A fatally rose-tinted view

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 04/01/08):

I have visited few places more peaceful than Eldoret in Western Kenya. To white settlers, this sleepy corner of Africa was “64”, because it was 64 miles from the railhead of the new Uganda railway. Before colonial times, the area had been occupied by the “Sirikwa” tribe, then the Maasai, then the Nandi. Voortrekkers from South Africa put down roots here, followed by other white settlers, and Asian traders. My memory of a visit to the town many years ago is of a picturesque and placid intermingling of tribes, races and colours.

Earlier this week, a murderous mob from the Kalenjin tribe drove a group of terrified Kikuyu, including children, into a church near Eldoret, and set fire to it. At least 30 people were killed.

That such violence could erupt in such a gentle place seems almost unimaginable. Kenya has long been seen as Africa's success story, a place of democratic stability where holidaymakers could travel in safety to see abundant wildlife in some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. Kenya was the African haven where aid organisations and international corporations could operate; more recently, the country has become a useful bulwark against Islamic terrorism.

Yet the world's astonishment at the violence engulfing Kenya is itself a measure of the West's failure to understand and respond to a crisis that has been brewing for years, if not decades. Just as we tend to view so much of Africa through dark glasses, as a place of violence and corruption, so Kenya has too often been seen though rose-tinted spectacles, as the African exception, a bright spot on the dark continent.

Britain has always been prone to a romanticised view of Kenya. In the early part of the last century thousands of British settlers were drawn to its beauties and weather. With clear trout streams, abundant game and fertile soil, here was a place to reinvent Britain in a particular image. The settlement of Kenya by whites was Britain's last, doomed colonial dream: Lord Delamere, settler-in-chief, declared this “white man's country”, despite the presence then of two million Africans.

Where West Africa was dangerous and threatening (“Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin/ For few come out, although many go in.”), East Africa was different: many went in, and many stayed. On a visit in 1907, Winston Churchill enjoyed the “cool and buoyant breezes, and temperate unchanging climate”.

The country became, for many, an imagined Eden, a place of limitless sunsets, powerful cocktails and biddable African servants. The Happy Valley image still persists, backed up by such light cultural fare as White Mischief and Out of Africa.

When Kenya has failed to fit into the simple, peaceful character prescribed for it (in the past, as much as today) the British reaction has tended to be astonishment, followed by fury. The Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s was a complicated upheaval, something close to a civil war involving issues of race but also of tribalism, nationalism and economic inequality. Most British officials, however, saw merely an atavistic revolt by terrorist savages. Mau Mau became shorthand for barbarism, and the revolt was crushed, often with extreme brutality.

Kenya won independence soon after, but the tendency to view Kenya as somehow distinct from the rest of Africa has continued. If the West had not inherited such an idealised vision, then perhaps the current horror might have been prevented.

While Kenya seems clean and comfortable from the outside, its politics have grown steadily more corrupt, riven and driven by ethnic tensions and personal graft. Since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1991, every election has had irregularities, although never quite on the current scale.

Kenya may look comparatively prosperous. Yet massive population growth (from 13.5 million in 1975 to more than 33 million today), pressure on land, rising unemployment, and increasing economic disparity between the Kikuyu and other tribes paint a picture very different from

the placid images of the safari brochures.

Western leaders can hardly claim ignorance of what was happening in Kenya beneath the surface. In 2005, the anti-corruption chief appointed by the new, “clean” Government fled to Britain bringing grim evidence of official sleaze. Instead of bringing pressure to bear on the Kenyan Government, international donors, led by the World Bank, continued to write the cheques. Between 2003 and 2006 Britain's aid to Kenya rose from £30 million to £50 million.

As always, from the days of white settlement, through Mau Mau, to the astonishingly corrupt presidency of Daniel arap Moi, the West has chosen to see in Kenya what it hopes to see. Immediately before the latest election, some observers were predicting the country would remain an oasis of calm, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Kenya was never the simple place imagined; just as the Eldoret I once visited was not the tranquil backwater it seemed. Today, far too late, Gordon Brown wags his finger at Kenya's leaders for failing to live up to our expectations, but it takes a rare British politician to see the reality behind the wishful thinking.

Churchill was one such. Back in 1907, while admiring the climate, he noted that the question of ethnic tensions in Kenya was one of a “herd of rhinoceros questions — awkward, thick-skinned and horned, with a short sight and an evil temper, and a tendency to rush blindly upwind on any alarm”.

The Kenyan rhino is now on the rampage with tragic consequences, and we should have seen it coming.