TCS Daily

It's the Local Politicians, Stupid

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa - January 31, 2008 12:00 AM

The catastrophe that has befallen Kenya since the rigged
election of Dec. 27 -- killings and displacements, curtailed freedoms, a
promising economy on the verge of being wrecked -- confirms for the
umpteenth time that local politicians, not the remnants of imperialism or
ancestral customs, are the major culprits of sub-Saharan Africa's misery.

In recent years, Kenyans had made an effort to move toward a
functioning democracy, a more open economy and a stable institutional
environment. The rest of the world responded positively: From Asia to
Europe, Kenya was praised as East Africa's "commercial and financial hub"
and was conspicuously absent from the list of troubled nations customarily
cited by Africa observers. To top it all, Western democracies claimed
Kenya's government was a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalists in
neighboring Somalia.

All of that is now in tatters because President Mwai Kibaki refused to
relinquish power after an election that, according to local and foreign
observers, was thoroughly rigged in his favor. Kibaki's decision to cling
to power has stoked up tribal, regional and even religious resentments,
replacing institutions with violence as a means of allocating power, wealth
and prestige. More than 1,000 people have been killed, many more have been
mutilated or raped, and a quarter of a million have been made homeless.
These numbers are expected to worsen, given the failure of international
efforts to mediate between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Make no mistake about it. The stealing of the election did not create
problems where there were none. The dominant tribe, the Kikuyu, was already
looked upon with suspicion by other tribes, including Odinga's Luos, who
felt marginalized. Muslims felt left behind by Christians. Various
provinces resented the concentration of power in the Central Province and
the capital, Nairobi. But these tensions and grievances were only latent
because, since the end of one-party rule in 2002, various institutional
mechanisms seemed to be gradually falling into place, promising gradual
participation, mobility and decentralization. Kibaki's worst crime is to
have pulverized the expectation that peaceful means could redress old

Government security agents are not the only ones doing the killing,
however. By most accounts, the opposition is closely linked to various
gangs that have terrorized Kikuyus in the Rift Valley and other areas of
western Kenya. And there are signs that groups not linked to the political
fight have seized the opportunity to settle scores too. Once the government
opened the Pandora's box, anything could come out. And it has.

Kenya emerged from its struggle for independence in the 1960s as a
corrupt one-party state under Jomo Kenyatta. Daniel arap Moi prolonged that
state of affairs after 1978. Under these rulers, Kenya became -- to use the
words of George Ayittey in the recent book "Making Poor Nations Rich" -- a
"vampire state." But then Kenya opted for a transition that seemed to set
it apart from much of the continent. Now when it looked as if Kenya was
leaving behind its authoritarian politics, Kibaki, with a single stroke,
has managed to make Kenya look no different than most corrupt and violent
African states.

In doing so, the Kenyan ruler has followed the worst tradition of
African politics of the last half-century. After the trauma of colonialism,
one African leader after another chose to establish tyrannical
kleptocracies rather than the rule of law, cloaking their actions in
foreign ideologies instead of building on local customs that held some
promise for the development of limited governments and vibrant economies.

Not surprisingly, between 1975 and 2000, sub-Saharan Africa's per capita
gross domestic product shrank on average by 1 percent, while countries in
other continents prospered. South Korea, whose per capita income was
similar to that of Ghana in the 1950s, became a success story while the
African nation stagnated. For each Botswana -- the only success story in
Africa for many years -- there were dozens of failures.

Only in recent years did a substantial number of African nations start
to change their political economies by shedding the ideological fallacies
and brutal practices that squandered the continent's independence. Kenya
seemed to be one of them, making a significant contribution to a region
that has been growing at around 6 percent a year and attracting significant
foreign capital. Kibaki's decision to wreck all of that is truly a crime
against all Africans.


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