Kenya airport 

By Randolph Bell, Managing Director, IISS–US

Today, 12 December, is the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s independence from Britain. The country has been in the news a good deal over the past year, so it is worth taking stock of its successes and challenges.

Despite recent setbacks, such as the horrifying al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate Mall, Kenya continues to be the most prosperous, stable and promising country in East Africa. Perhaps the biggest risks to continued growth, however, are not external, but are of the country’s own making. Corrupt politics and internal ethnic tensions, which manifested themselves most clearly in Kenya’s 2007–08 post-election violence, remain unresolved. While progress has been made on the domestic front, there have been recent indications of backsliding.

Kenya grows

Perhaps the most startling change in Kenya in the past 50 years has been its population boom. In 1963, there were 8.9 million Kenyans. Today there are 44m – nearly five times as many. The country has also become significantly more urban – 32% lived in cities in 2012 compared to 8.1% in 1963 – as competition for farmland has become more intense, and sometimes violent.

The population boom has helped drive growth, and the country has reversed several worrying economic and health trends of the 1990s and early 2000s. GDP growth is up (it was over 5% in 2012), the poverty rate is down; life expectancy is up, the HIV infection rate is down. The middle class is growing and the country is investing in several large, long-term infrastructure projects that could increase productivity even further.

And Kenya is outperforming its neighbours. While still a ‘low-income country’, it has the highest per capita GDP in the region. Though several of its neighbours are growing faster, they have a long way to go to catch up. Furthermore, each of these countries faces its own risks that threaten to derail growth. But perhaps most importantly, every country in East Africa relies on Kenya as a financial, logistical and governmental hub. The region let out a collective sigh of relief when the March 2013 presidential elections were relatively peaceful.

Security and politics

This makes the risks in Kenya all the more worrying. The Westgate attack did not come out of the blue. There was a significant uptick in small-scale al-Shabaab linked or inspired attacks following the Kenyan Defence Forces October 2011 incursion into Somalia. (Kenyan forces have since joined the multinational African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force.) Notably, there was a higher percentage increase in attacks outside of North Eastern Province, which borders Somalia and used to be the organisation’s principal Kenyan target, indicating al-Shabaab’s intention to take the fight to the heart of Kenya. Terror warnings were on the rise, but many analysts expected a large bomb akin to the 2010 Kampala attack, in which 74 people were killed.

The coordination and sophistication of the Westgate attack, which had echoes of the 2008 Mumbai attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba though on a smaller scale, marked a change for al-Shabaab. It is an open question whether al-Shabaab is planning additional attacks and can maintain this momentum.

Kenyan security services are taking the threat seriously, but their competence is being questioned. Kenyan soldiers were caught on camera looting stores at Westgate as they were ostensibly securing the mall. The communication and coordination between different services was abysmal. In another recent example, in August 2013, because of a lack of fire department capacity, civilians brought buckets of water to try to put out a fire that eventually destroyed the international arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the largest airport in East Africa.

The root of these vulnerabilities is Kenya’s political elite. Nearly all of Kenya’s institutions have been plundered by the Kenyan political class, leaving them weak and vulnerable to internal petty corruption. Kenya needs these services in order to confront al-Shabaab and recover from any future attacks. Without real political reform, however, it is unlikely these institutions will develop the capacity needed to manage the threat.

Kenya did embark on a process of political reform following the 2007–08 post-election violence in which over 1,300 were killed. In August 2010, the country adopted a new constitution which tackled some of the issues that led to the 2007 violence, including by establishing a system of checks and balances on executive power; enhancing the make-up and professionalism of the judiciary; decentralising the political system; and creating integrity standards for holders of public office.

But the country was not able to bring to justice to any of the perpetrators of the  violence, so the International Criminal Court (ICC) took on the case. Now Kenya’s president and deputy president – who were rivals in 2007 – face trial at The Hague. While they are vigorously defending themselves, the prosecution also contends that several of its witnesses have been intimidated and are now refusing to testify.

International justice?

Perhaps even more problematic, Kenya has threatened to withdraw from the ICC’s founding Rome Statute. The Kenyan Parliament voted for a motion in September that called on the government to pull out of the ICC. Arguing that the court is unfairly biased against Africans, Kenya has been leading a movement in the African Union to have African countries withdraw en masse. While true that all ICC cases are from Africa, five of its eight cases came at the request of African countries and two more were referred to the court by the UN Security Council. Only in the Kenyan case has the ICC acted independently, and this only happened with the support of Kenyan and international human rights activists after the Kenyan government failed to prosecute any perpetrators.

Additional worrying signs include a new, restrictive press law that includes a government-controlled regulatory board with the power to fine journalists; accusations of extra-judicial killings of Muslim terror suspects; and a deepening sense that corruption is not going away. While the elections this year were relatively peaceful, the underlying ethnic and economic fissures that were the root cause of the violence in 2007 and 2008 have not been fully resolved.

What next?

Despite these challenges, Kenyans have shown a remarkable resilience over the past 50 years in the face of internal tension and poor governance. And Kenyan leaders have never taken their country over the edge as so many other African leaders have (though they came close in 2007). Nearly all Kenyans realize they have too much at stake to let the country’s challenges sabotage its future.

A half-century of Kenyan progress is worth celebrating. On a continent that is shaking off much of the turbulence of the post-colonial era, Kenya remains an unchallenged regional leader. It has the capacity to overcome its internal tensions and manage its external threat. If the country’s leaders and citizens choose to do so, Kenya’s next 50 years will be significantly better than its first.

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