Running on Amnesia

I WAS NEGOTIATINg one of Nairobi’s terrifying traffic circles – a maneuver that requires jumping over a lattice of open sewers while playing chicken with a line of trucks snorting their way toward Uganda and Congo – when I was confronted with a vision to chill the heart and drop the jaw.

By Michela Wrong (Issues)

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Published: Sun 24 Feb 2013, 8:20 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:13 PM

Twenty young Kenyan volunteers in T-shirts and caps printed with the candidate’s face were jiving and chanting on the back of a campaign truck as it trundled toward the Sarit Center shopping mall in Westlands: “Vote for Brother Paul!”

It was my first day back in the city that was once my home, and I’d just caught a glimpse of what must surely be the overriding characteristic of this East African country’s forthcoming general elections: shamelessness.

For Brother Paul, as he is known, was once plain Kamlesh Pattni, the smirking, mustachioed brains behind Goldenberg, the biggest financial scandal in Kenyan history. Yet Pattni clearly sees no reason why that awkward fact should bar him from office.

Maybe he’s not so crazy. Because forgetting past financial scandals is only one form of amnesia a dazed public is being asked to demonstrate come March 4. The presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and his running mate William Ruto, a Kalenjin, are asking millions to effectively lobotomize themselves as they enter the voting booths, blanking out everything they saw five years ago.

The Kikuyu are the largest and most economically successful tribe; the Kalenjin, a looser ethnic grouping, come second in size. Kenya’s last three presidents have all been either Kikuyu or Kalenjin.

After the 2007 election Kikuyu and Kalenjin militias were given machetes, spears and cash payments, trucked to where they could do most damage and let loose on rival ethnic communities. Houses and churches were burned; businesses were looted. Refugees went on exoduses, only to find their way often cut off by flaming roadblocks. Many analysts believe that the official estimate of more than 1,000 deaths is a laughable underestimation.

Now, thanks to an alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto, who both face trial before the International Criminal Court for allegedly organising the violence, attackers and victims are being asked to become buddies. Anything to keep Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo who almost certainly should have won the 2007 election, from becoming president. Kenya has a tradition of strained tribal coalitions, but few have been more grotesque, or demanded more torturous mental acrobatics of scarred constituencies, than this.

There is one interest group, at least, that has no problem behaving as though the past were another country: the international business community.

Since the most violent elections in Kenyan history, consultants advising companies eager to invest in Africa in general and Kenya in particular have been asking for my views on political risk. The last call came two days before I flew in. “This isn’t a great time for predictions,” I said. “Literally anything could happen. It’s a very tight race.” The consultant was apologetic. “I don’t think our clients realised there was an election in Kenya this month.”

That level of ignorance is unusual, but my answer, in any case, is always the same. Yes, Kenya is East Africa’s most vibrant economy, a strategic gateway to the mineral resources of the Great Lakes region and – potentially – the oil riches of South Sudan. It has an aspirational middle class, a ballooning pool of potential workers and a relentless entrepreneurial spirit.

But a generation of cynical politicians has turned ethnicity into a poisonous national obsession, Nairobi’s slums are the most squalid in Africa, and the vision required to defuse the frustrations of the young people trapped in them is noticeable by its absence.

Despite such warnings, overseas funding pours in. Taking the long view, private investors are transforming Nairobi’s skyline, while holes in the city’s moth-eaten colonial infrastructure yawn ever wider. Above the shattered pavements, giant potholes and broken streetlights, gleaming 20-floor towers now rear.

I walk past them and wonder if those who commissioned their wraparound glass fronts, so vulnerable to looters’ rocks, were more far-sighted than a headline-obsessed writer. Or perhaps, it suddenly occurs to me, it’s just shatterproof glass.

Michela Wrong has covered Africa for nearly two decades, reporting for Reuters, the BBC and The Financial Times

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