A brown clod of earth, trailing tufts of grass like a green scalp, suddenly soared through the air and landed on the stage, thrown by someone high on the surrounding slopes. Then another one sailed overhead, this time falling short and hitting the journalists packed against the podium. Then came some sticks, a hail of small stones. The first rows of the crowd hunched their shoulders and hoped it would get no worse: there were plenty of kids up there from Kibera slum, the sprawl of rusty shacks that stretched like an itchy brown sore across the modern city landscape, and they had a nasty habit of using their own excrement as missiles. The mood in the open-air stadium in Uhuru Park on 30 December 2002, a year and a half before that strange meeting in the finance ministry, was on the brink of turning ugly. Mostly male, mostly young, the audience was getting bored with waiting.
For much of the morning the mood had been cheerful. The thousands of Kenyans who had begun streaming into the amphitheatre at 7 a.m. for the presidential inauguration–the first change of leadership via the ballot box since independence–had every reason to pat themselves on the back. With the simplest of acts, they had pulled off
what felt like a miracle. They had queued patiently for hours in the sun, cast their ballots and in the process turned their backs on the retiring Daniel arap Moi, twenty-four years at the helm, the president credited with reducing East Africa’s most prosperous economy to ‘nchi ya kitu kidogo
’: ‘land of the “little something”’, homeland of the bribe. Campaigning on an issue that infuriated the public–the corruption souring every aspect of their lives–the opposition had united under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and stomped to victory. It had told the electorate it was ‘unbwogable
’–uncrushable–and this had proved no idle boast, for it had broken the ruling KANU party’s thirty-nine-year grip on power.
It seemed as though Kenya’s political parties had finally matured, realising that so long as they allowed tribal differences to dominate, with each ethnic group mustering behind its own presidential candidate, Moi would win. In contrast with so many of his African counterparts, the loser–Moi’s handpicked protégé Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the nation’s founding father–had gracefully accepted the results. In the slum estates the night before, many had braced themselves for a military takeover, reasoning that Moi’s security services would surely not meekly accept the people’s verdict. They had been proved wrong, and the fact that power was about to change hands peacefully in an African nation, rather than at the barrel of a gun, was hailed by the Western press as a tribute to both the rule of law and a politically mature public’s self-control. The partying had gone on into the early hours, with Tusker beer washing down roasted chicken. When it became clear which way the vote was going, residents had rounded up all the local cockerels and slaughtered the ‘jogoo’, hated symbol of the once-proud KANU, which Moi had promised would rule the country for a hundred years. This morning they were turning up to bear living witness to their own historic handiwork.
Up on the dais, an array of African presidents and generals in gold brocade and ribbons sat fanning themselves. Next to them sweltered the diplomats, ham-pink under their panamas. Kenyan VIPs, finding no seats available, sat uncomplaining on the floor, their wives’ glossy wraps trailing in the dust. As the timetable slipped by two, then three,
four, five hours, the amphitheatre steadily filled. An incongruous aroma of Sunday lunch wafted through the air as thousands of feet crushed the wild garlic growing on the slopes. Nearby trees sagged under the weight of street boys seeking a bird’s eye view. An urchin on the rooftop of the podium wiggled his ragged arse to the music from the military band, which, like all the armed forces present, was beginning to lose its nerve. They had rehearsed exhaustively for this event, but had never anticipated these kind of numbers: 300,000? 500,000? Who could count that sea of brown heads? At the start, police horses had plunged and reared as the General Service Unit (GSU), Kenya’s dreaded paramilitary elite, attempted to clear the area in front of the dais. They had pushed the crowd back, only for policemen posted on the fringes to push it forward. But as the throng grew, and grew, and grew, the men from the GSU dismounted and quietly joined the onlookers, aware that the best they could hope for now was avoiding a stampede.
Gathered at the front, we journalists had long ago lost our carefully chosen perches and jealously cherished camera angles, swallowed up by the crowd pressing hard at our backs. Pinned against my neighbours, I could feel small hands, fleeting as lizards, fluttering lightly through my pockets in search of money, mobile, wallet. With a heave, I scrambled onto a creaking table where a dozen sweaty photographers and reporters teetered, bitching fretfully at one another–‘Don’t move!’ ‘Hey, head down, you’re blocking my shot!’ ‘Stop pushing!’–a touch of hysteria–‘STOP PUSHING!’ The ceremony was now running six hours late. Rather than whipping up the audience, newly elected MPs were appealing for calm from the stage. A Kenyan reporter next to me rolled the whites of her eyes skywards, gracefully fainted and was passed out over people’s heads in the crucifix position, like a fan at a rock concert. I wondered how long it would be before I followed her. People were keeling over left, right and centre, ambulance crews plunging bravely into the throng to remove the wilting bodies.
Finally, amid cheeky cries of ‘Speed up! Speed up!’, accompanied by ‘fast-forward’ gestures from the crowd, the ceremony started. An
aide walked on bearing a gold-embroidered leather pouffe. This, it turned out, was the Presidential Pouffe, there to prop up the plastered leg of winner Mwai Kibaki, who had survived the years in opposition only to be nearly killed in a campaign car crash. Next came Kibaki himself, his wheelchair carried by eight straining men. The ramp they laboured up had been the topic of a debate which exposed the establishment’s nervousness. Frightened of being implicated, at even the most pragmatic level, in this near-inconceivable changing of the guard, jittery officials from the ministry of public works had refused to build the cement slope required, forcing an exasperated army commander to contract the work out to a private firm.
Kibaki was followed by the outgoing Moi, ornate ivory baton clutched in one hand, trademark rosebud in the lapel of a slate-grey suit, face expressionless. Later, it was said the generals had gone to Moi when it became clear which way the election was going and offered to stage a coup. In his prime, his hold on the nation had been so tight, cynics had quipped, ‘L’état, c’est Moi.’ But the Old Man had waved the generals wearily away, aware such times were past, Kenya was no longer destined to follow such clichéd African lines.
Eyes yellow and unreadable, Moi took his salute and delivered his last presidential speech without a hint of bitterness, hailing the rival by his side as ‘a man of integrity’. This former schoolteacher’s presidency had been an exercise in formalism, and he was determined to fulfil this last, painful role impeccably. But the mob showed no mercy–those watching the ends of Africa’s dinosaur leaders never do. What fun, after a quarter-century of respectful forelock-tugging, to be able to let rip. ‘Bye bye,’ they jeered. ‘Go away.’ Others sang: ‘Everything is possible without Moi,’ a pastiche of the ‘Everything is possible with faith’ gospel sung in church. In the crowd, someone brandished a sign: ‘KIBAKI IS OUR MOSES’.
Then it was Kibaki’s turn. It was a moment for magnanimity–peaceful handovers, as everyone present that day knew, should never be taken for granted in Africa. And the seventy-one-year-old former finance minister, an upper-class sophisticate known for the amount of time he spent on the golf course, his lazy geniality, was not built in
the vengeful, rabble-rousing mould. So the concentrated anger of his speech had those sitting behind Kibaki blinking in surprise. It offered a sudden glimpse of something raw and keen: a fury that had silently brewed under the suave façade during years of belittlement. Never deigning to mention the man sitting by his side, his former boss, Kibaki dismissed Moi’s legacy as worthless. ‘I am inheriting a country that has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude,’ he told the crowd. He warned future members of his government and public officers that he would respect no ‘sacred cows’ in his drive to eliminate sleaze. ‘The era of “anything goes” is gone forever. Government will no longer be run on the whims of individuals.’ Then he pronounced the soundbite that would haunt his time in office, destined to be constantly replayed on Kenyan television and radio, acquiring a different meaning every time. ‘Corruption,’ he said, ‘will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.’ Whenever I hear it today, I notice a tiny detail that passed me by as I stood in that sweaty scrum, smeared notebook in hand, mentally drafting the day’s article: Kibaki, always a laboured speaker, slightly fumbles the word ‘cease’. Lisped, it comes out sounding very much like ‘thief’.
The speeches over, the various presidents headed for their motorcades as the security services heaved sighs of relief. The inauguration had been an organisational débâcle, but tragedy had somehow been skirted, as was the Kenyan way. For Moi, one last indignity was reserved. When his limousine drew away, snubbing a long-delayed State House lunch in favour of the helicopter that would whisk him away from the hostile capital and to his upcountry farm, it was stoned by the crowd.
As I climbed down off the table, my bag momentarily became wedged in the mêlée, and hands reached out from the crowd. Remembering the little fingers at work earlier in the morning, I rounded my shoulders and gave my bag an aggressive yank. ‘Oh, no, no, madam,’ sorrowed a man, knowing exactly what was in my mind. ‘Those days are over now in Kenya, this is a new country.’ They were reaching out not to mug me but to help me, a member of the international press who had played a tiny part in Kenya’s moment of glory
by mere dint of witnessing it. ‘You will see, this will be our best ever government,’ chimed in a smiling student, sweat-soaked T-shirt plastered to his body, and I felt a spasm of shame.
In the days that followed I would often feel ashamed, for my professional cynicism was out of step with the times. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, a conviction that with this election, Kenyans had brought about a virtually bloodless political, social and psychological rebirth, saving themselves from ruin in the nick of time. Many of those who had represented the country’s frustrated conscience–human rights campaigners, lawyers and civic leaders who had risked detention, police beatings and harassment in their bid to drag the country into the twenty-first century–were now in charge. Mass happiness blended with communal relief to forge a sense of national purpose. With this collective elation went an impatience with the old ways of doing things. Newspapers recounted with glee how irate passengers were refusing to allow matatu touts to hand over the usual kitu kidogo–that ubiquitous ‘little something’–to the fat-bellied police manning the roadblocks, lecturing officers that a new era had dawned. There were reports of angry wananchi–ordinary folk–storming an upcountry police station to demand refunds of bribes paid over the years. In ministries, at City Hall, at the airport, only the very foolish still asked for the customary backhander. Backs were straightened, desks cleared in nervous anticipation of an incoming deputy minister or mayor out to show the TV cameras that he would have no truck with sloth and incompetence. Large signs–‘This is a corruption-free zone’, ‘No bribes’, ‘You have a right to free service’–went up in government offices, along with corruption complaints boxes, which swiftly filled up with letters venting grievances that had festered through the decades.
The social contract taken for granted in so many Western countries, barely discernible in Kenya, suddenly began to make itself felt. ‘Damn it all,’ a Kenyan writer returning from self-imposed exile told me, with the air of a man making a possibly foolhardy concession, ‘I’m even thinking of paying tax!’ And just in case anyone was in danger of forgetting the past, the NARC government threw open the basements
of Nyayo House, an ugly beige high-rise on the corner of Uhuru Highway, in whose dank cells opponents of the Moi regime had been beaten, reduced to drinking their own urine and killed. When Gallup conducted a poll, it found that Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world, with 77 per cent saying they had high hopes for the future. Reserved and inhibited, Kenyans are sometimes dubbed ‘the Englishmen of Africa’ because of their refusal to live up to the stereotype of boisterous, carefree Africans. After decades languishing in the grey fug of the Moi regime, they could barely stop smiling.
And the new president kept hitting the right notes. When the country’s biggest companies took out fawning newspaper advertisements congratulating him, Kibaki reproved them for wasting money. He had no intention, he said, of following his predecessor’s example by putting his face on the national currency, streets and buildings. His pledge not to bring city traffic grinding to a halt with wailing presidential motorcades seemed to hold good. Across the land, the framed official Moi photograph, so ubiquitous it had become virtually invisible, came down from the walls, but was not immediately replaced with one of Kibaki. Shop owners propped the new official portrait against the walls, waiting to see how the political climate would turn. Perhaps Kenya had got beyond the point of needing such crude symbols of authority. As for the media, they luxuriated in a less fractious relationship with the new establishment. It had taken the dawn of multi-partyism in 1992 for any newspaper cartoonist to dare depict the president. Even then they had gone on tiptoe, initially showing no more than a hand with a rungu, Moi’s signature baton, then depicting the Great Man as a silhouette from behind, before cautiously shifting him round, image by image, to face the readership. ‘It was from simple fear, because they could come for you,’ recalled cartoonist Frank Odoi. But with Kibaki, who had been drawn for decades lazing at the golf course, such veneration would have been absurd. The new president was shown full-on, just as he always had been.
The cabinet Kibaki unveiled on the lawn of State House–‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are in business’–rewarded allies who had made
victory possible. A member of the Kikuyu,1
Kenya’s largest and most economically successful tribe, Kibaki knew his nation’s two-score smaller tribes needed reassurance if they were to stay on board. Announcing the line-up, he promised foreign donors, itching to resume lending frozen during the Moi years of mutual ill-will, that he would swiftly implement two anti-corruption bills dear to their hearts. There was less detail on the new constitution NARC had undertaken to introduce within a hundred days, expected to trim the president’s sweeping executive powers and force him to share decision-making with a prime minister. But few doubted this was on its way. A man with a reputation for soft living and hard drinking, Kibaki knew his younger coalition partners had in part rallied behind him because they viewed him as too indolent to want to do much, too old to attempt more than one term. They regarded him as virtually a figurehead, and there was no sign that he intended to renege on the deal.
Things finally seemed to be going right for Kenya, and the news spread beyond the country’s borders like a warm glow. ‘The victory of the people of Kenya is a victory for all the people of Africa,’ South Africa’s first lady, Zanele Mbeki, pronounced at Kibaki’s swearing-in, and she was right. For Kenya is one of a handful of African nations which have always possessed a significance out of keeping with their size and population, whose twists and turns are monitored by outsiders for clues as to which direction the continent itself is taking. Somehow, what happens here matters more to the world outside than what happens in many larger, richer, more populous African countries.
This pre-eminence can in part be traced to Britain’s colonial role and the astonishingly resilient memory of ‘a sunny land for shady people’, where English aristocrats swapped wives and downed gin-and-tonics while snorting quantities of recreational drugs. Long before Barack Obama’s ancestry came to intrigue the Western public, a pith-helmeted fantasy woven from Ernest Hemingway’s tales and Martha Gellhorn’s writings, the escapades of the Delamere family, stories of the man-eating lions of Tsavo, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa
and the White Mischief cliché–all references irrelevant to ordinary Kenyans but stubbornly sustained by the tourism industry–guaranteed the country a level of brand recognition other African states could only dream about.
But there are less romantic reasons for Kenya’s disproportionately high profile. The most advanced economy in the region–thanks in part to the network of roads, cities, railroads and ports left by the British–Kenya has held linchpin status ever since independence by mere dint of what it is not. It has never been Uganda, where Idi Amin and Milton Obote demonstrated how brutal post-colonial rule could turn; or Rwanda, mourning a genocide that left nearly a million dead; or Sudan, venue for one of the continent’s longest civil wars. In place of Ethiopia’s feeding stations and Somalia’s feuding warlords, it offered safari parks and five-star coastal hotels. Kenya’s dysfunctional neighbours have always made it look good in comparison.
It had made the right choice in the Cold War lottery, allying itself with the winning, capitalist side. Kenya was the obvious place to train your soldiers, in the case of the British Army; to moor your warships, in the case of the Pentagon; to base your agencies, in the case of the United Nations; or to set up your Africa bureaux, in the case of Western television and radio stations. The road to the centre of Nairobi from Jomo Kenyatta airport–which services more airlines in an afternoon than many African airports manage in a week–said it all, with its industrial storage depots and hoardings advertising mobile phones and internet servers, beer and mattresses. ‘Nai-robbery’, as expatriates cynically dubbed it, might be potholed and crime-ridden, but it was the capital of a highly cosmopolitan, comparatively stable nation run, through the decades, by a series of administrations Westerners instinctively felt they could do business with. Like its former colonial master, Kenya had always punched above its weight, offering outsiders–wincingly sensitive to the continent’s darker manifestations–a version of Africa they could stomach.
So when Kenya, in the latter part of the Moi era, appeared to veer off course, the world pricked up its ears. Moi, admittedly, had been
nothing like as crudely predatory as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema or Cameroon’s Paul Biya–contemporaries all. But as diplomats repeatedly told government officials smarting at their criticisms: ‘We hold Kenya to higher standards than other countries.’ And when measured against what it could have become, rather than against neighbouring basket cases, Kenya, by the turn of the century, was beginning to look desperately unimpressive, the model pupil turning sullen delinquent. The end of the Cold War, which had transformed the prospects of so many African states devastated by the superpowers’ proxy wars, had delivered no ...