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Why no country is immune to what has befallen Sri Lanka

A protester holding a national flag stretches as he sits on the lawn of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office. [AP]

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is in economic and political turmoil.

It was once the home of science fiction writer Arthur Clarke. How did this island on the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent get to where it is today and what can Kenya learn from the unfolding crisis?  

The island was a British colony for 146 years between 1802 and 1948. Kenya was a colony for only 43 years. It has a population of about 23 million, with Sinhalese and Tamils as the majority.

It’s predominantly Buddhist, with 70 per cent professing the faith. Neighbouring India is 80 per cent Hindu, and like Sri Lanka, was a British Colony from 1858 to 1947, again much longer than Kenya.

Why did Christianity do so well in Kenya despite the shorter period? 

Enough digression. Sri Lanka got its new name in 1972 after becoming a republic. It was previously a dominion with the Queen of England as the head of state. 

The crisis today has three dimensions that are not necessarily intertwined.

One is the ethnic mix with the majority Sinhalese making 74.9 per cent of the population, Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2 per cent, Sri Lankan Moors 9.2 per cent, Indian Tamil 4.2 per cent and others 0.5 per cent, according to Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) website. 

In 1956, the Sinhala Only Act was enacted, giving predominance to the Sinhalese language over Tamil.

Ethnic groups

That angered the Tamils with the war between the two ethnic groups sucking in India from 1983-2009.

Countries with a few dominant ethnic groups are likely to face instability. Do I quote Rwanda or Nigeria or Ethiopia?

The British had favoured the Tamils, and after independence, the Sinhalese were trying to catch up, going to the other extreme. Remember the stereotypes of Kenyan tribes that persist to this day?  

The second issue is the family rule. Don Stephen Senanayake was the first prime minister in 1948 but was succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake in 1952.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was the country’s president between 1994 and 2005, was the daughter of S W R D Bandaranaike, the prime minister from 1956 to 1959. Her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was prime minister from 1960 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president from 2019-2022, left after violent protests and had a brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister. This brother also served as president from 2005 to 2015 and as prime minister from 2004 to 2005, in 2018, and between 2019 and 2022.  

Beyond ethnic animosity, dynasties seem to haunt the island and by extension misuse of power. Despite democracy, a few people have held power in Sri Lanka creating anger that finally boiled over. 

But the fire that boiled the anger was economics. The civil war was costly to the economy. Then came Covid-19 and the inability to service debts. With tourism devastated by Covid-19 and debts falling due, the economy could not hold.

Add inflation as oil prices rose because of the Ukrainian war and the citizens revolted, as the country ran out of fuel and other essentials.

This saw protestors overrun security agencies, taking over the presidential palace in Colombo where some were captured swimming in the palace’s pool.  

In the aftermath, the president left the country and then resigned. But the trouble is not over. The acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe was his confidant.

The country needs money to stop the slide into future economic chaos, which would translate into more debt.

The International Monetary Fund says the country must raise interest rates and taxes to get more loans.

Remember the popular story that China was taking over one of Sri Lanka’s ports? China is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest lenders.

Will some benevolent countries bail out Sri Lanka?

The World Bank and India are coming on board. An economic solution must be tied to a political solution. We hope citizens will be satisfied with the new political dispensation.  

The crisis in Sri Lanka is a lesson for all leaders. Citizens vote for certain leaders hoping their lives will improve. If leaders fail, it turns into national anger expressed through voting for alternative leaders.  

But when citizens can’t remove leaders through voting, as was the case in Sri Lanka because of family relations, crises are inevitable. 

It is instructive that economic issues take precedence ahead of the polls in the next three weeks.

We hope the winners will go beyond promises and implement their manifestos, and citizens will feel growth as we did during the Kibaki era.

Political renewal is good for the country, with new leaders. We hushed the dynasty-hustler debate.

The next regime should address it. Would Sri Lanka have done better without political dynasties? As we vote next month, let’s learn from Sri Lanka.

We may not be like Sri Lanka, but we are not completely different.