On Thursday, Kenya celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence. A public holiday has been declared. Banks, businesses and schools will be closed. Balloons and fireworks will go up. Buried and long-forgotten are the words of Prince Philip, standing next to the country’s new leader, Jomo Kenyatta, as the British flag was lowered for the last time: “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
Today, Kenya is the jewel of a rising Africa. Bankers and dealmakers flock to Nairobi. Housing prices are more typical of New York or London. Instead of a dark continent of poverty, disease and war, Africa increasingly means business.
As Kenya celebrates its half-centennial, it can rightly look at this record with pride and hope. Yet this optimism must be tempered. The gap between rich and poor is widening; critics charge that Africa’s boom chiefly benefits a small elite. Social services are being outstripped by the needs of a fast-growing, young population. Much of the continent’s new prosperity can be credited to gains in political and social stability, made possible in turn by better governance. But will these gains stick?
In Kenya, that’s still an open question. A Western ambassador with long experience across the continent put it this way: “Kenya is at a tipping point.” It can either advance toward greater democracy and prosperity, he said, or it can slip backwards. He figured the odds at 50-50.
For Kenya, the past few months have been troubling. In August, the international arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta airport burned to the ground. Investigators blamed an electrical fire; others believe it resulted from a dispute over who had rights to under-the-table rents from a fake jewelry shop.
Then came the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall. International solidarity was initially with the government, standing firm against Muslim Al Shabab extremists in Somalia. That narrative shifted when it emerged that Kenyan armed forces had exploited the shootout to loot the mall. An official inquiry has been ordered; most Kenyans expect it to end in a whitewash.
The consequence has been an erosion of public confidence, compounded by an escalation in violent crime. Scarcely a day goes by without some chilling report: schoolchildren kidnapped by men dressed as police officers; robberies, carjackings and murders, with the perpetrators rarely brought to justice. Meanwhile, official corruption appears to have gone from bold to brazen.
Kenyans complain that the attentions of the government of Uhuru Kenyatta, in office only eight months, have been diverted from these and other problems by the controversy over the International Criminal Court. Will the president go to The Hague and face his accusers? If he were acquitted — and the evidence underlying the case appears flimsier by the day — he would become an African hero. Were he convicted, tribal violence would likely flare across the country.
The government has lashed out at critics. Parliament has approved a media law that would roll back press freedoms. Other legislation targets NGOs and human rights groups by restricting the funding they can receive from abroad, potentially gutting many of them.
The constitutionality of both laws will be challenged in the supreme court — not to mention the more influential court of public opinion. Sadly but inevitably, Kenya’s 50th anniversary celebrations will be clouded by these realities. Considering how far the country has come, it deserves far better.
Michael Meyer, a former communications director for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.