Acton Commentary

Kenya--Power Politics as Usual


While on a recent visit to Kenya I was given the opportunity to have a brief meeting with Kenyan Vice President George Saitoi. Saitoi, a man described as serious about his Catholic faith and of a scholarly disposition is also known for his verbal brevity. Given his reputation for brevity and the crushing schedule that high-ranking government officials somehow manage to keep, I was not surprised that only ten minutes had been allotted for our meeting. To my surprise, we concluded our discussion nearly an hour later after a wide ranging discussion touching on the issues of corruption, international trade, tariffs, subsidies, and briefly, about Kenyan President Daniel Moi’s constitutionally mandated retirement after a twenty-four year rule. I left Kenya one month ago with a sense of anticipation that Kenya could become a model and witness of sound governance, solid constitutional rule, and economic growth for the rest of Africa. The latest actions of President Moi and his associates have altered my once hopeful vision.

On the advent of Moi’s departure, hope for fundamental reforms in Kenya now seemed possible after decades of corrupt rule. However, as a result of recent power plays by President Moi and his cronies, the leading body of reform in Kenya’s national life, the Constitutional Review Committee has been ordered by the High Court of Kenya to cease its work. Furthermore, George Saitoi has been removed as Vice President.

The work of the Constitutional Review Committee was one of the icons of hope for reform of Kenya. With its clearly articulated goals and willingness to listen to ideas not often articulated in Kenyan political discourse, it seemed on track to serve, at least, as one pillar of the necessary reforms. At the invitation of the commissioners, I testified before this body arguing that any final document should embody the principle of limited government and state clearly the rights of citizens. Furthermore, such a document should be written in language that was accessible and clear and not more than fifteen pages long. While not all the commissioners agreed with my stated views, I was deeply impressed by a clear willingness to consider the ideas presented. In a nation where political power currently resides in the personality of the President, such discussion and debate were surely signs of hope for the future.

Recent developments in Kenya indicate that the status quo of Kenyan power politics may prevail, at least in the near term. With the deposition of Vice President Saitoi and the sacking of the Constitutional Review Committee, the reformist agenda in Kenya is presently in retreat, which means a victory for the corrupt politicians presently running the country. President Moi’s latest political shenanigans are an outrage to anyone who dreams of the day when Kenya will be liberated from a past of political corruption and enjoy the freedom and prosperity its citizenry desires.

To add insult to injury, the soon-to-be retired President has thrown his support to Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the former president, Jomo Kenyatta, who died in office in 1978. Moi, who was the anointed successor of Jomo Kenyatta, seems poised to extend his own reign beyond his retirement by supporting the presidential aspirations of the junior Kenyatta. Such a move has all the markings of political corruption at the highest levels. Kenyatta has little political experience, is young, and, no doubt, will be easily influenced by the elder Moi. It is likely that part of the deal brokered between Moi and Kenyatta is an immunity deal for Moi’s family and friends—all who have all benefited financially from Moi’s corrupt leadership.

If the dictatorial protocol of Kenyan politics holds true to form, it will not be surprising to see President Moi declare a constitutional crisis due to the forcibly halted work of the Constitutional Review Committee and declare the current constitution null and void. Most assuredly, he will forget to mention that he is the cause of this crisis and by declaring the present constitution void, he will be able to remain in office with impunity. No doubt, he will find it necessary to appoint a new commission to produce a new constitution more amenable to his position. Such a transition could take time and I am sure, out of concern for his country, he will be willing to remain in office until the transition is complete.

With this type of corrupt power politics at the center of Kenyan national life, is it any wonder that the political and economic quagmire that is Kenya continues? Such instability results in the continued poverty of a whole nation of people. Presently, Kenyans earn on average $337 per year. The results of such deep-seated political corruption and the volatile political situation it creates make foreign direct investment in Kenya’s impoverished economy all but impossible. In addition to this already disastrous reality is the AIDS epidemic, affecting nearly 15% of the population. This, among the other health crises brought on by poverty, has led to drastically reduced life expectancies—somewhere around 47 years for males and rapidly declining.

As if all this wasn’t enough, last Monday, President Moi addressed the plenary session of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In his speech he focused on the reality of poverty in his nation and then called for the summit leaders to commit more resources for education, healthcare, and infrastructure. In an attempt to heap opprobrium on the West, Moi opined that the real barriers to sustainable development for Kenya are high levels of external debt owed to the West, the reduced spending of industrialized nations on direct government to government foreign assistance, and declining foreign direct investment. Conveniently, he failed to articulate in his speech as to why such a reversal of fortunes has occurred. Thus continues the corrupt blame game of Kenyan politics, which, tragically, is politics as usual for this East African nation.