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.
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.
|Leader||President Mwai Kibaki.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $770 (Tanzania $430, UK $45,390).|
|Main exports||Tea, horticultural products, coffee, petroleum products, fish, cement. Tourism is also an important foreign revenue earner.|
|People||38.8 million. Annual population growth rate 2.6%. People per square kilometre 67 (UK 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality rate 81 per 1,000 live births (Tanzania 67, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 39 (UK 1 in 8,200). HIV prevalence 7.1%.|
|Environment||Environmental degradation is a hot-button issue in Kenya. For many years politicians have dished out forest land to sections of the population, in exchange for votes. This has resulted in destruction of water catchment areas that has led to rivers drying up. Water scarcity resulting from this has seen pastoralists and farming communities in bloody conflict. The environment has become a political battleground that can make or break a politician’s career.|
|Culture||Kenya is made up of 42 indigenous communities. The largest are the Kikuyu (22%), Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%) and Kamba (11%).|
|Religion||Mainly Christian (Protestant 45%, Catholic 33%), with 10% following Islam and another 10% indigenous religions.|
|Language||Swahili and English are both official languages. In rural areas Swahili is predominantly spoken alongside vernacular languages.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||That Kenya is made up of only two tribes – the rich and the poor – is a well-known phrase. The middle class is expanding but there are still gaping disparities and a tiny élite effectively controls the economy.|
|Literacy||74%. Free primary education has helped boost literacy levels; since 2008 secondary tuition fees have also been heavily subsidized.|
|Life expectancy||54 years. A marked decline on the 59 years when last profiled, though the nadir of 51 years was reached in 2000, caused mainly by the impact of AIDS.|
|Freedom||Kenya has come a long way from the time when detention of political opponents was routine. Now anyone can criticize the government without fear of intimidation. There is a vibrant independent press.|
|Position of women||Hitherto there have been few women in prominent positions, though under the new constitution women are guaranteed at least a third of parliamentary seats.|
|Sexual minorities||Male homosexuality carries a potential jail term of 14 years and same-sex marriage is expressly banned under the new constitution.|
|New Internationalist assessment||An assessment of political progress would depend on your benchmark. Things are immeasurably improved since the dark days of Moi. But they could be so much better. Even though issues get discussed in parliament, nothing seems to go beyond rhetoric. Lack of political will to deal decisively with corruption has disappointed Kenyans. It is even more frustrating that the President and the Prime Minister do not seem to read from the same script on matters that most concern ordinary people.|