From where I write at the Kenyan Coast, where I am working for a few days, I am within walking distance of what when it is finished will be a show-piece golf resort, unmatched elsewhere in Africa, with supermarket, airport, luxury homes with swimming pools, 36-hole course and a long etcetera of facilities which might be the envy of the Gulf sheikhs. In shaming contrast, a few miles towards the interior lies the poorest political constituency of the whole of Kenya, Ganze. Here peasants literally scrape out a living with their primitive hoes under a blistering sun and famine is a frequent visitor. Here too, it is rare for a child to complete even primary education, healthcare is at its most basic, and people sleep on a wooden frame covered with skins which passes for a bed.
The golf resort targets the international elite, and when construction was first started the local people, squatters on what they consider their ancestral land, broke down the wall. As a sop they have been offered jobs on this enormous construction site, at a rate of around two dollars a day to cover all the expenses of their often very large families. They may protest at the working conditions, only to find their job offered to someone else in the long line of local unemployed.
This is the crisis Kenya and most sub-Saharan African states are undergoing: the seemingly unbridgeable gap between very rich and very poor. Nearly forty years ago, a famous political activist, J.M. Kariuki, whose murder in strange circumstances has never been explained called Kenya a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Julius Nyerere’s brand of African socialism in neighbouring Tanzania never worked, nor did the various kinds of Marxism tried out elsewhere, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Somalia. But the out and out capitalism of much of the rest of Africa, including Kenya, is only a blessing for a few, the few at the top. Everyone else, including the middle class, are struggling to survive. As for the poor, it is anyone’s guess how they exist from day to day, and continue smiling.
In the case of Kenya add the factor of land ownership, the dispute over which has been underway since colonial times, when some thousands of White settlers farmed some of the country’s most fertile land in a temperate climate similar to the one they left behind in Europe.
Kenya’s population which is climbing towards 40 million –a census is due this year- lives on a mix of highly cultivable and semi-arid land, which, with modern technology and wide-scale investment could produce food for the whole population and to spare. But, by and large, the governments in power for the past forty-five years have not given agriculture priority nor farmers incentives. The outcome has been a massive migration of country-people to the towns, very especially Nairobi, where some two thirds of the population live in hovels in squalid alleyways on one meal a day, the stench of human waste forever in their nostrils.
The migrants are mainly male youths, unmarried, with just enough education to know that they deserve a better life, bursting with energy and ambition, and an offended sense of justice which they will either channel into helping the community as best they can, or into bitter resentment – as witnessed on world television early last year, with shots of burly youths sharpening their machete blades on the street’s tarmac surface.
Many people are saying that Kenya’s troubles last year were not so much ethnic as class. The attacks made on the farmers in the Rift Valley, most of whom were offered land after the settlers left, which they have cultivated well and where they have brought up their children and sent to school and university, were a way of getting at the country’s rulers, - a power and business elite- most of whom belong to the same ethnic group as those under attack. Immediately thousands fled, back to relatives, or across the border into Uganda, or were temporarily settled in displacement camps, and some are still there. Among the issues at the agreements brokered by Kofi Annan to help solve the country’s crisis in March, 2008, the land question featured prominently, yet so far little has been done.
Why is land so important in the African context? Because it provides security and livelihood, and is an investment. To send a child to university rural parents will sometimes sell a small plot or some livestock. Only now are we starting to see a generation of young people brought up in town, cut off from all ties with the countryside, and for whom land has little relevance. They will earn their living in a modern urban environment, and barely set foot on the land of their ancestors. But these are few; the average Kenyan family, and the same can be said for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, relies on land and will do so for time to come.
Land, however, is not the only issue. Recently a book was launched called “It’s our turn to eat” by the British journalist Michela Wrong, whose investigative safaris reveal an Africa unknown to most of the world. It is the true story of the anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, who blew the whistle on politicians connected with a multi-million dollar scam, known as Anglo-Leasing, a cover for financing the 2007 general elections. Githongo was expected to toe the line –and keep quiet about what he discovered - but jumped the boat instead while on an official trip abroad.
Corruption was practically unknown in Kenya thirty years ago; now it is almost everywhere and accepted as an unfortunate part of daily living. The press publishes the results of polls on the most and least corrupt public, and private, institutions, yet the rot has gone deep and there seems little political will to change for the better. Scams are uncovered, commissions of inquiry set up that publish reports that are usually not implemented, and the main actors rarely brought to court. This cavalier attitude of cynicism towards a blight on the common good has spread from the top strata of society down to those who can barely afford to bribe, but have to if they want some small service which should be offered promptly and free of charge.
And there is no-one in a high enough position to shout “Enough!” To prevent further bloodshed and the country from fragmenting a coalition was set up, which effectively muted any opposition. Now former critics are part of the government, and it is left to the man in the street or on his small shamba (farm) or trying to run a small business to air his criticism and discontent with the way the country is being run but, not surprisingly, his voice is not being heard. The ruling class is out of touch with the needs and challenges of the vast majority of the population; it is too busy feathering its nest and making moves for the next elections.
And when the next elections come, -they are due in December 2012- will Kenya have a repeat performance of what happened last year, perhaps even worse, or by then will the demands of the Annan-brokered agreement have been met? It is understandable that government moves slow, but it must at least move, and in the right direction. There are few serious signs of wanting to solve the country’s fundamental problems, except on the part of some private institutions such as the Kenya Land Alliance and various human rights organizations. Meanwhile there’s always the danger that if the politicians don’t do their duty, militia groups will mushroom and solve matters their way or, worse, be manipulated by politicians to further their own ends.
Kenya is at a crossroads. Thinking Kenyans are asking themselves how they got into this situation and how to get out. Is multi-party democracy the best way? Former president Moi predicted that it would divide people further and cause bloodshed. Yet when a new president and his team came to power in January 2003 and many former political non-performers were thrown out, Kenyans were the most optimistic people on earth -according to a poll carried out at the time. It was like a new awakening. Soon the country would have a new constitution; serious and realistic efforts would be made to eliminate corruption; primary education would be free and investors would be fighting to get into the country.
But it hasn’t happened; even primary education is not “free” and the classrooms are congested, with as many as 120 children per class. Perhaps the answer IS multi-party democracy, with all its imperfections, but with leaders and elected representatives who are accountable and honest. It’s not that such a system can’t work. It can; it works elsewhere. But elsewhere corruption is punished. It DOES make a difference.
Martyn Drakard is a writer residing in Kenya who writes for the Observer newspaper of Uganda, as well as Mercatornet.com