Travel Diary: Coming Back to Kenya

Posted by Johnnie Carson
August 7, 2009
Elephants in Kenya's Amboseli Park

Interactive Travel Map | Text the Secretary | Behind the Scenes PhotosAbout the Author: Johnnie Carson serves as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Coming back to Kenya is a bit like coming home. After all, I spent four years here (1999-2003) as U.S. Ambassador, and I grew to love the country. It's hard not to. Kenya's spectacular beauty ranges from lofty mountains to the lush shores of Lake Victoria to the open savanna filled with wildlife to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Its people are gracious, welcoming and well-educated, among the most literate on the African continent. Kenyans, led by Jomo Kenyatta, fought hard and long for independence. Once they gained it, the manner in which they achieved national and racial reconciliation set an example that South Africa would follow forty years later.

I've traveled here this week with Secretary Clinton to participate in the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum, held August 4-6. Political, business and civil society leaders from all over Africa and the United States have gathered to discuss and improve the African Growth and Opportunity Act, first signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. But my passion for Kenya underlies this visit, and I can't help but be concerned for the country and its people.

At the top of my concerns is corruption. Corruption is killing Kenya. Since the long rule of Daniel arap Moi, it has seeped into the fabric of Kenyan governance. It affects everyone at every level. The long-running Goldenberg scandal, in which the government subsidized exports of gold, cost Kenya more than a billion dollars, a value of more than 10 percent of the country's GNP. More recently, the Anglo Leasing case has cost the government more than 50 million dollars. These are just two of a long list of scandals, documented often in detail by organizations such as Transparency International. These scandals have sapped not only the national treasury, but the very spirit of a talented people and faith in their state institutions. And the dollars lost are only part of the story. This insidious disease infects all aspects of Kenyan life, down to the basic public services such as education, driver's licenses and business permits, where even a few extra dollars for "dash" can break one family's meager savings. Multiply that one family by millions, and you get a nation going backwards.

How does a country fight corruption? I'm from Chicago, so I know that corruption is not specifically African or American, but a human condition. In the United States, a strong judiciary and vibrant free media serve as effective checks on corruption. One former governor of my state of Illinois sits in prison, having been convicted in a court of justice and now serving a term for selling pardons. Another governor of Illinois has been indicted by a former U.S. attorney for pay-for-play. A federal prosecutor investigated the case. The state legislature impeached the governor, who now awaits a criminal trial. And Illinois has a new governor. This all happened as spelled out in the state constitution.

In the Kenya of today, unfortunately, such a scenario would seem impossible. Under the watchful eye of Kenya's long-serving attorney general -- a man who has served loyally under current President Kibaki and his predecessor President Moi -- not one government official or serving politician has been successfully prosecuted for corruption in Kenya for two decades. Kenya's six-year-old anti-corruption statute has demonstrated a similar success rate.

Kenya's court system has also shown a willingness to play along with the attorney general's style of politics. On those rare occasions when corruption cases are presented to the courts, they are dismissed on procedural grounds or are allowed to wither away in files and boxes. There's a well-known saying among Kenyans: "Why hire a lawyer when you can buy a judge?"

Inaction also seems to be the prevailing mode for dealing with the rise in extrajudicial killings, estimated to be in the hundreds over the last two years. The current coalition government resulted from a deal struck by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the wake of the post-election violence that killed 1,500 and displaced 300,000 Kenyans in early 2008. The lack of action to investigate and prosecute those responsible has stymied reform and intimidated civil society groups -- effectively silencing many Kenyans who would otherwise be willing to speak out against corruption and judicial malfeasance.

The consequences of corruption and the poor governance threaten to shatter the hopes of what was once one of Africa's shining stars. Kenya was beginning to thrive because of a record of rule of law, budding democratic institutions and education. In fact, it had -- and still has -- the continent's strongest economy not based on mineral extraction. Instead, the country's growth rate fell from eight percent in 2007 to less than two percent in 2008 -- a decline due mainly to the fallout from the electoral violence, not the global recession.

As President Obama said in his recent visit to Ghana, Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men. Kenya's peaceful transition to independence happened in part because strong leadership coalesced to bring about a national reconciliation based on building up democratic institutions and rule of law. My hope for Kenya is that its citizens will draw upon this rich legacy. I can say with full certainty that the United States will support this great country and its people as it seeks to renew itself once again and become the stable, prosperous, and just country it has the potential to be.



August 7, 2009

Wahocs in Kenya writes:

All very true, but when all is said and done, as long as Kenyans continue to vote in these leaders who continue to exploit us for their own selfish wants, this country shall and will never change, Change has to come from us, the kenyan people, not our leaders.

New Mexico, USA
August 7, 2009

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Dear Mr. Carson

This post was in slightly different context, but I'm curious whether you think my observation on democratic evolution might prove true in general terms as a factor of the human condition.




"If I were to make a comparison of where their democratic timeline towards a functioning democracy is at presently:

One might make a brief comparison with the old Chicago Mob days, "machine" politics included.

Those were tough times for us as a democracy. Organized crime can be a terminal illness to the democratic process, and it took a lot of time and effort on the federal government's part to put and end to it.

It may be a phase all democracies go through at some point in their evolution, and recognizing this, I think America's best foot forward on this issue with Russia would be in supporting the Russian Federation's ability to cope with a serious internal dillema, whether that be simple moral support for legitimate efforts to combat organized crime, the protection of those trying to hold folks to account for what's going on around them, and institutional support, whether that be simple consultation on how the U.S. sucessfully handled our growing pains, to offer ideas, and perhaps some expertice and exchange beteen our FBI and their complimentary branch of service.

Democracy after all, is not just "the great experiment", it's a learning process that takes generations to get right.

An ongoing process that really has no end to it, as we're still trying to perfect our's.

A "multipartnered world" makes too much sense to ignore."

Posted on Thu Jul 16, 2009

Florida, USA
August 7, 2009

Susan in Florida writes:

@ Secretary Carson -- Thank you for such a genuine and heartfelt posting. It is obvious how much you love Kenya. It looks, from the photo, to be a beautiful country. I hope we will be able to help them get back to their original plans of democracy and personal freedoms. I appreciate that we are again focusing on the African nations. So much suffering, from droughts, to HIV/AIDS, to genocide and human trafficking, to the huge problem of so many orphaned children. Overwhelming. A special thank you to Secretary Clinton for all her incredible hard work. She is truly amazing.

North Carolina, USA
August 7, 2009

Rita in North Carolina writes:

I feel the same and understand that what you have written on Kenya is true because i am a Kenyan who wants to help the people and tell them or bring to the light and show them that it is us Kenyans who will decide our childrens and countries fate. But honestly why go back home to help when all will happen is that those in power will kill you for helping the poor and speaking the truth. Its something all Kenyans want ,believe me, but when you have one ready to harm you what do you do.Please me and lots of other Kenyans here in America want to help our people but the question is how? and who will protect us> Thank you for this blog....Its this stories that need to be seen by all. I am a Kenyan and I agree with you on all you say. It is even worse than you have pointed out.

Indiana, USA
August 8, 2009

David in Indiana writes:

Anyone who knows Kenya knows that its greatest weakness is the lack of institutional progress. What seems difficult is to suggest possible solutions to this lack of progress. How about the withdrawal of recogniton of the present government, through not appointing any ambassador to the country once Ambassador Ranneberger leaves? How about prohibiting AG Amos Wako from being part of international meetings until he begins to prosecute some actual high level perpetrators of violence and corruption? Steps that will force institutions to work are the only ones that might move the country forward,

David N.
District Of Columbia, USA
August 10, 2009

Dave in Washington, DC writes:

Amb. Carson: I appreciated your statement. My family and I resided in Nairobi during my initial foreign service tour as a regional food for peace officer between 1978 and 1980. It was a marvelous time one of the happiest for us as a young family in a lovely place with most hospitable people.

"Mzee" Kenyatta had passed on the week before our arrival in Nairobi. Everyone looked to Daniel Arap Moi as a reformer. Charles Njonjo stayed on as Atty. General in the formative days of his government and we all had high hopes that at last, Kenya was on the path towards clean governance when we departed Kenya in Dec. 1980.

It would be 26 years before I returned on my first visit to Kenya as a retired USAID contractor. Moi's long years in power have only left behind great disappointment. Njonjo who spearheaded reform was only the first who had to flee Kenya for his life while corruption only goes from bad to worse. The thing is, Kenya's vibrant economy of the late '70s could absorb its effects and carry on. That is by far, no longer the case today.

Kenya now stands at the most critical junction in its history. It can either choose to a path towards reform however painful, beginning at the top and at the bottom in the primary grades. Or if Kenya continues on the other fork in the road, it becomes the "Nigeria" of East Africa regarding which I need not say more.

We can only hope Kenyans choose the former path and help consolidate the reform process once the choice is made.

I shall look forward to visiting your blog on a regular basis.

Valflowers-Singapore F.
August 25, 2009

VSF in Singapore writes:

good blog.....keep going...


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