Kenya would have died a long time ago: Here’s the secret why it survives

On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to violence in Nigeria. He lamented what he called “savage acts of terrorism” on churches. He also prayed for an end to violence in Kenya, and other tormented African countries.

The Pope’s prayer highlighted an unhappy similarity between Nigeria and Kenya. Both countries are troubled by communal violence. Even more troubling is that Kenya and Nigeria have the most violent attacks on churches — and mosques — in Africa today. In third place is another East African country, Tanzania!

In 2012, there were nine reported attacks on churches across Tanzania by what the media described as “Islamist militants”. However, while there were injuries, there were no reports of deaths.

In Kenya, there were four attacks on Christian churches across the country in which 20 people were killed, and 65 wounded. There were three attacks on mosques, in which one person was killed.

All in all, the attacks on churches, mosques, and terrorist bombs at nightclubs in various parts of Kenya killed 50 people this year.

In addition, humanitarian agencies say there are still 300,000 Kenyans displaced by the 2007/2008-election violence (and earlier ones in 1997) in camps for internally displaced persons.

Last month, a United Nations report said 412 people had been killed in Kenya in communal clashes, 258 injured, and another 112,000 displaced (that was before the latest killings in the Tana River delta).

This is not just a story of violence, lawlessness, and a State stretched to its limits. Something more fundamental is happening. Countries like Rwanda had the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people were killed, and Uganda had years of rebel wars in which up to 500,000 were killed.

But times have changed. In 2012, there was not a single person killed in Rwanda or Uganda in attacks on churches or mosques, because there were no such incidents. Meanwhile 100 times more Kenyans have been killed in ethnic clashes and terrorism than Tanzanians, Ugandans, Rwandans, and even Burundians.

Once Kenya, rightly so, prided itself as an “island of stability” in East Africa. Even discounting the post-election violence, right now it is the least stable country and the most violent country in the EAC, by far.

But of course, that is overly simplistic. Kenya also remains the most generous host of refugees in East Africa. Even after many South Sudanese have gone back home and Somalis started trickling back, the UN officially estimates that there are still about 600,000 refugees in Kenya. Unofficially, that number is close to 900,000, more than all the other EAC countries combined.

Secession of the successful

How do you explain this contradiction of a violent country, with its own population of 300,000 IDPs, yet it is also safe enough for nearly 900,000 refugees?

In addition, Kenya is East Africa’s most innovative country, and has its most successful companies, the only ones that have managed to transform into regional multinationals (Equity Bank, KCB, Bidco, Nation Media Group, brewer EABL, Serena Hotel, Nakumatt and Uchumi supermarkets, to name a few), or become African and international players (Kenya Airways, Craft Silicon, Ushahidi, Kenyan marathoners).

Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author and Secretary of Labour under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997, is a man who likes to think about these kinds of phenomena.

He called it the “secession of the successful”. Interpreting his concept broadly, this takes many forms. High-minded civil society, tired of inefficient governments, usually take action and help with education, the poor, and even try and resettle IDPs.

Rich people and successful firms, fed up with political corruption, red tape, and poor investment in infrastructure like roads and airports as well as low investment in technology, usually take advantage of globalisation and increasingly more open regional and world markets, to do business where things work better.

The total effect is that within troubled nations, you find islands of excellence, prosperity, and global-mindedness very different from the parochial, mindset fuelling ethnic cleansing in the bushes and valleys.

Kenya is no longer an island of stability, and like other societies, has its rich, poor, corrupt, warlords, and tribal chieftains. What are keeping the Kenyan dream alive are its “successful secessionist” and the role model and confidence they offer to the rest.

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