Change coming too slowly for many Kenyans
Old troubles persist in new democracy
NAIROBI -- After Kenya endured nearly a quarter-century of virtual one-man rule, President Mwai Kibaki has had nine months so far to exorcise the ghosts of autocracy. He made primary school free for all children. He ordered roads in the capital cleaned up, and orphans removed from the streets. And he strove to get rid of the image of Daniel arap Moi: The government printed new money without the longtime leader's likeness.
But the legacy of Moi -- one tainted by corruption, nearly empty coffers, and a steady collapse of the country's roads, phone system, and electricity -- is not so easily erased, say political analysts in Kenya's capital. Many people are frustrated with the slow pace of change.
"This new president has let us down very much," said Elijah Kungu Kimani, 32, a drug store clerk, handing a customer change of a 200-shilling note with a drawing of a young Moi on the front. "They have done better than Moi, but they have yet to sit down and get their house in order. They are all fighting for power."
Kibaki's populist National Rainbow Coalition won an overwhelming victory last December, and perhaps the euphoria of a new democracy in Kenya raised expectations unfairly as it has in many other places in the world, government officials said.
"We are just getting our act together as a government," said Gideon Konchella, Kenya's assistant minister of health. "It's a major task for this country to get the infrastructure up and running again. You cannot just jump and say you will fix it. You can only judge us after five years, not nine months."
Around Nairobi -- with a population of more than 2.5 million it is the largest city in the vast expanse between Cairo and Johannesburg -- problems are readily apparent. In the downtown, potholes mar the streets. At night, most streets go dark; in an effort to erect more streetlights, the city is encouraging residents and companies to "adopt" a lamppost and pay for its use. And forget using most land telephone lines; cellphones have become lifelines.
The country was dealt another blow with a recent State Department travel advisory that warned of terrorist factions operating in Kenya. That warning, coupled with the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy and last year's attack on a Mombasa resort, has devastated the once-mighty tourism industry. Hotels in parks and along the coast that are normally booked a year in advance for the Christmas season are expected now to be nearly empty this holiday season.
Another source of tension here stems from drawn-out plans to write a new constitution. A committee worked last week on the review despite the killing earlier this month of its chairman, professor Odhiambo Mbai. A senior government minister termed the attack a "political assassination." The investigation of the killing is continuing.
The review, which is trying to fashion other centers of power in hopes of avoiding future "Big Man" rulers such as Moi, is expected to announce its findings in December. Kibaki, in the meantime, opposes sharing power with a prime minister, one of the proposals under consideration.
Still, the constitution review process itself is a reminder of a broken promise. Before he was elected, Kibaki had said the review would be finished in 100 days, and his government had promised 500,000 new jobs. The government also said it would move to uproot corruption immediately.
"What is very clear now is that the core ruling elite seems to be not in a hurry to change things," said Phillip Nyinguro, a political science professor at the University of Nairobi. "The general feeling from people was that this government would tackle corruption head-on. No one sees this. And what also annoys people is the misuse of resources, enlarging expenditures of ministers, including seeing them all drive around in new cars."
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said tribal tensions, widespread poverty, and the climbing rate of AIDS (it is estimated at 15 percent) have "put this country on a knife's edge in many respects, even though the euphoria from the election is still there."
While foreign governments have applauded Kibaki's move to end school fees for primary education, the decision created its own set of problems. Some classrooms bulge with nearly 100 students. A teacher's union last week called for the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, but no one knows how the government can pay for it.
Along Kaunda Street in downtown Nairobi one day last week, Paul Wamae, 31, an English literature teacher at a high school 200 miles north of the capital, said that opening up the schools to the poor has "overwhelmed some districts."
"But it was exactly what [Kibaki] needed to do," Wamae said. Next to him, Agapitus Mmpapale, 38, a lay Catholic worker, said people were losing faith in the Kibaki government.Wamae, heatedly, disagreed: "We have come a long way from Moi," he said. "There was no hope. Now there is." But Mmpapale countered: "What hope? Do the poor people on the streets have hope?"
John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com