|One of the things Kenyans will have to get used to from now onwards is the fact that outsiders will be putting us in the same category as Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and other war-torn African countries.
This fact was brought home to me during a recent trip to Tanzania, where almost everyone, from the immigration officer at the airport, to the East African participants at the meeting that I was attending, gave me what a Kenyan living in New York describes as “the look” — i.e. “a tender mixture of pity and condescension directed at citizens of famous basket cases by citizens of more upstanding and functional kinds of places”.
Like the Kenyan in New York, I never thought I would one day be at the receiving end of “the look”. Funny thing is I never got that look from participants from conflict-prone countries in the region; the look on their faces was more guarded, perhaps because they knew what it feels like to be the object of pity.
But as the meeting progressed, I realised that the “look” from my Tanzanian colleagues was not so much that of pity, but of deep concern. Tanzanians, like the other Eastern Africa participants at the meeting, were convinced that a crumbling Kenya would impact the politics and the economy of the entire region and that the very notion of a united East African Community was under threat as a result of the crisis.
At this point in time, the two shining stars in the East African region are Rwanda and Tanzania. Rwanda emerged from a genocide with a forward-looking modernisation vision that boosted the economy and brought in stability. Thanks to Julius Nyerere’s vision, the idea that one must cling to one’s ethnicity for safety or comfort has almost completely disappeared in Tanzania.
In the early years of independence, Nyerere laid the foundations of a socially cohesive society that had a healthy sense of what Tanzanians call “utu” (roughly translated as human-hood in Kiswahili, and as ubuntu in southern Africa).
But many Tanzanians, including those in the private sector, are worried that recent attempts at privatisation and liberalisation of the economy may lead to new divisions in society, which could see this peaceful country go the Kenya way. The gap between the rich and poor is widening and the country’s vast mineral resources have not benefited everyone equally. In fact, despite heavy dependence on donor aid, one-third of the country’s people still cannot meet their basic needs. Tanzanians often jokingly refer to themselves as “beggars sitting on chairs of gold”.
TANZANIANS COULD LEARN A LOT from the Kenyan experience, the most important lesson being that economic growth in itself will not solve all of a country’s problems.
The Mwai Kibaki administration has consistently harped on the fact that the economic growth that it brought to the country would eventually trickle down to the smallest subsistence farmer and that inequality is a natural consequence of growth, especially in the early stages of development.
Some economic theorists have echoed this sentiment by saying that inequality might even be desirable in the early stages of development because it allows the industrial and manufacturing sectors to take advantage of cheap labour. This theory also postulates that as aggregate incomes increase over time, inequality declines.
However, the theory is based on the assumption that growth will remain positive and consistent over time.
What these theorists don’t tell you is that every society has a threshold of inequality after which the cost of repairing the consequences of inequality are so high, that they cancel out all growth. And this is exactly what has happened in Kenya. We are now almost on our knees as far as the economy is concerned and our society is so broken and fragmented, it may take years to recover.
This happened because we failed to implement crucial reforms that would have addressed issues of social and economic justice and equity and thus allowed frustrations within society to simmer to boiling point.
We have sacrificed our Kenyan identity at the altar of ethnic identity. We have created a culture where wealth and power for their own sake are seen as worthy goals. We’ve consistently failed to address graft in a systemic manner. We deify our politicians and are disappointed when they turn out to be tin gods.
Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a society is to have the equivalent of a nervous breakdown so that it can finally seek a lasting cure. As Kofi Annan pointed out last Friday, sometimes a crisis can be an opportunity to bring about fundamental changes in society. Was our melt-down a necessary prerequisite to true reform and healing? Maybe — but I am not sure if those who are dead, were raped or are now homeless would agree.
Rasna Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.