kenya turns 44

At midnight on December 12th 1963, the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag raised high to mark the birth of one of the more successful countries on the African continent. I say successful because as most of Africa went up in flames due to civil wars, coups and counter coups, Kenya enjoyed relative peace and national cohesion under the strong handed but, in retrospect, effective leadership of its first two presidents; Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. Although the two men were quasi-dictators, they presided over periods of development and in many ways helped Kenyans of all ethnicities realize their nationhood.  

After the establishment of liberal democratic rule in 2002, Kenya has enjoyed a resurgence of economic growth and expansion of freedoms. The country has a vibrant free press and a strong opposition (which incidentally is leading in opinion polls ahead of general elections in less than three weeks).

Very many problems still plague the country, though. Corruption is still a blot on the country’s record and the recent damaging report on police brutality and extra-judicial killings of suspected Mungiki (thuggish sect) members paint a bad picture of the current government.  The country’s high poverty levels, joblessness and lack of adequate housing also continue to pose challenges to the central government.

The many problems aside, Kenyans still have a reason to celebrate their independence: Their country has remained an island of peace and stability in contrast to its war torn neighbors like Somalia and Sudan. Kenya has also experienced a significantly higher degree of democratic consolidation, economic development and transparent governance than its neighbors in the region and beyond.

Happy Independence Day Kenyans!!

mauritania, still fighting slavery

Mauritania remains the last outpost of the distasteful practice of slavery. Although the government abolished the practice in 1982, little was done to stop the country’s well to do, black and barber alike, from enslaving their own fellow citizens. According to the Open Society Justice Initiative, about 20% of the population- close to 500,000 people – have been enslaved over the last three decades.

This grim situation might soon change. There have been signs of progress in this desert country since its first ever democratic elections in March of 2007. The new government has shown its commitment to ending the vice by passing a much awaited legislation to criminalize slavery in August of this year. This was followed in November by an announcement by the finance minister of a 19 million euros plan for the reintegration of former slaves into the community. The money will be channeled towards poverty alleviation and empowerment of the rural poor who have bore the brunt of this most heinous violation of human rights.

Human rights groups are “very pleased,” with the development but at the same time one wonders why it took so long for the government of Mauritania or other regional organizations to take action and end this most abhorrent practice.

Gaddafi and his new found charm

After spending more than a decade as a pariah state due to its involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am flight 103, Libya is finally being brought back into the fold by Europe and to some extent the United States. The Europeans, led by France, have been the most eager, especially after Libya released a bunch of European medics it was due to punish for their involvement in the infection of young Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS.

The biggest beneficiary of this new state of affairs has been none other than col. Muammar Gaddafi, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Over the past few months, he has made amends with the EU who then agreed to build a prison centre in Libya for the detention of the many illegal African Immigrants who risk their lives to get into Europe every year. This has been seen by many analysts as just a precursor to more aid and closer relations.

Most recently, Gaddafi visited France where he was warmly welcomed by the hyperactive Nicholas Sarkozy. This was even after a junior minister in the French government said that “France was not a doormat on which the Libyan leader could wipe off the blood of his crimes.” According to Reuters, Gaddafi is expected to lead his delegation in negotiations over business deals worth billions of Euros – from a nuclear powered sea water desalination plant to French made fighter jets.

Amid all this, one wonders whether Europe’s new found pragmatism is good or bad for the citizens of the global south. Previously it was the US that had the bad habit of jumping into bed with dictators as long as it was in their strategic interest to do so while the EU remained principled with regard to democracy and human rights. Now that China has jump into the pond and muddied the water, especially in Africa, Europe has also chose to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and poor governance.

I agree that trade with Africa is a good thing and that economic empowerment of African citizens should not be contingent on democratization on the continent. After all, democracies can only flourish in countries with a sizeable, economically well off middle class. All this, however, should not be done with complete disregard for past crimes of some of the leaders involved. Gaddafi may not be as bad at home as Mugabe or Bashir but they all belong to the wrong group of African leaders – iron fisted despots who believe that they have a right to rule for life.