Everyone Is Confident about Kenya's Future-Yet, Close-Up, the Ingredients Are There for the Same Molotov Cocktail That Has Exploded in Ivory Coast
Wrong, Michela, New Statesman (1996)
I'm back in Kenya, putting in a stint on a local newspaper. After six years away, it feels good to be working here again. Good to hear Swahili--that language I always feel I am on the verge of understanding but never quite do--good to see the jacarandas in bloom, good to watch the jumble of faces on the streets of this most cosmopolitan city: blue-black Sudanese, Somalis with henna-tinted beards, Masai with stretched ear lobes walking past yuppies with briefcases and mobile phones.
But as I soak in Nairobi's sights and sounds, my mind keeps turning to events on the other side of Africa, to Ivory Coast. The radio bulletins log the latest twists in an unbelievable saga. Collapse of the ceasefire between the rebel-held north and government-controlled south. Death squads hunting for whites to lynch in revenge for France's destruction of the Ivorian air force. Refugees seeking safety in war-torn Liberia. "Could it happen here?" I keep wondering. "Has Kenya, which seems so stable on the surface, got the seeds of an Ivory Coast within it?"
The question poses itself because Kenya and Ivory Coast were once African twins, mirror images of one another. Both were regarded as rare success stories, stable linchpins in turbulent regions. If Kenya, led by Daniel arap Moi, held a special place in Britain's affections, Ivory Coast, led by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was France's baby. True, both countries had their ethnic tensions and faltering economies. But they also boasted prosperous middle classes with every interest in maintaining the status quo. They were deemed so precious that both former colonial masters were ready to spring to the rescue if chaos threatened. The British army used northern Kenya for training exercises, France kept troops permanently camped near Abidjan airport.
I lived in Abidjan in 1992 and spent a holiday exploring Ivory Coast by car. I remember giving a lift to two hitch-hiking Ivorian soldiers without a second's hesitation. Back in Abidjan, I used to meet friends in the "popular quarters" at night to eat roasted fish alongside Ivorian families. True, there was a climate of genteel decline about the place. But if someone had asked me which nation felt more secure, Ivory Coast or Kenya, I would have picked the former without hesitation. The food was a lot better, too.
It took less than a decade to destroy all that. Jostling for position in the wake of Houphouet-Boigny's death in 1993, a succession of insecure leaders cynically played the ethnic card. …