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Waking up to harsh realities of next 50 years

Saturday December 14 2013

President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledges cheers from the crowd at the Safaricom Sports Stadium in Kasarani, Nairobi, during the Kenya@50 celebrations on Thursday. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledges cheers from the crowd at the Safaricom Sports Stadium in Kasarani, Nairobi, during the [email protected] celebrations on Thursday. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL 

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The celebrations to mark independence on December 12, 1963 were a moment of escapism for Kenyans.

The nascent Shifta War, the bitter disputes over majimboism, factionalism within KANU and a struggling economy all weighed heavily on the minds of the new nation’s citizens and rulers alike. As the celebrations came to an end and attention shifted back to more mundane matters, it became clear that uhuru was just the start of a long struggle.

Shortly before his assassination, Tom Mboya recalled how “we suffered during our struggle for independence”.

But, he suggested, that triumph was easy when compared to the challenges the independence administration then faced. Jomo Kenyatta’s government and its successors were entrusted with a mandate by the Kenyan people to lead “an economic and social revolution that must take us far beyond the condition we had achieved when we won our independence”.


As this long holiday weekend draws to a close and our thoughts turn to what the future holds, it is clear that the revolution Mboya wrote about remains a work in progress. Kenyans may be better-educated, more prosperous, and live longer, healthier lives today than in 1963, but many of the problems that confronted Mboya and his fellow leaders at independence are still relevant and will remain so as the country looks forwards.


Uhuru Kenyatta’s government spends more time thinking about that future than any other since the inaugural KANU administration of 1963-1966. The Jubilee coalition is determined to sell itself to voters and foreign investors as a powerful modernising force. In just a few months, “groundbreaking” ceremonies have become the new harambees and garish high visibility jackets the new robes of state for government leaders.

But in many cases the fantastic artists’ impressions of futuristic cityscapes, architects’ models of grand infrastructure projects, and the bold promises of Vision 2030 are at odds with reality. These are dreams of concrete, steel and glass in a country that mostly sleeps under corrugated iron sheets. So if oil riches and tech-cities are only going to be one part of Kenya’s future, what else does the next 50 years hold?

There is little point reiterating familiar arguments about corruption, ethnicity, devolution or the other pillars of Kenyan political debate. Instead, we consider three different challenges ahead: population growth, the choice between jobs and growth, and climate change.

There is, of course, nothing new about any one of these three challenges. All have been confronted over the first half-century of independence.

But there can be little doubt that all will become more acute over the course of the next 50 years.

Limiting the negative effects of these challenges will require close cooperation with the country’s neighbours and allies, but also innovative thinking and critical debate within the government. The autocratic tendency within Kenyan politics must be overcome if the country is to be a more prosperous, peaceful nation in the next 50 years.


Kenya has done little to deserve the ill effects of climate change, but these are already noticeable. The American-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) has recorded decreasing rainfall during the long rains between 1960 and 2009. Over the same period, average temperatures across the country have increased. Both trends are projected to continue, with consequences for the social and economic fabric of the country.

FEWS’ data suggests agriculture will be viable only in pockets of the central highlands and around Lake Victoria. The Nairobi-based Centre of Science and Technology Innovation believes the worst effects of climate change will be felt in the country’s arid and semi-arid areas.

Droughts will occur more frequently and last longer than in the past. Water levels will fall across much of the country. When the rains do arrive, floods will also be more common.

Climate change will have other indirect effects. The impact on health, for instance, is a matter of great concern for the World Health Organisation. Increased episodes of flooding will make exposure to waterborne diseases, including dysentery and typhoid, more common.

Most worrying of all, such flooding along with higher temperatures will allow malaria-carrying mosquitoes to increase their range and pose a year-round threat in highland areas.

It is not difficult to imagine the worst political and social outcomes of climate change. Without strong political leadership, competition over scarce arable land and water will trigger higher levels of population migration — a dangerous combination, particularly in settings such as the Rift Valley.


Such competition for resources will be intensified by the fact that there will be many more Kenyans in 2063 than today. How to house, feed, educate and provide work for the 100 million or so citizens that are projected to reside within Kenya’s borders will be the primary challenge facing governments over the next half-century. Moreover, as lifespans lengthen and the numbers of people living to old-age increases, new demands will be placed on healthcare and social security.

Every government since independence has had to try to meet the demands of an ever-larger, younger country. But current population growth is, some argue, a reason for optimism.

Economists at the World Bank think that Kenya, and other similar developing countries, are set to enjoy a “demographic dividend” as young men and women enter the labour market and stimulate job creation, innovation and economic growth. They will then be able to pay the taxes that will sustain the older generation.

Much of this optimism is derived from the relatively recent discovery by local and foreign companies that even the very poorest Kenyans can also be consumers. The spread of the formal economy into slums and poor rural areas has been one of the most obvious changes to take place over the past decade or so. This means that, with continued economic growth and sound investments, demographic changes can be turned from a negative to a positive.

Companies like Equity Bank have made considerable returns on a business model that provides services and consumer goods to customers previously ignored by existing competitors. The penetration of mobile phones and the success in selling low-cost, small denomination airtime vouchers is another example of products previously pitched at the wealthy being successfully marketed to much poorer consumers.

But discussion on the rise of a continent of consumers and the African middle class should not blind us to the challenges that population expansion will bring. Discussion of demographic growth inevitably leads to urbanisation and images of over-crowded cities.

The current pressure on services and housing in Nairobi, in particular, will only worsen. Moreover, the problem of over-crowding will not be contained to urban areas: even by 2063, the latest data from the United Nations suggests most Kenyans will still live in rural areas.


The continuing significance of rural livelihoods presents both opportunities and challenges. As those responsible for planning the country’s economy think about how to provide jobs for a growing society, small-scale agriculture will be attractive.

Although small farms have little place in the visions of Kenya’s economic future, the World Bank suggests agriculture remains the most viable route out of poverty.

Whether that hypothesis will remain true under pressure from climate change is another matter. What is certain is that the wider informal economy, including trade and transport, will continue to provide more jobs and alleviate poverty more effectively than mining, oil and gas production, construction or finance. But it is these latter sectors of the economy that will produce high growth.

Kenya has faced the choice between jobs and economic growth at a number of points in its history, and will do so at regular intervals over the next 50 years.

Economic policies designed to support small-scale activities in the informal sector will deliver jobs and alleviate poverty but will not lead to the economic growth and returns to investors that a concentration on mining, finance or energy will produce. A blend of the two is, therefore, needed, but not easily achieved.

In this context it is important to temper hopes that mineral discoveries will make Kenya rich, at least until there is more certainty about the quantities of commercially viable oil and gas. The confidence of Tullow about its finds of oil in Turkana needs to be offset against the recent announcement by its partner, Africa Oil, about the failure to make similar discoveries in Marsabit.

Nor should current interest for East Africa’s oil and gas be assumed to be permanent.

The recent protests that froze Tullow’s operations in Turkana have reminded investors of the difficult political climate in which hydrocarbon production will take place in East Africa.

Canadian oil sands and American shale gas are less politically risky, more abundant and a cheaper sources of energy that may yet make exploitation of oil and gas in locations like Turkana seem an unnecessary expense. Moreover, the cost of renewable forms of energy will likely fall over the next 50 years, allowing for more direct competition with oil and gas.


We have tried to identify just three significant challenges that Kenya will face over the next 50 years. We now turn to consider what the past 50 years suggests about the ways in which the current and future government will respond. The vagaries of the global economy, climate change and an adequate response to population change will all require Kenyan leaders to constructively engage with a variety of governments and international organisations.

Certainly, regional responses to common problems shared by states across East and ortheast Africa will be necessary in order to limit the effect of the challenges we have identified, for instance managing migration driven by climate change. But those responses are dependent on maintaining close ties to neighbouring states, which is easier said than done.

Regional relations are likely to be complex; it has always been so. In the 1960s, ties between Kenya and Somali were undermined by the Shifta War, a secessionist conflict that lasted until 1967. Today, Somalia continues to represent one of the biggest security risks for the Kenyan state. Kenyan troops continue to occupy parts of the country, while individuals aligned to al Shabaab represent a major terrorist threat.

Much is expected of the East African Community (EAC) in Kenya’s future. But for all the warm words about the EAC, and the modest increase in trade that it has fostered, it has consistently failed to meet its political goals.

The notion of greater political integration was pushed by Julius Nyerere in the 1960s, but rejected by President Kenyatta. Then, in the late 1970s, it was Tanzania that pulled out of the EAC, for fear of Kenyan economic domination.

Today, the EAC once again has set bold goals for itself, but the reality may be less impressive. The recent agreement to move towards a common currency has the potential to transform the economic and political context of the region, creating powerful new social and economic ties. However, the common market established in 2010 has yet to fully take effect because of the numerous exemptions that the various governments demanded in order to join.

Regional unity is an important goal, then, but will require far more political will and economic sacrifices than leaders have previously demonstrated if it is to become a reality.

Relationships with states outside the region will be no less important in the coming decades. Continued engagement with Britain and the United States has been the main platform of foreign policy over the past 50 years. At times, these relationships have been mutually beneficial.

Certainly between independence and the late 1980s, the close ties to the Western allies gave Kenya’s governments important sources of finance, military support and insurance against domestic political turmoil. In return, British and American private interests in Kenya enjoyed protection and their military forces access to Kenyan facilities.

The disputes over the International Criminal Court has, however, seen relations with the US, Britain and other Western allies deteriorate to their lowest point since independence. The wisdom of this from Kenya’s point of view is doubtful. For all their many faults over the past 50 years, these allies have played important roles in Kenyan politics. Following Moi’s crackdown on FORD in the early 1990s, donor pressure helped to force the president to legalise opposition and change the Constitution to allow for multiparty elections.

Over the following 20 years, donors provided consistent support to successive constitutional review processes, and so deserve some credit for helping to pave the way for the important reforms introduced in 2010.

The money that western donors have invested in Kenya has also had a positive impact. Although many in the government do not like to admit it, the funds that western governments spend on education and health have helped to empower hundreds of thousands of Kenyans.

It was this knowledge that led many MPs on both sides of the legislature to vote against the proposed curbs on NGO funding, defeating the Bill.

Such resources will be invaluable as future governments plan their responses to the challenges of the next 50 years. But so, too, will those of China and other emerging powers with interests in Kenya.

The growing influence of China in Kenya over the last decade, and the tension between “Eastern” and “Western” strategies of development, is often incorrectly represented as something new.

In fact, in the 1960s, the “radicals” in parliament, inspired by anti-imperial communist states such as Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union, argued that Kenya should follow Tanzania down the path of African socialism.

The “conservatives” within KANU, including the president and leaders such as Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, favoured a more western model of economic development. In the end, the “conservatives” comfortably won.

China’s subsequent embrace of capitalism and the end of the Cold War reduced the political stakes in debates about foreign policy. However, this situation may prove temporary.

Chinese policies of non-interference in the political affairs of its African allies will be difficult to sustain as its interests in the region increase still further and its global competition for power with the United States intensifies.

A choice between East and West may yet recur in the next 50 years, with significant implications for how best the country can respond to the local challenges it will face.
Kenya’s foreign relations, both within the region and beyond, have often been strained. Despite this, cooperation, shared expertise and the formation of common policies are needed to confront the challenges of the next 50 years.


Negotiating a path through difficult regional and global relations, providing jobs and growth, meeting the needs of an increasing population, and limiting the effects of climate change are mighty challenges.

The capacity to meet and overcome such obstacles to development and prosperity is limited so long as an autocratic tendency remains influential within government.

The nation was formed through democracy. The independence generation was under no illusions about the scale of the challenges that faced them. The men and women that celebrated independence with Mboya knew that aligning ideas of ethnicity and nationhood would be hard.

They understood the trouble of eradicating inequality while also pursuing economic growth. And they appreciated how difficult it would be to enjoy full independence when Kenya had so little power relative to the global superpowers in the era of the Cold War.

But the independence generation also recognised that the solution to these challenges lay in a more inclusive approach to debate and democracy.

But debate and democracy were both weakened in the years that followed. Jomo Kenyatta promised that the introduction of a one-party state with the dissolution of KADU in 1964 would not curb Kenyans’ newfound freedoms.

A one-party state, he argued, could be just as democratic, open and free as any multi-party system. For a time, it seemed as though his words would hold true.

The legislature enjoyed a brief golden age as a “conservative” faction led by the new president, battled against a “radical” group led by Vice President Oginga Odinga and the former Mau Mau leader Bildad Kaggia. At the same time, authors such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o found it easier to publish their work, and to do so in their own languages, not just English.

Yet over the next 25 years the space for alternative thought was progressively closed down. As a result of government constraints and public antipathy, it became increasingly difficult to critique the economic and social status quo, and to argue in favour of land reallocation and a more equal distribution of wealth.

Even when one-party rule came to end, things got worse before they got better. In large part, this was because of the repressive strategies used by Daniel arap Moi to retain power against a vibrant – if divided – opposition. Ethnic clashes were used to displace and disempower communities aligned to the president’s rivals, while the intimidation of those prepared to speak out against the regime continued as before.

It was not until Mwai Kibaki defeated Uhuru Kenyatta in the presidential election of 2002, finally removing KANU from power, that the Kenyan media found its voice.

But even this constrained form of freedom was not without its problems. In the wake of the crisis, both major media houses accepted that their handling of the elections, and the aftermath, had been found wanting. Self-censorship and government interference have also continued, albeit at lower levels than in the past.

As so often in their history, though, Kenyans refused to be cowed. The continued struggle of civil society groups and opposition leaders ensured that some good came out of the ethnic clashes and instability that followed the controversial 2007 polls.

The Constitution of 2010 embodied many of the principles that Kenyans were first promised back in 1963. Most notably, Article 34 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the media, and stipulates that the state shall not interfere with the broadcasting or production of information by the Press.

The Constitution now needs to be defended. Over the past few months, Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has attempted to restrict the freedom of the press and exert control over civil society in an attempt to recreate the dominant presidency of the old constitution.

This attack on Kenyans’ basic rights and liberties is an important reminder that independence may have been achieved but freedom has yet to be safeguarded, and Mboya’s revolution has yet to take place.


Mboya was a leader excited by the challenges his country faced, not frightened by them. He was convinced that the best way for Kenyans to confront its challenges was through democracy.

As he remarked in 1963, “the only way to ensure that development has meaning to the man in the street is for the government and other agencies to be those of the people, responsible to the people”.

Inclusive and cooperative government will be the most effective response to the challenges of the next five decades.

Dr Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University [email protected] Prof Branch teaches politics and history at Warwick University [email protected]