Seven Questions: What’s the Matter with Kenya?

Kenya was supposed to be Africa’s development success story. But a disputed election has brought reality crashing down, with blood in the streets and widespread reports of ethnic cleansing. John Githongo, a former corruption czar in the office of President Mwai Kibaki, explains why the West got Kenya so wrong.

Paula Bronstein/Getty ImagesPeace now: After weeks of chaos and violence, Kenyans are ready to try peace.

Paula Bronstein/Getty ImagesPeace now: After weeks of chaos and violence, Kenyans are ready to try peace.

Foreign Policy: Tell us your story. Why did you leave Kenya? Have you been back since you left?

John Githongo: I was appointed permanent secretary for governance and ethics in the office of the president in early 2003, when the new administration of Mwai Kibaki took power. Over time it became clear that some of the most egregious grand corruption of the previous administration had carried over to ours. I questioned these transactions, was warned off and threatened repeatedly. The principals behind these schemes were at the top of the government and they told me so! By August 2004, all reformist pretence had been dropped not only with regard to the fight against corruption, but also constitutional and land reform, so I made my plans to leave. I have not returned since but remain engaged.

FP: What is the root cause of the past few weeks of violence in Kenya? Is it economic, social, or tribal?

JG: The seeds of the current crisis were sown long ago, but the determined weeding took place between August 2004 and December 2007. Inequality is at the heart of it. In a place like Kenya, people can express their anger over economic inequality in regional or ethnic terms when the ruling elites aren’t able to give people reasonable confidence that there is (or at least will be) equal access to economic opportunity and justice. Issues that give inequality meaningthe use of violence for political purposes, genuine land grievances, conspicuously corrupt leadershiphave been bubbling under the surface for decades. These factors combined with rapid urbanization, high unemployment, especially among young males, ethnic political mobilization, the free flow of information, huge democratic expectations and, finally an incompetently rigged election, to ultimately boil over into a crisis. So, it’s not just a ‘tribal’ thing.

FP: The international community has been a steady backer of President Mwai Kibaki. In June 2007, the United Nations even awarded the Kenyan government its Global Prize for Progress in Governance. Do you think the international communitythe U.N., the World Bank, Western governmentsgot Kibaki and Kenya wrong?

JG: Sections of the international community did not necessarily get it wrong because they were well intentioned. But to an extent, they didn’t get it at all. It’s not as though between June, when Kenya was awarded the governance prize, and December, when the election took place, things changed dramatically. Up to the last minute, the World Bank was effusive in its praise of Kenyas development, despite its own statistics that showed something was wrong on the governance front, as did reports by other organizations. So, the analysis was not wrong. The underlying assumptions were.

They were also overly excited by the growth statistics. Its true that the private sector is the key to the future of Africa, but one has to ask carefully what the private sector means politically in different contexts. In relatively small economies, it tends to be dominated by small groups of individuals linked together in a series of incestuous relationships that stretch across all sectors of business and into the political, security, and bureaucratic realms. In highly diverse societies with a history of structural domination by minorities, such as Kenyas, ‘growth’ can lead to widespread ethnic or regional resentments when people start to compare their economic status with that of other groups. With enough repression, this can be sustainable. But Africa democratized in the 1990s as rapidly as it joined the global economy in the late 1980s.

FP: It seems like the opposition has been no better than Kibaki, and in many cases it appears to have stoked the worst ethnic violence. Wasn’t it rational, then, for many in the international community to see Kibaki as the only realistic option?

JG: There is a Cold War mentality with regard to analyzing African countries that does a disservice to those trying to understand what’s happening this penchant for comparing good big men with bad big men. Throughout the era of former President Daniel arap Moi we heard the same thing: there were really no alternatives to Moi and the opposition was fractured and weak. But Kibaki’s side has its fair share of characters with a colorful history. The same is very much true of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Even more troubling are reports by NGOs that some ODM leaders may have been recently involved in ethnic cleansing of the kind Moi organised in the 1990s. The question is this: How did a regime like Kibaki’s that was being awarded prizes for good governance, overseeing an ostensibly booming economy, come to find itself losing an election to an opposition comprised of the kind of leadership we saw? That’s the rational question. There was a profound groundswell for change and a feeling that Kibaki was not delivering it. The signs were there in 2005 when the government heavily lost a referendum on the constitution, but the international community, closeted in Nairobi, failed to smell the coffee.

FP: Paul Wolfowitz, former president of the World Bank, was accused of focusing excessively on corruption. Do you think Wolfowitz had the right approach? What about his successor, Robert Zoellick?

JG: Wolfowitz was accused of focusing on corruption with the same zeal he had advocated the war in Iraq this was a Western complaint that I failed to take seriously. The baggage of Iraq was heavy, but on the corruption issue I think his instincts were spot on. His original position has been vindicated bitterly in Kenya and it will be in other cases. Zoellick has reaffirmed a commitment to the fight against corruption, which is reassuring.

FP: What do you think the West always gets wrong about Africa? What does it get right?

JG: Africans experience of the modern state is of an insecure, fierce, and secretive creature that extracts economically on behalf of an exclusive identifiable minority using disproportionate violence. This creature has too often served Western interests. The West is most effective in Africa when it engages around issues that cause the rest of the world to admire it: individual freedoms and liberties, the rule of law, rewarding private innovation etc. The lives of African women, for example, have been greatly transformed by Western encouragement. But when the West gets it wrong it tends to do so reverberatingly, such as backing dictators during the Cold War who laid parts of the continent to waste and oppressed their populations to the extent that the initial release from these contrived and externally backed conditions was accompanied by tremendous violence and dislocation. Similarly, the West remained steadfast in its support of apartheid in South Africa for too long. This explains in part the continuing ambivalence of the continent’s leaders when confronted with the excesses of Robert Mugabe, who is an increasingly decrepit icon of the continents struggle against minority rule.

FP: Looking ahead, how can Kenya get out of this mess?

JG: Negotiations are taking place in Nairobi, mediated by Kofi Annan, but it is the realities on the ground that will likely drive things, not the talks. The talks will hopefully produce a transitional period during which the fundamental problems I have outlined can start to be addressed. Some of the solutions have no template, and it is clear that the old Kenya is gone. This is not a bad thing. It allows us the opportunity to define a new reality. It will likely mean an overhaul of both leadership and institutions. Kenyans have what it takes and there is strong regional support for change.

John Githongo, a former official in the administration of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, is now a visiting scholar at Oxford.

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.