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Monday, 4 March 2013

The Long-Term View

Today, presidential elections are being held in Kenya. The question on all commentators' mind is whether they will be more peaceful than the ones in 2010. Nobody knows the answer, we will have to see today.

A short excursion into the recent past is required to answer the more fundamental question whether Kenya is moving in the right direction. Is Kenya developing towards democratic and fair society, where individuals' rights are protected and an effort is made to offer everyone an equal opportunity to realise their aspirations?

Today, we should remember the 24 years (from 1978 to 2002), during which Arap Moi ruled Kenya with an iron fist, a period during which many of today's Kenyans were born or grew up. Moi legitimized his rule by the "nyayo" (footsteps) ideology, which suggested he would follow in the footsteps of the founding president Yomo Kenyatta, whose Vice-President he was for 11 years years (from 1967 to 1978). Here is a short moving documentary about this period.

Moi's main concern however was not legitimacy or ideology, rather his only goal was to remain in power at whatever cost. Moi liked to present himself as a good Christian, almost a holy man, while everybody knew what was going on behind the smoke screens. One of the most painful things of living in a dictatorship is not always the direct limitations and hardships, but to be treated as a fool

Initially, Moi was successful in covering up the true face of his regime. Journalists who reported on corruption and human right abuses would be deported. Kenyan groups of academics and students, who started to organize to promote democratic reform, would be infiltrated by the secret police. Their members would subsequently be killed, or flee in exile. 

While external observers - such as the reports of Amnesty International and a special investigation by the United Nations - established beyond doubt that human right abuses were systematic and widespread in Kenya under the Moi regime, change came only slowly and from within.

What we tend to forget today is how a similar regime freezes development, and hurts the well-being of individuals. Under Moi, society lost all its dynamics, everybody was powerless, except the big man. Good things only happened to relatives or supporters of the big man. A culture of powerlessness, ignorance and secrecy dominated society. Rumours were a better source of information than the newspapers. They were also used as the cheapest form of attack, without any risk for the attacker. Scandals would be known, but smothered in the media. For individuals to survive the only option was to be seen loyal to the regime. Everybody lived in fear, while at the same time paying lip service to the regime. Everybody was asking themselves, why was the economy not growing? Where was the money going? Why all the corruption and the scandals?

Fortunately, Moi was constitutionally barred from running in the 2002 presidential elections. He believed nobody could replace him. Nevertheless, Mwai Kibaki won the elections convincingly and led the country to accept a necessary constitutional reform in 2010, which today guarantees the abuses of the past can not occur again. Now Kenya has a vibrant, democratic culture, which as such things go, everybody takes for granted. It was not always that way, and it took a lot of effort of good people to get where Kenya is today.

There will be hurdles on the road, but Kenya is moving in the right direction, and its movement has become irreversible. Too many now have tasted the satisfaction that come with living in a reasonably free and democratic society.

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