What makes Kenya weak is also what makes it strong, clever fellows claim

Wednesday July 23 2014

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Is the “Kigali Consensus” an authoritarian model destined to fail in the end, or the way best suited to the peculiarities of Africa? PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Is the “Kigali Consensus” an authoritarian model destined to fail in the end, or the way best suited to the peculiarities of Africa? PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
More by this Author

This week, we have been at a conference on Africa on the banks of Lake Como, outside Milan, the Italian fashion capital. Lots of clever people who research on, and have written about, Africa were in the house.

It is interesting that 75 per cent of the conversation, in the end, was not about the broad Africa as such but six countries: South Africa; Ghana, a shining star whose lights are dimming; Rwanda; Ethiopia; Kenya; and Nigeria, a giant that refuses to die and defy all laws of nature, economics and history, and is being throttled by Boko Haram terrorists.

During coffee breaks, when the microphones weren’t near, a few chaps whispered to me that it cannot be an accident that the most important economies on the West African coast (Nigeria) and on the eastern side (Kenya) are hobbled by terrorism.

They think there is a grand conspiracy by an evil hand somewhere, designed to bring down Mother Africa.

I never even for a second entertained such a thought, so I was caught so off guard by the claim I couldn’t say anything. The only thing is that they didn’t say who the main conspirator was, but it is truly an intriguing idea.

But the two African countries that were mentioned almost every 10 or so minutes were Rwanda and Ethiopia.

CITIZENS VS. SUBJECTS

I didn’t know, but the chaps who frame these issues, have apparently been talking about how the “Beijing Consensus” on development, i.e., whether Africa should follow China’s way, or as President Uhuru Kenyatta would put it, “look East,” or there is an even better model closer home, the “Kigali Consensus” and, less so but gaining popularity, the “Addis Ababa Consensus.” In short, development and security first, and democracy later or not at all.

The house was divided down the middle, with several people arguing the “Kigali Consensus” is an authoritarian model destined to fail in the end, while others making the case it was the way that was best suited to the peculiarities of Africa.

I was surprised that this “Kigali Consensus” thing is big out there, and so a good conference neighbour from Chatham House in London offered to send me a paper that was written about it — and he did.

Apparently it gained currency after Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said: “The one country that I had wanted to follow was Rwanda We had the advantage of natural resources. But we did not have the advantages they had of capacity, work ethic and discipline. We also departed from Rwanda in terms of the implementation of democracy.”

But for today, we will focus a little more on the Kenyan case. The Western types, generally, were enamoured of Kenya and described it as a country “with a weak state and strong private sector” as opposed to Ethiopia that is a “strong state with no private sector.”

However, because Kenyans are able to make decisions about their leaders and how the country is governed more than Ethiopians, Kenyans are considered to be “citizens” and a few fellows referred to Ethiopians as “subjects.”

EASIER TO EXTRACT CONCESSIONS

Academics are an interesting lot, and it is good to hang out with them a little not too much, though. They can derail you.

Kenya had fellows batting for it, and someone acknowledged that yes, unlike Ethiopia, with its empire and the entrenched (and deeply conservative) Coptic church, Kenya has no history of a strong state. But what is seen as a “weak” state and institutions is not how it fails. It is how it succeeds.

A “weak” state has limits on how much power it has to prey on the private sector (compare that with Ethiopia, where the State, ruling party and military corporations dominate the economy).

Secondly, Kenya’s “weak” state means that it is easier to negotiate claims against it and to extract concessions too. Because it is not inflexible and you can get something from it, the country has had relative stability “without any sustained long-time violent conflict” and avoided the mass appeal of radical politics. So the present problems of terrorism, by this logic, are an anomaly.

One might agree or disagree, but for a few days, it was refreshing to listen to people grappling with Kenyan problems in a highly intellectual manner, without hurling tribal spears. It was worth every minute of it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3