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In death, men like Karume reveal what kind of country Kenya is

Wednesday February 29 2012



In the space of three days last week, two eminent Kenyan citizens died — the steely Environment minister and businessman John Michuki, who was 80, and after him the shrewd former Defence minister and wealthy businessman Njenga Karume. Karume was 83.

Because they were among President Kibaki’s closest friends, the media reported that the Commander-in-Chief was terribly grieved and had been plunged into loneliness.

Also, because they were veteran politicians from central Kenya, there was general agreement that an era had come to an end in Kikuyuland, and the candidates they were backing in the upcoming presidential elections (Michuki for Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Karume for Prime Minister Raila Odinga) had to go back to the drawing board to find new tribal patrons.

Of course, as we all know, death is never about the dead. It is about the living. And what the stories of the dead tell us about our societies.

The average life expectancy for men in Kenya is 48 years. For Michuki to live to 80 and Karume to 83 suggests that the combination of money and power is a powerful recipe for longevity. But it is when you look at their death in an African context that the story becomes truly revealing.

Michuki, for example, was a young administrative officer in the colonial government and a permanent secretary in the Jomo Kenyatta independence government. Karume was an MP then. When Kibaki came to power at the end of 2002, they returned to government as ministers.


There are virtually no African countries where people who were in the first independence governments and Parliaments made it as ministers or MPs into the 21st century. Most of them were shot or hanged by the military rulers who staged endless coups from the end of the 1960s to the close of the 1980s.From Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, and others, military dictators finished off independence era politicians.

In the African countries where there were no coups but octogenarians like Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade came to power in their 70s, it is because they were suffering in the opposition (and possibly exile) or prison, as was the case of the South African legend Nelson Mandela.

In the prison category, you can add Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who threw a big 88th birthday party for himself last week. The party was so expensive, one wag joked, that the money Uncle Bob spent would have fed the millions of Zimbabwe’s poor and hungry people for days.

In that sense, the fact that Karume had semi-retired but was still dabbling in politics at the age of 83, and Michuki was minister and MP at 80, tells us that compared to other African countries, Kenya has had a fairly good record of stability.

The fact that Michuki and Karume were seen as having the ability to determine who central Kenya voted for in the 2012 elections reveals something that you do not find in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, or Burundi — old men who have the clout to sway how their tribes vote. Sunday Nation columnist and law professor Makau Mutua calls them “tribal chiefs” or “tribal overlords”.

Tribal overlords are not elected or appointed. They evolve over time. It takes decades to rise to that invisible but powerful position in African politics.

First, you need to work long enough to build a track record. Secondly, you need some money to “help” people and establish social capital. Finally, you need political power to secure your wealth, and also be in a position to help people who have money (and therefore do not need yours), but still need someone to help them fulfil their dreams — of being appointed minister or ambassador, for example.

All these things require a lot of time, so you need the kind of stable political situation Kenya had, until it was disrupted brutally and briefly in 2008.

Now a stable country, with predictable politics, means the political elite will also be fairly stable, entrenched, and difficult to shake. In these types of countries, political reform is difficult to do.
Reformists have to fight hard and long to get anywhere. Expect a progressive constitutional reform to take 25 years — as it did in Kenya.

The road to Kenya passes through people like Karume.