The ‘C’ words that capture Kenya’s biggest dilemmas

Friday May 30 2014

PHOTO | FILE Travellers’ Beach Hotel in Mombasa. A number of hotels in Coast are pondering laying off workers due to low tourist arrivals in the region.

Travellers’ Beach Hotel in Mombasa. Thousands of hotel workers in Coast have been declared redundant due to a drastic drop in the number of international tourists, officials from various counties in the region have said. PHOTO | FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MICHAEL MEYER
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Among many fine words starting with “C,” three seem especially apt these days: cowardly, craven and corrupt.

The decision by the US, Britain and other western governments to issue official warnings against travel in Kenya was cowardly, perhaps even craven — cowardice beyond mere fear, deserving of disdain.

Yes, Kenya faces a clear and growing security threat. Yes, governments have an obligation to safeguard their citizens abroad. Yet, isn’t issuing such uncompromising advisories going beyond reasonable caution?

Already within the British and American embassies, there is a growing sense that the decision was hasty and ill-conceived — a frightened (and frightening) over-reaction that will soon be rescinded. The Dutch embassy publicly dismissed it out of hand.

At the bottom, the first principle of bureaucratic survival apparently figured large in the decisions. Call it Cover Your Backside or CYB.

Consider the fate of the unfortunate diplomat who might resist the siren call of CYB. If a number of his country’s nationals were subsequently injured or killed in a terrorist attack, the failure to act would likely end his or her career.

Since it is better to be safe than sorry, the “safe’’ decision goes up and down the chain of command, from field to home office, and becomes policy regardless of its wider effects.

KENYA SACRIFICE DESERVES MORE

And the effects can be grave. British travel operators responded to their government’s advisory immediately by evacuating tourists from Mombasa and other coastal resorts.

TV images of their departure ricocheted around the globe. Even in Nairobi, conferences were cancelled. Business people postponed trips. Worried relatives back home e-mailed to ask if everything was alright!

Not so long ago, 30 charter planes from Europe landed at Mombasa airport every month. Today, that number has dipped to five; two more will soon be cancelled. Hotels are all but empty.

Before long, coastal resorts will be struggling to survive – this in a poor country where tourist revenues make up a third of the economy.

It is no wonder then that some Kenyan government officials denounced the advisories as economic sabotage.

If western governments present themselves as friends and allies of Kenya, they rightly asked, why do they so readily undertake measures that, even if not deliberate, do a lot of harm especially to ordinary people?

Why have they so easily put aside their solidarity with Kenya to fight terrorism? After all, al-Shabaab’s pledge to bring the Somali war to Kenya grows directly from the government’s courageous effort (partly on behalf of the international community) to bring a measure of peace to a war-torn neighbouring country. Such sacrifice deserves more than the back of the hand.

Seemingly unrelated to this is the third “C”: corruption. Even as western governments issued their alerts, a homegrown scandal erupted: the return of Anglo-Leasing.

In its narrowest sense, Anglo-Leasing involves 18 lucrative contracts between a some shell companies and the governments of Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki that drained billions from the Treasury.

More broadly, it has become a shorthand for more general corruption that plagues the wider Kenyan society.

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO LOOT

Speak to the man in the street and you will hear what has become a common refrain: al-Shabaab pays its way to terror. A bribe to corrupt guards at the border gets a terrorist into Kenya.

Another to corrupt immigration officials procures an ID. Yet another to police in Mombasa or Nairobi buys protection or a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Kenyans speak of the anti-terrorism sweeps thorough Eastleigh and other urban areas with an air of knowing, world-weary cynicism.

A number of criminals as well as suspected illegal immigrants have been rounded up. Beyond that, they claim, Operation Usalama presented police and others with a golden opportunity to loot the homes of wealthy Somali businessmen. Many of those carted off to Kasarani stadium, it is said, bribed their way to freedom.

The point is that corruption lies at the core of Kenyans’ growing sense of personal insecurity – economic as well as physical.

There is gossip about pay-offs accompanying big infrastructure projects or the disappearance of chunks of money from the national coffers.

This is a volatile mix. It must be handled delicately, by the government and its friends abroad.

Draconian security advisories may protect bureaucratic backsides but they compound other problems.

As for tackling corruption that feeds insecurity and undermines Kenya’s international reputation, that demands another “C” word: commitment.

Mr Meyer is Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi. [email protected]