Kenya Needs a Reboot

By Githongo, John | Newsweek International, October 5, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Kenya Needs a Reboot


Githongo, John, Newsweek International


Byline: John Githongo; Githongo is a trustee of the Zinduko Trust and head of Twaweza Kenya.

To Fix Africa, Start With Its People.

Kenya's slide into temporary anarchy after failed elections at the end of 2007 shocked the world. The country had been seen as a force for stability in a turbulent region. Its robust economy, sophisticated urban middle class, good infrastructure, and other advantages made it an economic, political, and social hub for East Africa. Then came ethnic violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed and some 350,000 were displaced, stunning Kenyans and the rest of the continent.

This wasn't supposed to happen here. A 2002 election saw the kleptocratic administration that had ruled Kenya since independence peacefully removed from power and President Daniel arap Moi replaced by his onetime vice president Mwai Kibaki. In 2003 Gallup polls found Kenyans to be the world's most optimistic people. Economic growth averaged more than 5 percent between 2003 and 2007. Industries rendered moribund by graft and incompetence were revived. The introduction of free primary education brought 1.3 million children to school for the first time. Mobile telephones and FM radio became widely available, various other infrastructure improvements were made, and salaries for police and other civil servants were increased. The government repeatedly committed itself to tackling graft, and by improving tax collection (to more than $4 billion a year), Kenya dramatically reduced its dependence on foreign donors. The country enjoyed a boom in urban real estate and stocks; between 2003 and 2007, 500,000 Kenyans bought shares for the first time. Kenya, it seemed, was finally fixing the flaws in its hardware--its physical environment and the system for developing it. The signs were everywhere, from the Japanese cars clogging the streets to the appearance of new schools, cafes, stores, and villas.

The subsequent near collapse into ethnic war should be thought of as a dramatic national software crash--a crisis of relationships. For all its progress, the new government continued to tolerate corruption, even at the highest levels, and to lend new currency to old ethnic grievances. The new ruling elite, perceived as largely hailing from Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group, shunted aside the largely Kalenjin-led elite of Moi's day, leaving virtually everyone feeling excluded.

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