It was with great trepidation that I travelled to Kenya recently. Going to Nairobi always makes me anxious. It is not that I do not like that city. It is the overwhelming disappointment I feel about my country, which has so much unrealised potential. It is the sense that the people have been cheated, that someone dealt Kenya a bad hand and that things could have turned out differently had fate been kinder.
This time my anxiety was heightened. The election in December had put an end to 24 years of rule by Daniel arap Moi and ushered in a new government led by President Mwai Kibaki. Yet I was apprehensive about whether this change would translate into tangible benefits for ordinary Kenyans. Could the new National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) government live up to Kenyans’ expectations? And what if it could not, what then?
Kibaki is not a new face in Kenyan politics and in fact served as the country’s vice-president in the Moi regime for eight years. Furthermore, a number of senior Narc members were faithful Moi courtiers only a few months before the election. Narc is a diverse mix of personalities, agendas, parties and egos, whose only common ground seems to have been the elimination of the Moi and Kenya African National Union stranglehold on Kenyan politics.
Critics are sceptical about whether the alliance will be able to maintain the united front after its victory in the December election. And there are questions around whether sufficient cohesion exists within the new leadership to go the next step, to provide good governance to a country whose political and economic institutions are dilapidated. These questions have raised much doubt in the minds of many political commentators about the real benefits of the power change for Kenyans on the street.
I was surprised that the doom and gloom predictions by some political analysts have not destroyed the hope that many Kenyans have for their futures. Nairobi, for instance, is a different city today than it was in December. There is an energy that many say is reminiscent of the days following the country’s independence, and that is not unlike South Africa in 1994. There is a sense of collective responsibility, and a tacit agreement that both citizens and leaders are going to try to rebuild their country together. It is among ordinary Kenyans that the miracle of the election is repeated daily.
The driver of a taxi that I was in made an illegal turn across the highway, in order to beat the traffic. Immediately after he made the turn he chastised himself, saying: “I cannot do this any more, I am not helping our new president to stop corruption if I keep my old habits of breaking the law.”
Passengers in a matatu (mini-bus taxi) witnessed a policeman trying to bribe the driver of the vehicle they were in. Angry, they forced the policeman into the matatu and drove him to the police station where he was charged with soliciting a bribe. My mother was carrying mangoes to the back of her bakkie when a man picked one up and ran, thinking he had scored a light snack.
She watched, bewildered, as a young man ran after the thief, retrieved the mango and presented it to her. “Since you have got the mango back, why don’t you have it,” said my mother. “I did not get the mango so that you could give it to me. I got it because things have changed now, we cannot continue like we used to, stealing from our own people,” said the youth, who put the mango back in the bakkie and walked away. One can easily romanticise these incidents, but they do tell us something of the prevailing mood in the country.
There has been much acclaim about how peaceful and “civilised” the political handover has been. Few images make as lasting an impression as the one of December 30 last year, when one of Africa’s last “Big Men”, Moi, handed the sword to his successor, Kibaki. The ceremony was held peacefully in the historic Uhuru (Independence) Park and the magnanimity with which Moi accepted his party’s defeat and his description of his successor as “a man of integrity and courage”, will certainly go down in history.
The image of Moi, the epitome of health at 78, bending over his successor’s wheelchair to hand over the country’s leadership seemed like a miscast. The irony of this image is not lost on people who follow African politics closely, but neither is the symbolism. Still in a wheelchair, recovering from a road accident, Kibaki did not cut the “strong man”, “invincible” image that Africans are used to in their leaders. There is a tradition among African presidents to conceal illness or any form of physical vulnerability. Mobutu Sese Seko and even Jomo Kenyatta, in their last months of life, shied away from the public eye to cover up their bad health.
Kenya and indeed Africa can be proud of the new sense of transparency and, more importantly, of the political maturity leaders have shown in the country’s transition.
Yet the form and substance of a democracy are built by what comes after the swearing-in ceremony. Leadership responsibility and commitment to democratic principles like freedom of speech, transparency, accountability and eradicating poverty are imperative. Conversely, citizens also need to renew their commitment to their civic responsibilities and to participate in democratic processes.
The situation in Kenya is fragile. The euphoria, and the consequent energy and hope that it has generated, is bound to dissipate as the enormity of the task of nation building begins to sink in — South Africans can relate to this. Yet, while it is unrealistic to expect enduring jubilation, political and economic justice and progress are not too much to ask for. Ordinary Kenyans and their leaders are already beginning to show this is not a pipe dream.
Caroline Kihato is a Kenyan citizen and a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has written about and researched leadership and democracy in Kenya