Monday, February 25, 2008

Fiddling while Kenya burns

As aid agencies vacillate, the crisis in Kenya is getting worse. Disaster looms over Kenya. For two months, Kenyans have been hoping for a peaceful resolution to the violence that followed December’s stolen election. Weekend reports of a possible agreement between the warring factions led by bandit President Mwai Kibaki and people’s President Raila Odinga (whom many believe won the election) have amounted to nothing. Kenyans now fear being assaulted for their ethnicity. Kenya’s flower-exporting and tourism industries are both collapsing. The tourists are going to southern Africa or other continents. Fuel and other imported goods for Kenya and its neighbors (especially Uganda and Rwanda) are piling up in Mombassa.

It must be said that this is a problem of Kenya’s own making. Corruption is appallingly rampant, and hopes that Kibaki, elected in 2002, would root out corruption were dashed within two years. Kenya’s anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, exposed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of corrupt practices, but he was seen as a traitor by his own Kikuyu tribe, was left dangerously exposed by President Kibaki, and wound up fleeing to England in fear of his life.

But the international community also deserves a good share of the blame. It is well known that over the past few decades the World Bank loaned money on four separate occasions to different Kenyan governments for the same agricultural reform program. Each time, World Bank insiders knew the government weren’t serious about reforms, but still the loans continued, further entrenching the corrupt rule of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes.

Despite the apparent efforts of James Wolfensohn and Paul Wolfowitz, two former World Bank presidents, and Robert Zoellick, the current Bank chief, business as usual continues. The Bank’s local director, Colin Bruce, lives in a house owned by Kibaki, and the house is in Kibaki’s own personally secured compound in the beautiful Nairobi suburb of Mathaiga. This relationship seems way too cozy, given the Kibaki government’s endemic corruption.

Since the violence began in December, only one major donor has pulled out of Kenya or urged the imposition of serious sanctions. Donors continue to insist that health and humanitarian aid remain untouched. But worse has followed. The Financial Times reported that a confidential memo from Bruce’s office supported the Kibaki’s claim of victory in the December elections:

“The memo claims that ‘the considered view of the UN is that the Electoral Commission of Kenya announcement of a Kibaki win is correct.’ However, Michele Montas, a spokeswoman for the UN secretary-general, denied that the UN had adopted that position. [UN Development Program] officials said they had neither monitored the elections nor provided any assessment suggesting a Kibaki victory. Given the widespread irregularities reported in last month’s elections, the leaked briefing note has triggered accusations that the institution, which lends heavily to Kenya, has lost its political objectivity.”

While the World Bank has been embarrassed publicly in rather alarming fashion, its approach is far from unique among international agencies. So far, the donor community has suggested only a mild reduction in aid, qualified by the insistence that health and humanitarian aid—which constitutes the largest part of all outside aid to Kenya—must remain untouched.

For all its failings, the Bush administration has often done well in promoting democracy and combating corruption. The U.S. State Department has placed travel bans on cronies of the Kibaki regime, which (I’m told) has caused serious embarrassment to Kenya’s middle class. However, the names of those Kenyan officials refused visas are not yet available, so it is not possible to verify that the bans are actually in place.

Even still, Foggy Bottom’s initial declaration of support for the pro-Kibaki election result emboldened the Kenyan president. He is not going to step aside, or re-run the election, or form a government of national unity with the opposition. The violence will likely continue until enough of his cronies’ business interests are put at risk—which may take weeks, or even months.

But it won’t be the body count that drives change. The government is too full of hardliners, cynically willing to allow their countrymen in the rural areas to die in their hundreds. The likes of Martha Karua, John Michuki, and President Kibaki himself will only concede—and a coalition government in their eyes does represent a massive concession to the opposition—when they stare total devastation in the face. I fear the situation simply hasn't got bad enough yet for them to see the need for compromise.

Hopefully, other foreign governments will emulate the travel and financial sanctions probably being imposed on Kibaki and his cronies by the U.S. State Department. But it is probably time for aid agencies to pull out of the country altogether, since they have done untold harm.

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