According to the United Nations, the average Kenyan makes $777 a year. Yet members of Kenya’s parliament are among the highest paid in the world, with a compensation package of $145,565 (most of it tax-free). That is 187 times more than the country’s average income and would be the equivalent of an American congressman making $8.5 million a year. And this is simply what is earned legally.
Kenya is notorious for corruption, from scandals cooked up in the president’s office involving fake companies and hundreds of millions of dollars, to police officers on the street who have a fondness for stopping drivers, inventing new traffic laws, and whispering the magic words kitu kidogo, which in Kiswahili means “a little something.” This is the land of a little something, where no senior officials have ever been punished for graft. Just a few months ago, a drought-induced famine steadily spread toward Kenya from neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, threatening millions of lives in a lush, bountiful country that should be able to feed itself and more; but at the same time, several top Kenyan politicians were implicated in a scheme to illegally sell off millions of pounds of the country’s emergency grain reserves, at obscene profits.
The front pages of Kenya’s biggest papers alternated between pictures of the well-coiffed politicians incredulously denying the charges and people in the hinterland with their rib cages exposed. None of this is secret. There have been countless studies of corruption, thousands of headlines about it, and intense scrutiny of Kenya from the World Bank and organizations like Transparency International, which recently ranked Kenya the most corrupt nation in East Africa. A survey done a few years ago indicated that the average urban Kenyan pays sixteen bribes a month.
It was only early in 2008 that the crookery in Kenya led to widespread violent protest. A dubious election in December 2007 ignited long-standing ethnic and political frustrations: people were getting sick of being treated like dirt by the Kenyan government and the long-privileged Kikuyu tribe, to which the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki belonged. After Kibaki appeared to steal the election from opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is a Luo, violence exploded across the country between Luos, Kikuyus, and other ethnic groups. More than one thousand people were killed, many quite brutally, with poison arrows to the heart or a club to the head. The pastoral images of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa were rapidly blotted out by thick, black smoke. This was more like Hotel Rwanda.
Driving it all was an unpleasant truth that had been buried for decades. Kenyans may have built an impressive-seeming state—one of the most developed and prosperous in Africa, a place of gleaming office towers and well-oiled bureaucracy—but they had utterly failed to build a …