In a recently refurbished building in Nairobi this last Thursday, Ministers of Parliament passed the glorious Bill 89 on their last session awarding millions of dollars, bodyguards and VIP lounge access to 226 long-suffering Kenyans. It just so happens these 226 consist of 222 MPs, the attorney general, speaker, president and prime minister.
While the East African country Kenya is best known for its tourism, recent economic development and fair elections were badly tainted by a disputed election between Kenya’s incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, of Kikuyu descent, and his Luo opposition Raila Odinga that caused three months of political instability. The crisis was exacerbated by usage of ethnic political insecurities between the Kikuyu and Luo, resulting in just over a thousand dead in three months and a coalition government between the two, giving Kenya the current power-sharing government of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga.
What would inspire such cynical power grabs and ethnic anxiety by these ostensibly freely-elected Kenyan politicians?
To start with, Kenya has a long history of corruption at the highest level: Kenyan MPs are the highest paid in the world. In December 2011, all parliamentary seats were upgraded at a cost of over $5,000 per seat. After protests, the cost was halved with prison labor. See a breakdown of their allowances here.
The 2002 election of Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s third leader since independence, saw a wave of optimism in the nation and the appointment of activist John Githongo to the new position of permanent secretary for governance and ethics. However, Githongo fled into exile after two years, after he recorded ministers’ confessions of corrupt activities and receiving death threats.
The next election is less than two months away, on March 4, and it will once again be between Odinga and Kibaki. So this bill is a kind of insurance, for all the ministers unsure of their return to parliament: all the provisions, the cars and bodyguards, continuing to be provided by the Kenyan government after the ministers have left government, until their deaths. The culture of corruption was thus only an enabling factor for the Kenyan parliament.
So where does this ethnic attitude come from, the fear of a repeat, the fear of marginalization by the Kikuyu or Luo, or a dozen other groups? For that, we turn to literature.
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is best known for his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” considered a modern classic for its African perspective on colonialism. The novel is about an Ibo man named Okonkwo, whose downfall parallels the arrival of British missionaries and colonial authorities. Achebe’s slightly later book, “A Man of the People,” is a satire detailing postcolonial politics through the protagonist, Odili’s rivalry with a local MP.
At one of Odili’s campaign stops, an ex-policeman responds to Odili’s claims of his opponent’s corruption with an interesting phrase; “‘We know they are eating,’ he said, ‘but we are eating too. They are bringing us water and they promise to bring us electricity.’” Thus, taking ‘turns to eat,’ skimming off the government budget to build an image for an ethnic group or home village, can be stabilizing or destabilizing.
Nowadays, claims of rigged elections garner much more attention and support. Thus, when 2007 saw serious vote-rigging on both sides and the Kibaki-appointed election commission declared him the winner, there was widespread support for Odinga’s claims. But no one could agree whether it was the Kikuyu or Luo turn to eat.
This year, Kenyan ministers believe 2007 could be replayed, and that to protect themselves they must enrich themselves and their constituents. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to ethnic issues and economic stagnation, not to mention a complete failure in democratic processes.
Even when ministers send money home, it is not a sustainable form of development, and greatly increases ethnic resentment and worries. So by March 5, Kenyans will have either a Kikuyu or a Luo president: be it Kibaki or Odinga, let us hope they expand their definition of hard-working, deserving Kenyans beyond the 226 just rewarded.