attempt in 1982 led to even greater consolidation of power and quashing of dissent by the Moi regime.

Mounting internal pressure – combined with greater Western encouragement for multiparty democracy in Africa in the 1990s – led Moi to concede that multiparty elections should take place, though initially not by secret ballot.

When the opposition finally dislodged the ruling party in the 2002 election and Mwai Kibaki assumed the presidency, Kenyans were understandably optimistic. Kibaki promised that primary school fees would be removed, iconic environmental campaigner Wangari Maathai was brought into the government, and there was talk of a new start, devoid of the cronyism and corruption of old.

However, the two principal political parties that engineered Moi’s demise failed to reach an agreement and government business was henceforth frustrated by political point-scoring, which gradually extinguished citizens’ hopes for change. Maathai – by now a Nobel Peace laureate – left the government in 2005, though free primary education remains in place.

People’s disillusion spilled over into the 2007 general elections, which were won by Kibaki’s Party of National Unity but were marred by outrageous irregularities in the vote count, provoking nationwide riots in which an estimated 1,000 people lost their lives and 600,000 were displaced.

Kenya suddenly seemed appallingly polarized. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan intervened to strike a compromise, under which Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement agreed to be prime minister under Kibaki’s presidency.

The union, however, has been a shaky one. Odinga’s attempt to stamp out corruption by sacking two cabinet ministers was largely snubbed by the President. Then a high-profile planting of trees in the Mau Forest by both President and Prime Minister – symbolic both of governmental unity and of the country’s commitment to maintaining forest cover, which has shrunk from 15 to 2 per cent since colonial times – turned to embarrassment when Kibaki failed to turn up.

A new constitution devolving power to local authorities and enshrining a bill of rights was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum. In August 2010, the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, was invited to the signing into law of the new constitution despite international arrest warrants against him for human-rights violations in Darfur. As a result, victims of the 2007 post-election violence wonder whether the government is committed to bringing its instigators to justice – the International Criminal Court has instituted investigations against those responsible for the violence, some of whom are said to be in government.

Photo by p r o m i s e under a CC Licence