On December 27, 2002, more than five million Kenyans went to the polls to elect Mwai Kibaki as their country's third president -- Kenya's first electoral change of government since independence. The election marked the end of the 24-year presidency of Daniel arap Moi and an opportunity for Kenya to return to its once-vaunted record of political stability and economic growth. Kenyans were elated, their expectations high.

Ten months later, President George W. Bush welcomed President Kibaki to Washington for a state visit, the first African head of government he had honored in this way. Kenya has attracted Washington's attention not just because of its regional importance but because of its bold strides toward democracy and its expected role in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. But these developments cannot be taken for granted. Kenya's democratic government is fragile: it lacks centralized leadership, is riven by ethnic factionalism, and is threatened by mounting economic and security challenges. The willingness of Kenyans to assist the United States, meanwhile, is by no means assured -- the result of Washington's heavy-handed policies and its lack of sensitivity to Kenyan domestic politics. If the United States wants to secure Kenya's engagement in the war on terrorism it must develop a more nuanced understanding of Kenya's domestic situation and realize that the process of democratization extends beyond defeating the country's former authoritarian regime.

Along with Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya is one of three "anchor states" in sub-Saharan Africa -- countries that are key to the stability of the region because of location and resources. As a result, Kenya has become the platform for U.S. operations in East Africa and the Horn. It houses the largest U.S. embassy on the continent and regional headquarters for a host of U.S. activities and agencies, including security and military assistance, the Agency for International Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Library of Congress, and the Centers for Disease Control. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 1981, the U.S. Navy and Air Force may use the port of Mombasa and Kenya's international airports at Nairobi and Mombasa. These facilities have been important in U.S. naval operations in the western Indian Ocean, and for providing food and aid missions to Somalia, Rwanda, and southern Sudan.


Politically, Kenya has a checkered history. Under its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, the country prospered. Coffee and tea production expanded, a thriving tourist industry was established, and development was spurred by prudent macroeconomic policies, extensive investments in infrastructure, and the expansion of education. From 1963 to 1978, the economy grew at a rate of 5 to 8 percent in every year but two. Although Kenya became a de facto one-party state as early as 1964, Kenyatta's brand of authoritarian rule was relatively benign. The civil service maintained high professional standards, and competitive elections for the National Assembly were held every five years.

Kenya's fortunes declined sharply, however, once Daniel arap Moi took power in 1978. If Kenyatta's Kenya had a basic flaw, it was that most of its prosperity was concentrated among the members of Kenyatta's ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Residing mainly north and west of Nairobi and comprising the largest ethnic group in Kenya (with 22 percent of the population), the Kikuyu formed the core of Kenya's nationalist movement and came to dominate the civil service and the private sector during the 1960s and 1970s. Moi sought to redress this imbalance, pursuing a set of redistributive policies that favored his own ethnic group -- the Kalenjin -- and other disadvantaged tribes in the Rift valley. Although these policies were initially popular, they triggered a failed coup attempt in 1982, after which Moi became increasingly repressive. He demanded absolute loyalty to his rule, rewarding acquiescent members of the legislature with ministerial positions or dollops of cash and expelling from the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), anyone who dared criticize his policies. Elections were often rigged, the press and civil society were suppressed, and opponents were jailed. Human rights violations, including torture, became increasingly common.

By the end of the 1980s, Kenya had become a classic example of "big man" rule. Like Mobutu Sese Seko in the former Zaire and Robert Mugabe in present-day Zimbabwe, Moi turned Kenya into his personal fief, a kleptocracy under which KANU leaders looted with impunity. Corruption became the principal mechanism for regime maintenance. Not surprisingly, the economy declined. From 1990 through 2002, annual per capita income in Kenya fell from $271 to $239 and poverty rose from 48 to 56 percent. Basic social services and infrastructure, particularly roads, decayed or collapsed. The civil service, the legislature, and the judiciary became impotent, little more than rubber stamps for Moi's repressive policies.

Kenya's transition to democracy -- which lasted from the late 1980s through the 2002 elections -- was marked by a protracted struggle between Moi and those seeking to pry open the political system. Consistent with the pattern seen elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, demands for change came first from disaffected elites and ordinary citizens. But these calls fell on deaf ears. It was the changed international climate at the end of the Cold War that proved decisive. Although the United States had been silent on Moi's stewardship throughout the 1980s, it became increasingly critical of Kenya's record of economic management, corruption, and human rights. Sharing these concerns, international donors suspended $250 million in aid to Kenya in November 1991. Moi's response was swift: within a month, Kenya's constitution was amended to permit the return of multiparty politics.

Moi prevailed in Kenya's first two multiparty elections, held in 1992 and 1997, but with only a plurality of the vote. KANU won a narrow majority of seats in the National Assembly but not a majority of the ballots cast. Both elections were characterized by unprecedented levels of communal violence and foul play. Neither could be described as free and fair, despite the presence of domestic and international observers. The main reason for the opposition's defeat, however, was its failure to unite behind a single slate of candidates. In both elections, the opposition split its vote among three major ethno-regional parties and several smaller ones.

Democratization did make halting progress through the 1990s, however, as Moi's grip on power started to slip and political momentum gradually shifted to the opposition. With a narrow parliamentary majority after the 1997 elections, KANU could no longer legislate as Moi pleased. More important, a new generation of politicians, in alliance with a cohort of the old guard, began to assert its independence and openly defy Moi. This coalition was led by Kibaki, who had served as minister of finance under Kenyatta and as vice-president under Moi, before being shoved aside. Although Kibaki was a losing candidate in both elections, he finished second in 1997. The tide was beginning to turn.


Kibaki's victory in the 2002 elections was the culmination of a long and difficult process. Then 71 years old, Kibaki beat Moi's designated successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, with 62 percent of the vote. Kibaki's party, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), also defeated KANU in parliamentary elections, winning 132 seats to KANU's 67. A reinvigorated election commission and 28,000 observers (supported by the United States, among others) certainly helped: the elections were largely free of violence and judged to be free and fair. Between May 2001 and November 2002, moreover, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, and President Bush had met with Moi on four separate occasions to encourage him to retire and hold elections.

But the most important factor behind Kibaki's victory was the opposition's decision to unite around a single slate of candidates. It was a lesson that had taken a decade to learn -- NARC did not come together until ten weeks before the 2002 election -- and underscores the fact that democratic transitions are often protracted struggles requiring more than one election to complete.

NARC is exactly what its name implies: a coalition of parties. In fact, it is a coalition of two coalitions. The first, the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK), was formed five months before the 2002 elections, linking Kibaki's Democratic Party -- which drew its support from the Kikuyu people -- with a dozen other ethno-regional parties. NAK could win just over half the national vote if its constituent parties delivered all of their potential supporters. But betting the elections on such tight margins was too risky. The party found additional allies in another coalition: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP was formed ten weeks before the elections by three disaffected members of KANU, the most prominent of whom was Raila Odinga, the acknowledged leader of the Luo people. On October 22, 2002, NAK and the LDP signed a memorandum of understanding, thus creating NARC. The memorandum's key provisions were that Odinga would be appointed to the new post of prime minister and that cabinet posts would be divided "equally" between NAK and the LDP. Once NARC had been formed, the outcome of the elections was never in doubt. But NARC's formation underscores a fundamental weakness typical of political parties across Africa. The new party was -- and remains -- a coalition of convenience, united more by what it opposed than by what it actually stands for.

NARC's inherent weakness has been compounded by Kibaki's poor health and leadership style since he assumed office on December 30, 2002. The president was hospitalized in January 2003 after suffering a stroke due to injuries he sustained in a car accident just before the elections. He was unable to work full-time until early April 2003, which left a vacuum at the center of government and fueled speculation that the new president might not serve out his term.

Kibaki's method of governing has come under criticism. Whereas Moi micromanaged all aspects of government, Kibaki's approach has been to appoint competent people to head government ministries and delegate authority to them. This was Kenyatta's method when Kibaki served as minister of finance, and it worked well. It is unclear, however, whether this style will be effective under so-called Kenyatta II. Delegation requires clear guidelines, yet Kibaki's approach is often described as laid-back. The absence of a strong hand at the center of government has encouraged the most prominent leaders in the new government to pursue their own agendas, resulting in confusion and, at times, intense conflict within the ruling coalition. Indeed, four factions have emerged in the past year.

The first faction -- the old guard -- is a group of elder politicians and retired senior civil servants who were prominent during the Kenyatta era and who have been brought back to government. All are Kikuyu or Meru in ethnic background. They view Kenyatta's presidency as Kenya's golden age and believe that Moi wrecked Kenya by bringing into government a bunch of incompetents and looters. In their eyes, the central challenge today is restoring government competency rather than rethinking the role of government in the economy.

This powerful group is close to Kibaki but intellectually out of touch with younger Kikuyu professionals and businessmen -- most of whom are 15 to 30 years their junior -- and with other younger members of Kenya's middle class. Most of the younger cohort does not want a return to Kikuyu hegemony, because they appreciate the resentment this caused under Kenyatta. They also worry that the people around Kibaki cannot provide the leadership required to modernize the economy and make Kenya competitive in regional and world markets. People who share such concerns make up the second political faction. Its most prominent member is Kiraitu Murungi, minister of justice and constitutional affairs. Its priorities include combating corruption, enacting judicial reform, and ensuring truth and reconciliation.

The third faction is led by Odinga, the former LDP leader, and includes more than 20 members of the National Assembly. Odinga was offered the new post of prime minister under the pact that created NARC. But whether Kibaki and his supporters will honor this pledge is a matter of growing contention. Given Odinga's barely concealed ambition to lead Kenya one day, the old guard and the faction around Murungi are reluctant to support the new post. This perceived backtracking, coupled with an unequal distribution of ministerial posts between NAK and LDP officials, has led to a simmering dispute between the first two factions and the third.

The fourth faction includes independent leaders from both the NAK and LDP sides of NARC who command significant local followings, including Vice-President Moody Awori. It is the main force for moderation and cooperation within the coalition.

All four factions of NARC hold ministerial positions in an unwieldy cabinet of 24 members, deliberately enlarged to house all. Their divergent perspectives and constant bickering, combined with Kibaki's laissez-faire approach, have limited the government's ability to deal with the major challenges facing Kenya today. As a consequence, Kibaki now faces a dilemma: should he continue to muddle through with his present team or reshuffle and downsize the cabinet by sacking its more rebellious members -- particularly Odinga -- and the less effective performers?

The most likely scenario is the first. Notwithstanding their differences, the most prominent members of all four factions would rather remain in the government than return to the opposition. All leaders are committed to making the government work, even if this means little more than running their respective ministries effectively. Furthermore, no one faction or combination of factions is sufficiently strong to expel another without seriously weakening the government.

But there are still grounds for concern. NARC's postelection honeymoon is fast nearing its end. And although the government remains popular, largely because Moi is gone, professionals and business leaders are increasingly disappointed with its performance.


Broadly speaking, four major challenges remain. The first is to reform Kenyan governance. This means not just bringing in competent people to run the government at the top, but also changing the civil service from the bottom up. Kenya's civil servants currently number 190,000 (excluding teachers), roughly 20 percent more than the country needs. Most of these are poorly paid, which encourages corruption. A comprehensive policy of pay reform has yet to be implemented, but any significant raise will increase the government's wage bill, which already stands at 9 percent of GDP. This is one of the highest levels in Africa and is unsustainable given current government revenues. The solution to this quandary will be painful: pay reform must be linked to retrenchment in the civil service. But the government has resisted this step so far, largely because of the lack of private-sector employment opportunities.

The government's ability to enact civil service reforms has been hampered by NARC's lack of experience. Few ministers have had prior government service. Before the elections, most were professionals, backbench members of the National Assembly, or activists, not managers. The new team has also been highly suspicious of civil servants, given the pervasive cronyism under Moi, resulting in mutual distrust at the heart of government. Morale problems have been compounded by Kibaki's decision to replace or rotate all permanent secretaries and other senior officers. Many civil servants remain fearful of being swept away by the new broom, further undermining the basis for reform.

The second challenge Kenya faces is improving its economic prospects. NARC campaigned on the promise of restoring economic growth and creating 500,000 new jobs a year, but Kenya's economy has remained flat since NARC took office and there has been little new investment, domestic or foreign. Several factors explain the lack of economic recovery. Kenya's macroeconomic policy has been the source of perennial friction between the government and the international donor community since the mid-1980s. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank regard Kenya's budget deficit -- projected at nearly $800 million in the 2004 fiscal year -- as unsustainable and have urged the government to reduce it by 25 percent. International donors' prescriptions include cutting the government wage bill, privatizing state-owned enterprises, deregulation, and reducing corruption.

The NARC government has taken the last most seriously, elevating the reduction of corruption to the centerpiece of its economic program by committing itself to a "zero tolerance" policy and passing the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act and the Public Ethics Act. Most noteworthy has been the government's decision to clean up the judiciary. The chief justice was forced to retire in March on allegations of corruption, and 23 senior judges of the Court of Appeal and the High Court and 82 magistrates were suspended in October 2003 -- a dramatic shakeup that removed half the judicial branch overnight. Yet only a few dozen civil servants have been prosecuted for corruption since the new government took office and no present or former elected officials have been prosecuted, despite widespread allegations against them. Even though the multimillion-dollar looting of the Moi era appears to be over, smaller scams and rent-seeking continue.

Moreover, although the IMF and the World Bank are expected to announce the resumption of lending to Kenya -- ending a three-year suspension of new aid -- they are concerned that the deficit will grow even bigger if the government carries out Kibaki's plan to double police salaries and double the number of police to 68,000. These cost increases, coupled with the hiring of more teachers to implement Kibaki's pledge for free primary education, will make it impossible for the government to reduce its wage bill without politically painful retrenchments elsewhere. The government hopes to cover additional costs and lower the deficit by reducing corruption, but this projection is unrealistic. The government's Economic Recovery Strategy, unveiled in June 2003, the goal of which is to reinvigorate the rural economy by supporting the informal and small-scale manufacturing sector, also seems modest when compared with the enormity of this challenge.

Making the government work also requires a new constitution -- the third major challenge faced by Kibaki's government. The constitutional reform issue has been on the table for more than a decade, but Moi's resistance to change meant that the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, the body charged with drafting a new basic law, was not established until April 2001. It issued its first draft just three months before the 2002 elections, by which time both KANU and the opposition had decided to contest the polls under the existing rules. The commission's proposal called for the devolution of authority to district governments, a substantial reduction of presidential authority, and, most controversially, the establishment of a new prime minister post. Although a National Constitutional Conference has been deliberating these issues since March 2003, they are still yet to be settled.

As already noted, the constitutional reform question has exacerbated tensions within NARC. Odinga and his faction support the original draft, but the old guard and the faction around Murungi are adamantly opposed to its provision for a non-appointed prime minister. Kibaki was elected under the present constitution, they argue, and is thus entitled to retain his full set of executive powers. This dispute has nearly paralyzed the government and could lead to Odinga's desertion from NARC.


Kenya's economic prospects are clouded by insecurity and the growing threat of terrorism. Crime rates in Kenya's urban areas have skyrocketed since the early 1990s, as the sinews of urban society have been undermined by bad governance, economic decline, rural-urban migration, nearly 900,000 AIDS orphans, and the influx of small arms from Somalia. Violent crime -- particularly car-jackings and killings by hired hit men -- has created a climate of fear.

To reverse this trend, Kenya needs more police. There is currently only one police officer per 850 people, down from the UN standard of one per 450 that Kenya once met. Most are poorly paid, which has driven many into crime just to survive. Once highly respected, the police are now regarded as one of the most corrupt arms of government. Restoring the police force will take time and better salaries, training, and equipment. At an estimated annual cost of $27 million for salaries alone, it is unlikely that the funds will be available anytime soon.

A viable police force is also essential if Kenya is to contain the threat of terrorism within its borders. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998, killed more than 240 Kenyans and injured 5,000, in addition to the 12 Americans who lost their lives. Kenya was hit again on November 28, 2002, when al Qaeda agents attacked an Israeli-owned hotel north of the port city of Mombasa and almost hit an El Al plane with shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles.

The situation became even more alarming in 2003. In February, the Kibaki government announced that an al Qaeda cell existed somewhere in Mombasa. In response to warnings of a possible attack, the new U.S. embassy, which opened in March, closed at intervals between April and June, and the State Department authorized the departure of all nonessential embassy personnel. British Airways suspended flights to Nairobi from May 15 to July 1, and to Mombasa until September. U.S. travel advisories warning Americans not to travel to Kenya remain in effect. The threat of renewed terrorism has devastated Kenya's tourist industry. Once Kenya's second-largest source of foreign exchange, tourism has now dropped to third place. Hotels both in Nairobi and on the coast are at their lowest occupancy levels in years.

Given these realities, Kibaki's government knows that it has no choice but to join the war on terrorism. It has established a special counterterrorist unit and has stepped up its search, with assistance from the FBI, for al Qaeda agents along the Kenyan coast. The United States has already spent nearly $4 million in antiterrorism assistance to Kenya, including training more than 500 security personnel in the United States. Kenya also hopes to obtain up to one-third of the $100 million counterterrorism money for East Africa announced by President Bush in July 2003 (but yet to be disbursed).

The war on terrorism has become a major domestic political issue in Kenya and has complicated the country's relationship with the United States. The government's search for terrorists has occurred mainly along the Indian Ocean coast, the home of most Kenyan Muslims. Residents of this area have long felt neglected by Nairobi, which they view as being controlled by "upcountry" Kenyans. No prominent leader from the coast has ever held significant power at the center. The Coast Province, nonetheless, voted overwhelmingly for Kibaki and NARC in 2002 in the hope that a new government would pay greater attention to their needs. It has -- but not in the way people imagined. Coastal people now feel singled out and increasingly view themselves as victims. Aggressive interrogations of suspected terrorists by the Kenyan police have exacerbated their sense of grievance at the very time such feelings should be reduced.

The government's introduction of the Suppression of Terrorism Act in the National Assembly in April 2003 has also raised passions. Modeled on a generic draft disseminated by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the proposed legislation is viewed by human rights activists as a threat to civil liberties. Having just emerged from the Moi era, the National Assembly has unsurprisingly refused to pass the bill so far.

Although Kibaki's state visit to Washington was greatly appreciated by his government, the relationship between Kenya and the United States has suffered from what many people regard as the Bush administration's obsession with the war on terrorism. Anti-American sentiment among Kenyan Muslims, once nonexistent, has risen markedly over the last year. Kenyan opinion leaders are also beginning to ask whether their country's problem with terrorism is a result of its close ties with the United States and of U.S. Middle East policy.

The Kibaki government came to power with two basic goals: to consolidate Kenya's decades-long struggle for democracy and to improve the economy. That the terrorism issue has intruded on these objectives does not mean they should be dropped. Just the opposite: the restoration of the Kenyan economy and key state institutions such as the civil service, judiciary, and police are essential for fighting terrorism. Kenyan leaders increasingly wonder whether U.S. policymakers appreciate this complementarity. They worry that although the United States was at the forefront of the international effort to support Kenya's transition to democracy, the task of consolidating democracy has been forgotten as a result of the recent terrorist threats. Kenyans also resent being publicly lectured by the U.S. embassy on their need to do more to combat terrorism. They know Kenya is on the front lines and argue that if the United States wants Nairobi to do more, then it should provide greater assistance toward this end. U.S. support for the passage of the Suppression of Terrorism Act (albeit in a modified form) has also raised a good deal of concern.

Relations have been further complicated by what Kenyans perceive as the Bush administration's "hardball" tactics to secure Kenya's support on other issues. For example, the U.S. threat to cut off military aid (currently $3 million per year) if Kenya ratifies the treaty for the International Criminal Court (ICC) without exempting U.S. servicemen under Article 98 is viewed as an infringement on Kenyan sovereignty. Senior members of Kenya's government, as well as many in the private sector, are particularly upset by the continuation of U.S. warnings against travel to Kenya, even when the British and other European governments have ceased similar warnings. So strong are Kenyans' feelings on this matter that President Kibaki included an appeal to lift the advisory in his after-dinner toast at the White House.

A more nuanced and quieter approach by the administration is required if Washington is to maintain its historically warm relations with Kenya. As noted by Johnnie Carson, the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi from 1999 to July 2003, dealing with a democracy requires more, not less, diplomatic effort than dealing with an authoritarian ruler such as Moi. Indeed, democracies allow a plurality of voices to be heard and should not be expected to automatically follow the wishes of the world's most powerful nation all the time.

The Bush administration must appreciate these realities and remain sensitive to Kenya's domestic politics if it wants to advance its agenda in the region. This means the United States should renew military aid to Kenya without conditions, as is permitted under the presidential waiver provision in the American Service Members' Protection Act of 2002 (which otherwise bans military support for countries that have joined the ICC). The administration should deliver the aid package it has promised for the war on terrorism, rather than getting sidetracked on forcing the equivalent of the U.S. Patriot Act through Kenya's National Assembly. The administration should also consider increasing U.S. development aid, contingent on Kibaki's government's making tough decisions to restore economic growth.

Above all, the United States must recognize that the best way to fight terrorism is to help Kenya consolidate its hard-won democracy. Although democracy is no panacea for the many challenges facing Kenya, its success is essential for the long-term stability and prosperity of this crucial African anchor state.

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  • Joel D. Barkan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. From 1992 to 1993, he was the U.S. Agency for International Development's governance adviser to Kenya.
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