For all of its post-colonial history, Kenya has been the top dog in East Africa. Nairobi has been the political and economic pivot of the region. When Kenya coughs, all of East Africa catches a cold. Kenya’s commanding position has been due to a number of factors. Key among these was the state’s pro-Western orientation.
The British colonialists favoured it as the entry-port for capital. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta – the Burning Spear himself – was an unabashed agent of free markets.
While some of our neighbours experimented with versions of command economies, Mzee tethered us to London and Washington. It paid off by attracting capital and developing a local entrepreneurial class. Our troubled neighbours never caught up. But that’s about to change.
At one point, Kenya’s economy was larger than most of East African states put together. Folks in Dar and Kampala spoke of Nairobi as though it were London.
They would come to Nairobi to marvel at the skyscrapers by day and revel in its raunchy night life. Expats (wazungu) would fight their employers in the West to post them to Nairobi.
For a while, Kenya Airways, also known as KQ — once the Pride of Africa – ruled African skies. Politically, Kenya went democratic first, even though the elite were dragged along kicking and screaming. Kenya was the first to hold American-style presidential debates.
Kenya’s civil society was a pioneer. The country is a manufacturing giant. Some of these things are still true, but KQ is on its deathbed. Like its national carrier, Kenya is now partially prone – writhing in pain. The sheen has come off, and Kenya’s glory is receding. The sun appears to be setting on Kenya.
The eclipse may be just over the horizon. A national gloom hovers over the land. A cursory glance at the daily press reveals a deeply tortured country.
The only bright spots are our athletes who continue to shine abroad. We seem to think we are still relevant because world leaders like President Barack Obama and Pope Francis have hopscotched to Kenya in the recent past. But methinks they came only for reasons best known to them.
In the region, two countries are kicking our rear end. Tanzania has slowly been stealing Kenya’s thunder. Visit Dar, if you haven’t lately, and you will see a city on the move. Give Dar a decade and it will totally outstrip Nairobi. President John Pombe Magufuli is a truly new breed.
He doesn’t do PR. A throwback to the austere Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, he’s fired up the imagination of Tanzanians. He’s Mwalimu 2.0 No, he’s not digital – he’s better than that.
That because he guillotines the corrupt without pity. He’s taken Africa by storm – he’s truly kusema na kutenda (not just talk but action). I’ve heard some Kenyans pining for Mr Magufuli. He’s Rwanda’s Paul Kagame without autocracy. The other country eating Kenya’s lunch is Ethiopia.
Once the butt of international pity, Ethiopia is turning the corner. On a recent visit, I was shocked by the growth of Addis. Out in the countryside, once dry districts are being turned into oases of irrigation. Famine is becoming a distant memory. The middle class is growing exponentially.
Whereas Kenya still has larger middle and entrepreneurial classes than either Tanzania or Ethiopia, the latter two are fast closing the gap. I think East Africans are no longer sending their kids to school in Kenya in the large numbers they did in the past. Once a regional power, we are becoming an afterthought.
Our decline accelerated after post-poll chaos in 2008. The question is why we’ve lost our groove – our mojo. I choke it up to several unarguable reasons. First, our elites have become myopic. Our leaders don’t dream big anymore. Instead, they are busy out-stealing each other, and in the process stealing our future.
They have borrowed us into insolvency. Politically, their brains have atrophied. In contrast, leaders in Tanzania and Ethiopia are dreaming and acting large. Even in tiny Rwanda, Mr Kagame is trying to create a little Singapore.
He may just succeed. Au contraire, our role model is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – who by the way stabs Kenya in the back every chance he gets. With friends like Mr Museveni, who needs enemies?
Finally, although Kenya was the first to intellectually accept political democracy, it’s failed to internalise the concept. That’s why our state is stuck in reverse. Unlike Tanzania, we really have no political parties.
CCM in Tanzania and EPRDF in Ethiopia are true ideological behemoths. Our political parties are like T-shirts that are changed every day.
We need political maturity to avoid being wiped out in the region. Excuse me, but I am not holding my breath.