Kenya's ten-year cycles of despair, abundance and political chicanery

The late Mwai Kibaki, then Narc Leader, arrives at Uhuru Park from London for a prayer meeting on December 14,  2002. [File, Standard]

Kenya has been through six 10-year phases since its Independence in 1963.

They can roughly be clustered as Getting the bearings (1963-72), Take-off that stalled (1973-82), Turbulent Nyayo decade (1983-92), Multi-party with multi-problems (1993-2002), Kibaki mixed bag of the good economy but lousy politics (2003-2012) and UhuRuto bromance that hit the rocks (2013-2022).

In the six phases, the country has oscillated between the cycles of high expectations, apprehension to disappointment. On the overall balance sheet, the country has done well, remaining tranquil in a region known for strife and upheaval.

The country has had four smooth and seamless presidential transitions and held eleven peaceful general elections, a record only marred by the ill-fated 2007 polls.

On the economic front, the country had a good take-off in the early 1970s to the extent South Korea was looking up to Kenya as the big brother to emulate. Yes, Kenya is on record giving relief aid and technical assistance to Koreans in those days. Kenya had embarked on local car assembling, a venture since abandoned but which South Korea ran with to amazing success.

On the social plane, Kenya also scored well for integrating 40-something ethnic communities at independence into nationhood. Until the advent of colonialism there was no Kenya per se, but scattered tribal fiefdoms often hostile to each other.

Negative ledger

Now the negative side of the balance sheet: The country’s politics remain pork-barrel and poisoned by the ‘us versus them’ mentality. Leadership is still on the auction of tribal arithmetic and depth of the pocket, not virtue and vision.

In the economic ring, the country has punched far below its weight which is why though at par with South Korea in the early 1970s, the Asian Tiger now has an economy over fifty times larger than Kenya’s! South Korean products flood Kenyan households from the kitchen to the bathroom, and the car behind and ahead on Kenyan roads are very likely Korean models.

Setting the compass

Here is a summary of the six phases. The independence decade (1963-72) was one of getting the bearings and getting on the move. Politically the country had four issues: To be a unitary State or go federative (Majimbo)? To embrace capitalism or go Communist? Single or multi-party? One chamber or a bi-cameral Parliament? 

The issue of going unitary or federative was resolved when founding President Mzee Kenyatta managed to lure the Majimboists who had coalesced around the opposition party KADU to fold up and join KANU.

Which ideological path to take was more difficult to resolve as each side held its ground. President Jomo Kenyatta was a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. His deputy Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was an avowed Communist. But with State machinery firmly in the hands of the capitalists, the Communists were soon outflanked and out-gunned to oblivion.

Bull in China shop

With the Communists shown dust, the capitalists behaved like the proverbial bull in a China shop. They exerted their full weight all over the place. They did away with a two-chamber Parliament to install a National Assembly that was a rubber stamp for the Executive. Such was the impunity of the day that State agents could storm the supposedly hallowed Parliament grounds, grab an MP and cart him away to detention without trial.

To their credit, the ruling elite allowed the economy to thrive, which is why the country hopped to the second phase: the take-off in the 1973-82 decade. They were the salad days when the shilling was at seven to the dollar and the economy grew at double digits. The winds were on Kenya’s side. The price of coffee increased five-fold after a sudden frost hit Brazil. In the same 1976/78 period, tea prices doubled and charcoal from Kenya was a hot cake in the Middle East.

Turbulent eighties

But the feast didn’t last long. Early in the 1980s, drought hit and starved three-quarters of the country. At boarding secondary schools my generation had problems adapting to feeding on yellow maize which we learned in geography class was animal feed where it came from.

The economic gains were eroded by a run-away population that grew at a rate of 3-4 per cent - the highest in the world then! The elites went crooked and the terms such as smuggling and grand corruption became part of our vocabulary.

The years were also moments of political turbulence. Early Sunday morning of August 1, 1982, Kenyans woke up to shocking news that they had been an attempted military coup. The misadventure lasted less than half a day though to great devastation that left about 600 dead and property worth millions of shillings looted or destroyed. Not long after the failed coup, came news about the existence of a clandestine movement called Mwakenya which was hell-bent, as we were told, on sabotaging and finally ousting the government.

Tower of Babel

Naturally, the high-handed, strong-arm government reaction to criticism only swelled the ranks of the Opposition. A potent external catalyst stoked the fires with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, ushering in the global wind of change that demanded a switch to multi-party politics. But multi-partyism wasn't the panacea Kenyans expected. It turned into a free-for-all cannibalism. The 1993-2002 decade was wasted on squabbles within the Opposition.

NARC bubble burst

The light finally came at the end of the tunnel when the scattered Opposition learned its lesson towards the end of 2002. They forged a common front and resoundingly sent Kanu packing.

President Mwai Kibaki came to power as the leader of the winning coalition.

He started on a high note. Free primary school education was implemented. Interest on bank loans drastically fell and banks were literally hawking loans.

Fortunately or otherwise, President Kibaki had no taste for raw politics which is the currency of the Kenyan political landscape.

Politically, the country was in free fall and headed to the precipice of a cliff as it was engulfed in violence that left about 1500 dead. Thanks to external intervention, sanity returned and the country was back on its tracks.

Dazzling duo rock horns

Then Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto came in 2013, holding hands and in matching shirts and ties.

They told us theirs would be a co-presidency and there will be no commotion like what was witnessed in the Grand Coalition government formed after the chaos of 2007/2008 elections.

Jubilee party on which the two had come to power remained an orderly outfit and held great promise up to the 2017 elections.

Then the bang: The party collapsed like a house of cards. The rest is history.

The Standard
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