Kenya flounders in shallow pool of local political talent

In an isolated village in Kenya’s western Siaya district, near Lake Victoria, 75-year-old William Onyango gazes at a faded newspaper clipping pinned to the wall of his dank, makeshift store.

“American politician to visit Kenya”, says the headline. A smiling Senator Barack Obama gazes from the photograph accompanying the article.

The fifth black senator in United States history, Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to an American mother and a Kenyan economist who hailed from Siaya.

Now, some of those in the region wish the Democratic representative for Illinois would use his skills in Kenya to improve service delivery and job prospects. “Obama must come now; we need help,” wheezes Onyango, under the din of pounding rain.

His wish is a poignant reminder of how shallow the local pool of political talent can appear.
Kenya’s best and brightest may be making their mark in several fields—but the corrupt state of politics as usual in the East African country seems to have turned many away from carving out a career in the government, especially the young. This has potentially severe consequences for the nation’s future.

“It’s a sign of frustration at the lack of quality local leadership that Kenyans are looking to a US senator with minor links to the country—who lives thousands of kilometres away and has declared that he is 100% American—for inspiration and hope,” says Kepta Ombati of Youth Agenda. This NGO, based in the capital, Nairobi, is striving to involve young Kenyans in politics.

Jared Oluoch, a young computer systems analyst in Nairobi, puts it even more succinctly: “The notion that younger Kenyans loathe the old guard in political leadership positions like the bubonic plague is right on the mark.”

‘Mount Kenya mafia’

President Mwai Kibaki and his inner circle are mockingly referred to as the “Mount Kenya mafia”, because many hail from Kibaki’s constituency and birthplace in the central highlands. The perception is of an elite belonging to the majority Kikuyu ethnic group, of which Kibaki is also a member.

While corruption scandals have cost various Cabinet ministers their jobs over recent months, any sense that the government is serious about reform has been undermined by subsequent developments—such as Parliament’s decision to increase legislators’ travel allowances substantially. The lawmakers were also issued with about $3-million in back pay for fuel costs.

MPs already earn about $7 000 a month—no small amount in a country where official figures indicate that 56% of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

The travel allowance also comes as millions in Kenya are grappling with one of the worst droughts in decades. Last month, the United Nations World Food Programme appealed for funds to feed up to 3,5-million Kenyans for this year and part of next.

As remote as the prospects for improved governance may sometimes appear, however, Ombati insists that young Kenyans must start working towards this.

“Young people, especially those in their 30s who manage many of Kenya’s successful private enterprises, must enter politics ... If this doesn’t happen, the country is doomed to become a failed state,” he says. “The youngsters must demonstrate courage to confront endemic corruption, which has its roots within the cartel of old leaders and ethnicity and tribalism, which is fuelled by the same leaders.”

Ababu Namwamba, an advocate and founder of Chambers of Justice ‒ a rights NGO based in Nairobi—agrees. “There are many good people in business, Kenyans who have transformed companies into top performers, whose skills must be used,” he says.

“Kenya is losing their skills, with the result we’re left either with the political opportunists, or the old guard ... The real people of quality who could strengthen the political sphere in Kenya and end corruption aren’t involved in political leadership.”

Risks

The experience of activist John Githongo has become a salutary tale of the risks faced by “people of quality” who do venture into politics, however.

This former head of the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International (TI) took on the post of permanent secretary for governance and ethics after Kibaki came to power at the end of 2002. His appointment was viewed as a sign that the president intended following through on campaign pledges to root out graft. (TI is an anti-corruption watchdog based in the German capital, Berlin.)

Githongo has since left Kenya because of fears for his safety—this after his inquiries into a company known as Anglo Leasing and Finance revealed corruption at the most senior levels of the government.

The firm, ultimately proved to be fictitious, was awarded public contracts for supplying Kenya with a system to produce passports that could not be forged, and for building police forensic laboratories.

“People of calibre don’t want to enter politics, because to be a politician in Kenya in the eyes of the world is to be corrupt and morally bankrupt,” says Ombati.

‘Scramble’

But political analysts Wycliffe Muga and Peter Mwaura disagree with the notion that talented Kenyans—particularly the youth—are shunning the political arena.

“If I had a shilling for every young Kenyan who has approached me for advice on how to enter politics, I’d be a very wealthy man,” quips Muga.

Mwaura says there is a “scramble” among young Kenyans to be nominated to political office.

However, Peter Oriare, a journalism lecturer at the University of Nairobi, insists these people are not—in an echo of Namwamba’s phrasing—people of “quality”. Ombati brands them “mercenaries bent on self-enrichment”.

Latest opinion polls show increasing support for Uhuru Kenyatta, head of the opposition Kenya African National Union, and Kalonzo Musyoka of the Liberal Democratic Party—which forms part of the ruling National Rainbow Coalition. Both men are in their early 40s.

Nonetheless, Oriare does not think they are the answer to Kenya’s myriad woes: “They won’t offer credible leadership—[they are] remnants of the old guard. They have benefited from political cronyism and the patronage of the old guard.”

John Maina, a Kenyan in his early 30s who is currently studying in the US, says he will do his best to bring about change in his home country, where he plans to contest a parliamentary seat in the 2007 general elections.

“The youth with the drive to make Kenya a better place, who put the poor first and themselves last, are out there!” he exclaims.

But in the next breath, he asks: “Are we willing to sacrifice ourselves?”

Maina sounds unsure of the answer.—IPS

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