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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 22:13 GMT
Little to celebrate as Kenya turns 40
Kenyan worker
Most Kenyans still live below the poverty line
Kenya marks 40 years of independence on 12 December, although government plans to hold a lavish party had to be scaled back after a row over the $1m cost.

BBC News Online's Gray Phombeah explains why he won't be celebrating.

Although a popularly elected government last year swept away the party which had ruled for 39 years, the majority of Kenya's 30m people still live below the poverty level of $1 a day.

Because of mass unemployment, there is rising crime - armed robbery and carjackings - in Nairobi and other major towns.

Basic infrastructure such as roads, telephones, railways and electricity are still in considerable disrepair.

Although Kenyans embraced a new era of democracy with the landslide opposition victory, corruption and ethnic tensions still haunt the country.

Downhill slide

One could argue that little has gone right since the Union Jack was lowered on 12 December, 1963.

Jomo Kenyatta - gaunt, walking with a stoop and in frail health - took over the reins of power after years of captivity had taken their toll.

Average annual income: $980
Life expectancy: 46
Population: 30m
41% under 14
Adult literacy: 83%

He set up a political system that would last for almost two decades, based on political nepotism, ethnic favouritism and the detention or elimination of political rivals.

Under the old man - who re-invented the national rallying cry of "Harambee", meaning pulling together - the Kikuyu, his tribesmen, became the dominant ethnic group in Kenya's politics and business.

For 15 years, Kenyatta presided over the first repressive government in independent Kenya's history, which saw the assassinations of three prominent politicians and the brutal suppression and impoverishment of the smaller ethnic groups.

His renowned charisma and the leading role he played in pursuit of independence ensured that Kenyatta managed to retain a heroic glow when he died in his sleep in 1978.

One-party state

Then the younger and taller Daniel arap Moi took over, shifting the centre of power to his smaller Kalenjin group.

President Moi outlawed all political parties except Kanu and kept the Kenyan police busy rounding up all suspected enemies of his regime.

Jomo Kenyatta
Kenyatta ruled through nepotism and tribalism

Most of them say they were tortured, jailed or detained without trial.

By the early 1990s, Kenya had lost its reputation as one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries.

Pressure from foreign donors forced Mr Moi to hold multi-party elections in 1992.

But strongholds of the opposition were plunged into ethnic fighting, leaving hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters displaced.

The opposition claimed the president rigged the first two multi-party elections in 1992 and 1997, although many Kenyans believed a split in the opposition itself denied them victory in both elections.

Then, for a moment - in December 2002 - the country seemed to have shed the skin of tribalism, 39 years after independence.

New hope

A new National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) opposition alliance brought together leaders from various ethnic groups - a political feat that had eluded the opposition in 10 years of multi-party politics.

And Daniel arap Moi was barred by the constitution from contesting the polls.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki
Kibaki promised a new era

Kenyans - fed up with rising unemployment, crime and graft - voted for the first time for change and not for their ethnic group in the 2002 polls, ending 24 years of misrule and grotesque corruption.

But 12 months on, the opposition alliance seems to have manipulated ethnic loyalty as much as Mr Moi, and Jomo Kenyatta before him.

Despite dramatic moves to tackle corruption and the provision of free primary education places, internal feuding in the ruling coalition has undermined the credibility of the new government and eroded confidence among Kenyans in the new era.


From the beginning, Mr Kibaki and his rainbow alliance contained some ambiguities.

The ramshackle coalition running the country includes a number of prominent Kanu defectors, many of them presumed to have left when Mr Moi chose the largely untested son of Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru, to succeed him.

Kibaki supporters celebrating the 2002 election victory
Last year's euphoria has worn off

They include George Saitoti, Mr Moi's longest serving vice president, who has been implicated in Kenya's biggest corruption scandal, in which kickbacks were paid to a phoney company exporting gold from a country that doesn't have any.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

Three ministers are already at the centre of scandals involving government tenders and the murder of a scholar who had been helping to write the new constitution, bringing back memories of a series of political assassinations that rocked the country in the 1960s.

Feuding - mostly over a new constitution that would dilute Mr Kibaki's presidential powers and create the post of an executive prime minister - is already slowing the coalition government's efforts to reverse the country's long decline.

Twelve months ago, ubiquitous euphoria led to dancing in the streets when the coalition government took power.

Mr Kibaki has persuaded the IMF to resume lending, cut off due to the pervasive corruption under Mr Moi, reportedly leading to pledges of $4bn in aid.

But many Kenyans are concerned over the ability of the new government - and that of a laid-back 72-year-old president who has not been in the best of health - to govern and clean up Kenya's politics.

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Country profile: Kenya
22 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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