Scenes of Kenyans desperately queuing for fuel at petrol stations across the country have saturated the media in recent weeks. Official explanations haven’t really passed muster with citizens as the price of fuel continues to rise due to both local and international factors. The most readily accepted “local factor” is incompetence and corruption on the part of a government that has run out of foreign exchange at the same time as it is having to pull off a giant heist to fund the August general election.
Across the world a range of countries face similar scenes of economic distress, from Argentina to Sri Lanka and Lebanon. Even Pakistan is wobbly and the powerful regime in Turkey has had to manage the dramatic decline in its currency. Across the continent, Kenya has been added to the list—along with Ghana, Angola, Ethiopia and Zambia—of countries at heightened risk of debt default. Zambia has already defaulted on its international debt obligations.
Combined with power outages and a structural water deficit, the pressure is building as we go into elections. Election years are always terrible for the economy. Global inflation post-COVID—and with the Europeans getting properly stuck in a protracted conflict—is now clearly reordering the world. Like some others in trouble, the Kenyan case is simple: those in charge of the country’s economic affairs have spent the last decade and a half—since the 2008 financial crisis in the West—high on cheap credit and have avoided going cold turkey through expensive borrowing from European markets and from China. But the cost of booze has shot up and the cold turkey phase has kicked in, overseen by doctors from the IMF and World Bank last trained in the 1950s. A massive hangover is settling in and the hard-core addicts have started vomiting on tables and soiling themselves in full view of the global community. The UN’s World Happiness Report now ranks Uganda as the happiest country in East Africa at 117/144, followed by Kenya at 119/144 and Tanzania 139/144. Surprisingly, at 143/144, Rwanda, a poster child for the donor community, is the second most unhappy country on the planet! Britain will be sending its refugees there.
That said, combined with demographics, natural trajectory and cheap global credit, one of the incredible things China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) did was to create a brittle consumerist middle class in many African urban areas like Nairobi—a tiny iPhone-owning, Netflix-and-chilling, two-car-possessing, land-buying, globe-trotting, prosperity-gospel-church-going, single malt-swilling, aspirational, highly articulate, well-educated globalised class. Unfolding events are shredding this class in real time. Those in Kenya who read the tea leaves have bought apartments in Dubai, opened accounts in Mauritius and are bracing themselves for the impending storm. Among well-to-do Kenyans, a popular model is to have a child admitted to an American, Canadian or other Western University, then send the wife there to set up shop, find a mistress to entertain you in the interregnum here in Nairobi and, if the worst comes to pass you jet out and join Madam and the kids in Minnesota. There you quickly adjust to the reality that the policeman who stops you can kill you on a whim and that you can’t call the White House or Congress for someone to make your parking ticket go away.
For the lower middle class, however, the last decade has been a lost one.
Still, the election-related nervousness is understandable because history informs these concerns. On the 1st of April 2022, Raila Odinga’s campaign helicopter was stoned in the Deputy President’s Uasin Gishu heartland. One shudders at the thought of what might have happened had the chopper come down with the candidate in it, in that particular part of the country, with its particular history regarding election-related violence. But then, it does to keep in mind that violence is the language via which Kenya’s elites speak to one another, using the blood of their supporters. Today’s entrenched foes whose supporters attack each other with machetes are tomorrow’s political allies. Kenya’s stability is born of this fundamental cynicism that is baked into our system. But if violence is the language of our elites as they negotiate politics, the judiciary has since 2013 emerged as a significant occasional disruptor.
Those in Kenya who read the tea leaves have bought apartments in Dubai, opened accounts in Mauritius and are bracing themselves for the impending storm.
All this causes me to recall the catastrophic explosion at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon on the 4th of August 2020. Over 2,700 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate had sat at the port unsupervised for 13 years with the knowledge of the authorities. The unique stability of Lebanon obtained at the price of a deeply cynical political settlement between armed sectarian groups created the circumstances—the corruption and inert stabilising incompetence that allowed the gigantic explosion to take place, killing 218 people, injuring over 7,000, leaving over 300,000 homeless and causing over US$15 billion in damage. Worst of all, the entire saga dented the confidence of some of the most resilient people in the Middle East who had put up with the corrupt political deal that had ended the civil war and allowed the belligerents to run Lebanon’s affairs.
Kenya is similar to Lebanon in some ways: a dynamic entrepreneurial private sector; a venal self-serving political elite willing to kill people merely to send messages to one another; an open society with a great media, civil society and basic freedoms in a neighbourhood not known for them. The weather is generally great too. Still, election periods are always nerve-wracking times. Like many African countries, though, Kenya has recovered reasonably from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy is resilient, and the society is tough—although that toughness will be tested over the coming three months.
A Mephistophelian political merger?
The political realignments occurring in the last three months have been breath-taking. This is characteristic of Kenyan democracy and, a bit like being a passenger in a matatu driven by a drunk, not for the faint hearted. Ultimately, 26 parties—including Raila Odinga’s ODM and President Kenyatta’s Jubilee—managed something last attempted in March 2002 between KANU, then led by President Moi, and the National Democratic Party, then headed by Raila Odinga: a legal merger into one political giant, the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition Party. It is all the more unique because the merger unites two formerly implacable political foes against the president’s bosom buddy during the last two elections in 2013 and 2017, Deputy President William S. Ruto and the UDA party.
Ruto has also achieved something pretty unique: if the polls are to be believed, he, a Kalenjin from the Rift Valley, has managed to steal from a sitting Kikuyu head of state most of the political support in the president’s own heartland, among the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people around Mount Kenya. This is an extraordinary achievement and may in part explain the extraordinary measures that have been taken to try to stop the Ruto juggernaut. Over the coming 100 days we shall see whether Uhuru Kenyatta—always the people-pleaser—can, together with Raila Odinga—always the people-puller—regain some sort of political grip on the Mount Kenya vote for the election and simply to save face. The stakes are high and as I said, the election coincides with an economy that is being held together with political super glue, PR and the goodwill of friends.
All said, the merger and the coming election contest pale into insignificance when contrasted with the real issues that form the backdrop of our politics. Global tectonic shifts are underway: Europe is at war, China is on the rise, India, Turkey and other countries are increasingly assertive and independent at a time when they sense the end of the American hegemon.
And while our politicians gorge themselves into a stupor, we are in the middle of a drought that electioneering could turn into a famine; 3.5 million Kenyans are in food distress after three years of poor rains. The profligacy of the last ten years—the lost decade for Kenya’s millennials—is now costing us in real terms as inflation skyrockets and the IMF and others take over as the prefects of our economic management. The impoverishment of Kenyans, especially those who had their foot on the bottom rung of the middle class ladder, has been exacerbated by COVID and, most importantly, by an elite that either just doesn’t get it or simply doesn’t care.
This last consideration is perhaps the most troubling; that despite it all (for much has been achieved, many mistakes have been made, and billions of dollars have been stolen), despite this exciting messy mish-mash, the elite may not care. Some don’t care because their hearts are cold and they have never cared and others don’t care because they sincerely don’t know how and don’t understand. For them, Kenya is divided into their buddies on the one hand, and their employees and servants on the other. This latter category is disposable. Their murdered bodies can float down the Yala River with disturbing regularity but life continues, the party goes on.
As I said, we are entering that season of political recklessness that is expressed in the language of violence. But as I also said, Kenya is resilient and if we come out of it, we shall be bedraggled but perhaps much the better for it, forced to confront our own demons in stark ways. Kenya has the human capacity to punch its way out of the brown paper bag we find ourselves in.