I touched a few bases while briefly in Washington recently. I was left with the impression of general “benign neglect” on Kenya, which would be expected given the overwhelming number of more immediate crisis situations around East Africa, such as the South Sudan “civil war/state failure” situation, escalating tensions between the Kagame and Museveni regimes, the uncontained Ebola crisis, etc. And always the war in Somalia.
Nonetheless, there are those who work or engage with Kenya more specifically on a less seasonal basis who will unavoidably have noticed how badly the Government of Kenya has been underperforming just as a factual matter regardless of the diplomatic angles of the day.
All this is to lay the groundwork for my great interest in a couple of news items today:
1). First was the report that Ambassador McCarter had said in Kisimu that the U.S. was putting on hold financing for the Bechtel Mombasa-Nairobi expressway due to concerns about corruption risk and debt levels escalating costs such that the intended value to the Kenyan people was not delivered. Here is the version from “Kenyans.co.ke” which has been running a bunch of pieces bringing up events from political inflection points from years past with no specific explanation of the timing, such as the piece I posted about last week taken off from my June 2017 piece in The Elephant on “The Debacle of 2007: How Kenyan Politics was Frozen and a Election Stolen with U.S. Connivance“.
As a private American “friend of Kenya” and taxpayer I am quite gratified by this willingness to change policy to address current “facts on the ground” and to actually “walk the talk” on “anti-corruption” even if it involves possibly giving up a big subsidized project for a very big well-connected private business owned by a group of Americans.
I have been concerned about this project for the reasons identified by the Ambassador but have not wanted to say much without being close enough to have details and not wanting to be seen as an inveterate naysayer or unduly skeptical about things where I am not that well informed.
Maybe Ambassador McCarter can end up being a “breath of fresh air” and is actually serious in his talk of zero tolerance for corruption in a way that would be different from the ordinary diplomacy where we run hot-and-cold at best. If no one explained to him as a political appointee from outside Washington that “zero” among diplomats ends up as shorthand for a wide range of dollar values in varying circumstances explained in the addendums and codicils, as opposed to just “zero” as it might mean to a businessman in downstate Illinois, then maybe Kenyan cartel leaders need to be worried a bit after all?
And if people in Washington have their hands full or are not focused on the immediate situation in Kenya, and with what we read about how national security policy management is working in Washington these days, it may well be that McCarter has that much greater practical latitude “on the ground”? Likewise, usually an Ambassador in Kenya will have the potential distraction of career considerations not dissimilar to people working in the government in Washington; this would not seem to be a challenge for McCarter. (And maybe he isn’t looking to be a lobbyist for a neighboring warlord in a black hat, and an oil and gas consultant and an investor-broker in USAID-funded health business, for instance.)
There are obvious sociocultural and political barriers to how McCarter will be perceived in Washington and among Americans who typically engage with foreign policy on Kenya or are “Kenyanists” or “Africanists” with focus on Kenya, but open minds are warranted. And maybe that works both directions.
Part of what is so striking here is how much Uhuru Kenyatta has in the past seemed to be arguably “Donald Trump’s signature African leader”–not so much that they are seen to really know each other or have some personal rapport, but rather that in the face of general lack of signs of personal interest in Africa from Trump we still have Uhuru at least included in meetings and doing photo ops with Trump in Europe, Canada and Washington, if not yet Mar-a-Lago, during the first two years of the Administration. Even though he was such a favorite of some in the Bush-Obama years.
So surely putting the Bechtel deal on hold suggests that there is finally heightened willingness to openly acknowledge that governance is simply not now what it was cracked up to be from our previous public diplomacy in recent years.
2) Next is Macharia Gaitho in the Daily Nation publishing today’s column: “Either rebels in Jubilee ranks join opposition, or Uhuru steps down” calling out Jubilee’s divide:
The politicians who contrive to insert his name [Deputy President Ruto’s] into every issue do the DP no favours at all. It does not help his image or his 2022 presidential election prospects when his name is used to fly cover for disreputable leaders caught on the wrong side of the law.
. . . .
As an elected member in his own right, a Majority Leader [Sen. Kipchumba Murkomen] does owe a duty to his constituents. Where conflicted, however, he could consult internally within the government and party organs.If his concerns are not adequately addressed, then the honourable thing would be to relinquish the Majority Leader role so that he can, in good conscience, speak out for his people both inside and outside Parliament.
As it is, what we are seeing from Mr Murkomen’s now frequent outbursts are the hallmark of rebellion. This is rebellion not from one disaffected individual, but a powerful Ruto faction in Jubilee that is unhappy with the path pursued by President Kenyatta.
Jubilee cannot govern effectively when it has such a powerful opposition within; hence the rudderless, dysfunctional government seemingly sabotaging its own efforts.
This is not a healthy situation. Maybe, it would be best for Mr Ruto and his cohorts to resign and go officially into opposition or for President Kenyatta to throw up his hands in surrender and leave the burden of leadership to those more able.
Now I don’t know and haven’t asked, but there have been recent times when Gaitho has seemed to be carrying a message, such as the time when he explained that Raila’s fellowship at Yale was intended to be a perk to ease into a honorable retirement, not a springboard to run yet again in 2017. Different Kenyan columnists are in this role at different times it has seemed over the years. See “Six years an Ambassador: Godec’s Kenya valedictory with Macharia Gaitho”.
This background made me figuratively “perk up my ears” when I read the Gaitho blast after the news on the Bechtel expressway deal.
As a practical matter, there are certain ironies any time it is suggested that “regular order” of some type is suddenly warranted in Kenyan politics. Uhuru Kenyatta himself as KANU leader and Leader of the Opposition in 2007, crossed the aisle to support “Kibaki Tena” without resigning, when party godfather, retired President Moi who picked Uhuru from relative obscurity to nominate as his successor in 2002, realigned his fortunes, so to speak, to be with Kibaki while being appointed as Kibaki’s diplomatic representative for Southern Sudan. So I think Ruto might scoff at Gaithos’s advice now, and I doubt Uhuru’s mother would be good with him resigning at this point with all the family has going on at stake. Too much water under the bridge for too many years to expect anyone “in government” to go formally into “opposition” voluntarily–reform can happen but not nearly so easily or cheaply.
A necessary and complimentary read is the latest from Rasna Warah in the East African Review with what needed to be said on the most egregious act of contempt toward what we used to call “the reform agenda”: “In whose interest? Reflecting on the High Court judgment against John Githongo?”
Ambassador Kyle McCarter deserves to be given all benefits of doubt regarding doing something about the existential threats to Kenya of corruption and state capture. Doing nothing about the genuinely dire situation in Kenya will undermine American national security interests throughout the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in East Africa. After 38 years in Kenya I can truthfully say that we’re reaching a tipping point where popular revolution and societal dislocation are well within the realm of probability; when the genie escapes the Kenyan bottle none of the King’s men will put Humpty Dumpty together again.