Kenya@50 or Sick@50 – Kenyatta’s Promise

As Kenya celebrates 50 years of independence, has the country lived up to the promises of its founding father?

Jubilant Kenyans

Fifty years ago, Kenya’s founding father and first president Jomo Kenyatta made a promise to his new-born nation that has since been ingrained into the head of every bored schoolchild in every dusty classroom across the country.

The grainy, shaky newsreel footage from December 12th, 1963 shows the proud bearded Kenyatta, with his barrel chest and trade-mark fly whisk, waving to the ecstatic crowd, while the almost comically stiff colonial officials watch awkwardly from the back of the stage in their starched and gilded ceremonial dress.

The images can’t hide the sense of optimism and euphoria that swept across the country that day. Almost a century of British colonial rule was over. The years of subjugation had ended. And at last Kenyans were masters of their own destiny, with Jomo Kenyatta promising to lead the way.

In his speech inaugurating the newly independent Kenya, the president made his solemn pledge: the new government would he said, tackle the three big challenges of poverty, ignorance and disease.

It was a bold statement of confidence in his government’s ability to drive the country towards a more prosperous future; and it was a direct jab in the eye of the British who used all three as tools of colonial domination.

It was also a gift to journalists half a century on, looking for benchmarks to measure the progress made in that time.

So, what of those challenges? One newspaper published a cartoon with two Kenyas – the first, at birth, clutching the three-point list; and the second at fifty, angrily looking at a new extended ‘to-do’ list, with poverty, ignorance, disease, corruption and tribalism.

To be fair, it hasn’t all been bad news. It is true that poverty remains depressingly wide-spread, but Kenya’s population has also exploded from eight million at independence, to 42 million today.

The economy has grown to become the giant of East Africa, but it hasn’t been able to keep up with all the extra people.

Primary school education is now free for all, and the new government is working on fulfilling an election promise to extend that to secondary school.

But hundreds of schools lack even electricity; teachers are under-paid and classrooms are hopelessly over-crowded. Students learn to read and write – literacy is now around 80 percent – but not much more.

A World Bank survey found that children in public primary schools in Kenya are taught for an average of only 2 hours 40 minutes a day. That’s not even half the official teaching day of 5 hours 40 minutes.

And in public health facilities, the World Bank said only 58 percent of health-care providers could diagnose 4 out of 5 basic conditions such as malaria with anemia or acute diarrhea with severe dehydration.

Kenya’s politics is still beset by chronic self-serving infighting, and the idea of “public service” seems to be little more than a campaign slogan.

But in a neighborhood beset by strife, Kenya proudly stands out as one of the region’s most stable democracies.

The presidency has peacefully changed hands four times between civilian rulers, and with the notable exception of the violence that almost plunged the country into civil war after the elections at the end of 2007, the country has been remarkably stable.

In 2010, it also inaugurated a new constitution, enshrining political systems designed to move power away from the imperial presidency of old, reduce corruption and improve efficiency. It has had a troubled start, and there is still no guarantee that its spirit will survive a butchering by some of the more cynical politicians, but the principles remain intact.

For good reason, the United Nations set up one of its three global hubs in Nairobi, making the capital city the headquarters of two of its biggest agencies – the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP); and HABITAT – the organisation concerned with urban development. It was a vote of confidence in Kenya’s political and economic stability.

But – and it is a big “but” – Kenyans are mostly watching the anniversary celebrations from home. The day has been a wash out. Heavy rains have kept thousands of people from coming to the Safaricom Kasarani Sports Stadium (“The Home of Heroes”, it boasts in giant letters), and the atmosphere is depressingly flat.

It also comes at a time of national angst.

Kenya is still coming to terms with the fallout of the attack by al-Shabaab gunmen on the Westgate Shopping Mall; health workers are defying a court order to end a crippling strike in a sign of wide-spread discontent within the civil service; politicians are continuing to mangle the constitution while elevating their salaries to higher than almost any other parliament in the world; and unemployment remains stubbornly high at 40 percent with youth unemployment far worse. On Twitter and Facebook, people are replacing the hash-tag “Kenya@50” with “sick@50”.

There is much to celebrate, but Kenyans are also aware that this is not the country they might have expected as the British flag lowered over the capital half a century ago.

Peter Greste is an award-winning foreign correspondent based in East Africa.

– AJ