The ethnic violence in Kenya is popping a balloon of optimism around what was, until botched national elections in late December, the most successful African turnaround story since the end of apartheid in South Africa a generation ago. It was only a few months ago that informed observers were finding much to feel optimistic about in Kenya’s economic growth, tourism and rising zeal for equity. That optimism is shattered, at least around the world. In Kenya itself, many remain in denial over the unraveling of their country’s social order, from the elite banker I met on the plane to Nairobi on Friday to the interesting Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who penned a celebretary profile of a rising Kenya in the July issue of Vanity Fair (devoted chiefly to Africa).
Back in July Wainaina wrote that despite political scandals and corruption, economic growth and modernization were occuring rapidly in Kenya. While decrying Western media for concentrating too much on the negative, he enthusiastically concluded, “What is notable [about Kenya’s revival] is that most scandals are now revealed before they become a significant threat to public safety and economic security.”
Wainaina of course had in mind, when writing these words, political and economic corruption. He was not thinking of another scandal — of the corruption of ethnicity, of the failure of Kenyan society to address the challenge of diversity, especially among its most influential ethnic groups. The cost of failing to manage diversity remains untallied, but it is growing with each day that Kenya’s President Kibaki fails to accept that some kind of power-sharing — some kind of “affirmative action” for Kenya’s less advantaged groups — is inevitable in order to restore order and a sense of common purpose to this benighted east African country.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Wainaina makes a similar suggestion that deserves serious consideration:
“Nations are built on crises like this. If there is such a thing as Kenya, it should be gathering energy right now. Two leaders can sit down, form a power-sharing agreement and put together a system to handle elections and transition. A Constitution that names and recognizes the tribal nations within our nation, that decentralizes some power and that includes us all in the process is possible.”