Obama: Kenya Is Not Ghana….Britain’s Colonial Legacy Has Undermined Its Moral Authority

A success story undone by corruption

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Accompanying the fanfare of President Obama’s visit to Ghana in July was a chorus of well-founded praise for that country’s functioning democracy. The U.S. president pointed to his host country as a shining example, while warning other nations on the continent that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Political pundits and the media reinforced Obama’s message, holding up Ghana as Africa’s success story.

Not so long ago, Ghana shared the limelight with Kenya, the country of Obama’s paternal past. But the vote-tampering and widespread ethnic violence that marred the 2007 Kenyan elections left observers shaking their heads, wondering how the idyll of East Africa could have gone so wrong, so quickly. A well-functioning, multiparty government buoyed by an impressive 6 percent annual growth rate had made for a potent combination in the post-colonial dream world.

The blurring of fantasy and reality, however, was laid bare in the smoldering rubble of election violence that left some 1,500 Kenyans dead and at least 300,000 internally displaced. Journalist Michela Wrong provides a very important and illuminating account of Kenya’s present-day political and economic morass. On one level, “It’s Our Turn to Eat” reads like a John le Carré novel as it traces the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings of Kenya’s political bosses, and the heroic but futile attempts of John Githongo — the government’s internal, anti-corruption watchdog, and the protagonist of Wrong’s account — to stymie them.

On a deeper and much richer level, the book is an analysis of how and why Kenya descended into political violence more than a year and a half ago. For Wrong, the insidious bedfellows of corruption and tribalism inhabit nearly every sphere of Kenyan existence. At the upper echelons of government, members of parliament connived to defraud the country of some $750 million through the notorious Anglo-Leasing scheme; at the lower levels of society, the ordinary Kenyan doles out on average 16 bribes a month to government agents simply to get by.

These factors, as Wrong points out, have been present in Kenya since the inauguration of the country’s first independent government in 1963, despite the rather rosy and misplaced image that characterized the nation, at least in the Western media, for decades. First, under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu, Kenya’s ethnic majority, benefited disproportionately from the state’s spoils. Kenyatta surrounded himself with a coterie of loyal ethnic supporters who systematically excluded non-Kikuyu from participating in their quest for power and ill-gotten wealth.

Subsequently, when Daniel T. arap Moi took power in 1978, the new president continued with the tribally based corruption. Only this time, Moi, who came from the ethnic-minority Kalenjin of western Kenya, redirected the flow of wealth and power to his tribal base of supporters. For the Kalenjin and other closely related tribes, it was their turn to eat.

It was Githongo — a Western-educated, physically imposing and exceedingly shrewd man — who was to herald the literal and symbolic end to this vicious cycle of corruption and ethnic favoritism. When Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, took presidential power in 2002, he declared his election a mandate for reform and appointed the young Githongo, also a Kikuyu, to root out the old bogies that had undermined Kenya’s progress. It wasn’t long, though, before Githongo’s starry eyes cleared, only to find his revered mentor, Kibaki, knee-deep in the corruption game, with a supporting cast of legislators aiding and abetting theft from the state’s coffers.

With much drama, Githongo eventually fled Kenya, taking with him piles of documents and secretly taped conversations. He landed on the London doorstep of Wrong, an old acquaintance. Given this personal connection, Wrong is notably self-aware of her position as both author and partial subject of her own book. Indeed, her personal involvement scarcely compromises her excellent analysis of Kenya’s twin evils; rather, she deftly points to the fact that corruption and tribalism are not endemic just to Africa, but inhabit the contemporary, worldwide landscape, and that complicity reaches to all corners of the globe as well.

If the old-boy system is not an African artifact, and if undemocratic processes have no boundaries — many a Kenyan will snicker at the mention of a hanging chad — how then does Wrong make sense of the localized events in Kenya? By “probing the roots of a dysfunctional African nation” and its British colonial legacy, as well as Kenya’s more recent entanglements with the likes of the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development, Wrong takes a decidedly Paul Wolfowitz-like stand. That is, political systems are at the heart of the problem and must be reformed if there is any hope for the alleviation of poverty — and not just in Kenya.

It’s difficult to argue against Wrong on this point, though the roots and solutions to Kenya’s problems are far more embedded in the country’s past than she suggests. Colonial Kenya — with its white tribe of settlers and administrators, economic monopolies and perpetuation of African tribalism, and a governor who ruled with highly centralized powers and a posse of loyal underlings to support him — bears an uncanny resemblance to the country today. Moreover, while Wrong praises Britain’s former highest-ranking ambassador to Kenya, High Commissioner Edward Clay, and his anti-corruption stance, she fails to mention that, while Clay was making his strongest denunciations of corruption, the full impact of Britain’s colonial violence and coverups was finally being disclosed in Kenya.

Britain’s colonial legacy has undermined its moral authority and continues to influence processes in Kenya, no matter how complicit Africans have been in perpetuating corruption and tribalism. The historical phenomenon of colonialism and its long-term impact vary across the continent, making the trajectory of a former settler colony such as Kenya distinct from that of Ghana, and many other African nations, for that matter. If strongmen are to be eliminated and institutions reformed — as both Obama and Wrong urge — then the historical differences among various African countries, and the ways in which these differences inform and shape present-day governing structures and cultures, must be thoroughly understood.

Caroline Elkins is a professor of history at Harvard University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.”