So after the strides made by Kenyans in exercising their power at the ballot box last week it looks increasingly like things are coming off the rails. Every step forwards, it seems, is met with two steps backwards, a media blackout and mass killings.
For now my inbox is full of press releases from diplomats and other observers congratulating the Kenyan people on their conduct at the polls and urging respect for the rule of law. I’m not entirely clear what that means. Of course, no-one wants to see violence. But I’m not sure what Kenyans are supposed to do amid tales of 115% turnouts, accusations of extrajudicial executions and returning officers who disappear for 12 hours only to emerge declaring President Kibaki the winner.
It is all too easy to spot sea changes in Africa, only to later see them reduced to the status of tidal flux – a routine shift that is reversed within a heartbeat.
But while the presidential race in Kenya remains too close to call, something interesting is happening in the parliamentary seats. Chris Murungaru, David Mwiraria, Gideon Moi and Nicholas Biwott have all lost their seats. Counting has been suspended in George Saitoti’s constituency. These men represent the very worst in Kenyan politics. Some have been linked to the vast corruption scandals that have dogged the Kibaki regime. Others have been linked to much, much worse. Now it seems that the voters they once took for granted are turning against them. Ten cabinet ministers have also lost their seats, according to local media, including the deputy president Moody Awori.
It seems that the voters have found their voices. For too long – as in so many other African countries – there has been a widespread fatalism, a belief that the political elite could not be stopped. Voting out Moi’s Kanu regime in 2002 changed little. Most of Kibaki’s ministers were refugees from Moi’s kleptocracy. Now they are dropping like flies as voters realise that things can change.
Kenya goes to the polls tomorrow. It’s shaping up to be the closest election in Kenyan history. Raila started with a huge lead in the polls – perhaps not surprising as he started campaigning three years ago after walking out of the government. Kibaki reeled him in, only to see Raila head out in front again. The polls now are putting them pretty much neck and neck, with Raila maybe just a nose in front.
It would be a great story if he won. I can count the number of times a sitting African president has lost an election on the fingers of one foot. Many of my colleagues are talking up the chances of a Raila victory.
But he won’t win. Kibaki’s power base is the Kikuyu tribe, packed with professionals, entrepreneurs and the civil servants he promoted. Raila’s support comes from the Luos of Lake Victoria – an almost equally formidable set of operators. But his support is also drawn disproportionately from the poor, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised. His key lieutenants have nothing like the election machine of their rival. They may be close in the polls, but I reckon that translates into a seven-point start for Kibaki.
So, when the votes are counted I predict a comfortable win for the incumbent and business as usual for Kenyan politics. (I have $100 riding on the result.) Raila’s supporters will no doubt riot, and there is a very real chance he could actually lose his Langata seat (Here’s my story about a young guy trying to keep a lid on things).
Or – given that I am writing this from a small village in the English Home Counties with a belly full of turkey - I could be totally wrong.
Every so often I get an ever-so-slightly abrupt email from an editor, asking me to call them as they can’t get through by phone. Usually they have made one attempt, failed to reach me and then given up.
Other times they put the phone down on me just as I am saying hello. With a lengthy delay on international calls, it can seem like the caller has disappeared into the aether.
And last week a radio interview I was doing was abandoned after about 30sec when the line went down on air.
So I for one will be desperately excited when Kenya is connected to the rest of the world by fibre-optic cable. With luck, the first of several undersea lines – the Teams will be complete early in 2009.
I’m hoping it will become easier to make international calls and that my internet connection will speed up, once Kenya is no longer reliant on congested and costly satellite links.
But the real reason for the government ploughing millions of dollars into the undersea cable is to help the country’s call centre industry compete with the like of India. There’s still a long way to go – wages here, for example, will always be higher than India – but there are plenty of example of companies such as Preciss, Kencall and Skyweb-Evans that are all set to ramp up their operations once they have cheaper and more reliable communications. My story is here
I’m still in list mode. So here is a list of: Diseases I have had in Africa
Tick Bite Fever -
A severe pounding headache, aching all over and general exhaustion. So how disappointing on my return from Addis Ababa to be told I had tick bite fever. I assumed this was the diagnosis used by doctors in Nairobi who needed to get rid of troublesome patients, who were simply a bit under the weather. But no, it does really exist.
- Sudan’s porous, clay pots are ingenious. Water seeps through the tiny pores and then evapourates on the outside, keeping the inside cool, refreshing and delicious. Just the thing you need after sitting on a donkey for four hours in Darfur. Utterly hopeless at keeping this pesky parasite out
- I’m a subscriber to the Leave It Alone and It Will Probably Sort Itself Out school of medicine. Which is no good when it comes to this bugger. After a week of an aching stomach and the rest, which I won’t describe, it appears to clear up. Only to return a fortnight later. Steer clear of fatty foods.
The soaring cost of food is threatening millions of people in poor countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned. Food prices have risen an unprecedented 40% in the last year and many aid workers may be unable to cope.
“It’s awful,” said one international development worker based in Nairobi. “I came to Africa because I was offered help with my rent, travel allowances and a whacking great salary in a dirt poor country. Now I can barely afford a glass of red with my pizza. I don’t know what to do. I may even have to sack my gardener in order to make ends meet.”
The cost of sushi in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, was singled out for particular criticism in the hard-hitting report.
“At $20 a pop,” said the report, “diners expect salmon or tuna. Serving tilapia is simply not good enough.”
Accommodation in the city’s tented camps starts at $150 due to demand from UN agencies and international charities but this has had a devastating effect on the local cost of living.
“Recruiting waiters and barmen is now all but impossible. They all want to be drivers for the United Nations,” according to the report’s authors.
Before my last trip to Khartoum was so rudely interrupted, I was invited to join a Sudanese celebration. My trusty fixer Al Siir drove me to meet his family for something of a feast. His “sister” – meaning, I think in these circumstances a female relative – had recently returned from Jordan where she had been having medical treatment and the family were gathering to welcome her home.
Colourful sheets had been strung across a dusty backyard creating a makeshift shelter from the sun. As is customary I sat with the menfolk while the women toiled somewhere unseen. While they cooked, we discussed important issues of the day such as the following night’s big match between Hilal and Merreikh(my adopted team). Imagine Arsenal v Chelsea but with more dust. There was the usual embarrassment and blank looks as I tried to explain that my English team was Nottingham Forest.
It wasn’t long before steaming platters of traditional Sudanese food were brought out. A hunk of roasted goat - its outside blistered until crisp and sticky – sat atop leaves of rocket. The best lumps were torn off and handed to me. There were bowls of rigla, made from beans, mint and onion, and a big bowl of soup flavoured with okra and eaten by soaking shards of thin kisra bread (similar to Ethiopian injera) in the watery broth. Aubergines and peppers were stuffed with rice and mince, or roasted and mixed with yoghurt and tahini. There was kammonia, made from sheep’s intestines cooked up with cinammon, onions and tomato. And the whole glorious, oily feast was mopped up with hunks of bread smeared with a fiery, green chilli sauce.
The food was fantastic. I could have sat there all day while Al Siir’s family made me feel like a king.
And the guest of honour? It’s hard to say whether she had a good day or not. I never met her.
It’s that time of year when I feel compelled to compile lists. Here are some books on Africa that I have (or should have) read this year.
- What is the What, Dave Eggers: Probably the best book I’ve read on Sudan – fiction or nonfiction. Deals with the complexities of the civil war in an elegant yet comprehensive way, and should also be required reading for anyone trying to get to grips with Darfur
- The Constant Gardener, John Le Carré: Stiff upper lipped Brit diplomats and their hippy wives tend their neat gardens in Nairobi … the clichés are packed like sardines into a deeply tedious book
- All of These People, Fergal Keane: No doubt about it, the guy can write. It’s a personal memoir but from the chapters on Africa it’s pretty clear he understands the place. The only flaw is that although he bangs on about his battle with alcoholism, his entire drink problem seems to consist of a couple of nights when he stayed up late watching TV with a few beers
- The State of Africa, Martin Meredith: I think I’ve had this book for two years now and all I can say is that the cover looks very nice
- The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski: Moments of brilliance and a great opening line: “More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun.” Written on his arrival in Ghana in 1958
- Geldof in Africa, Bob Geldof: Turns out to be a better writer than I thought he’d be. “The first thing you notice is the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere.”
- Flashman on the March, George Macdonald Fraser: A journalist friend of a friend claims to do no more preparation for a trip to Africa than read the relevant Flashman book. Quite what he would have made of Ethiopia after this tale is anyone’s guess
It is easy to dismiss the efforts of the African Union mission to bring peace to Darfur. The 7000 or so troops are no longer able to protect themselves, much less the civilians and humanitarian workers they are supposed to be helping. On December 31 the mission comes to an end. For now most of the soldiers seem contect to hunker down and serve out their time until the United Nations cavalry arrives in the form of the hybrid force. (Of course most the soldiers will be the same – just with the blue hats of the UN).
The build-up to this handover has been dominated by one sentiment: Africa has failed to find a solution and needs the UN to sort out its mess.
A nice post on the SSRC website by Abdul Mohammed goes some way to redressing the balance and points out how the AU’s efforts were stymied from the very start: These soldiers deserve to be honoured for the sacrifice they have made. Their comrades in arms deserve to be honoured for continuing to remain in their posts, despite lack of equipment, an insufficient mandate, lack of good intelligence about what surrounded them, and in many cases, with mounting arrears of pay. AMIS was faced with mission impossible, and it is a tribute to the soldiers of AMIS that they tried as hard as they did to make that mission work.
You can just imagine what was going through Francis Musyimi’s mind as he prepared to act as MC for the Kenyan president’s independence day bash. “I mustn’t confuse the first lady with the president’s other wife…I mustn’t confuse the first lady with the president’s other wife…I mustn’t confuse…Oh bugger.”
His slip of the tongue – turning the first lady Lucy Kibaki into Lucy Wambui – earned him a hefty whack about the face from an angry first lady, before he was carted off by the president’s bodyguards… much to the astonishment of the assembled dignataries at the Jamhuri Day garden party.
Most Kenyans I know don’t mind the fact that their president has two wives. What they object to is his seeming inability to keep either of them in line. Here’s my story
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Tagged lucy kibaki