Kenya Situation Report: October 2016

A New Leader in Africa

Kenya is truly a leader in East and Central Africa -- the capital of Nairobi serves as a regional commercial hub and the Kenyan economy is the largest of the region. Agriculture provides the bulk of the employment and the country exports tea and coffee. Kenya is a new nation: after being ruled by Britain for almost eighty years, the Kenyans mounted the Mau Mau rebellion from 1952 to 1959 and finally achieved independence. The first elections for Kenyans took place in 1957 and the Kenya African National Union party formed a government, with Jomo Kenyatta serving as the first president of Kenya once the republic was established in 1964. When Kenyatta died in 1978, his Vice President Daniel arap Moi was elected and served as Kenya’s second president until 2002.

Although President Moi had widespread popularity when he succeeded Kenyatta, a coup attempt in 1982 gave him a chance to consolidate and increase his power. After the coup, Moi dismissed and sentenced to death those he considered traitors, appointed some of his supporters to important roles within the government, and changed the constitution to establish a one-party system. While his legacy remains controversial, Moi served as president until 2002, when he was barred from participating in the election and a multi-party system was created.

In 2002, Mwai Kibaki was elected president as part of the opposition coalition National Rainbow Coalition. The elections were deemed fair and free by the international community and marked a turning point for Kenya’s approach to democracy. President Kibaki was prohibited from running for a third term due to term limits, and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president in March 2013. In July 2015, President Obama visited Kenya, the first American president to visit while in office.

Will Elections Bring Renewed Political Violence?

Kenya is a politically tolerant nation, but every presidential race for the past 25 years has been marked by violence. In 2007 and 2008, over 1,000 people were killed when ethnic rivalries came to a violent head. Kenya has attempted to heal from this violence and instability, and the election in 2013 was mostly peaceful. With an election scheduled for 2017, the protests have already begun -- mostly on “Tear Gas Mondays,” a time when businesses close and children do not attend school because the streets are not safe. The recent protests remain chaotic though not as violent as before, but the dynamics at play are familiar.

The fragile economy hangs in the balance when the country experiences this kind of instability, causing business leaders to meet with government leaders, urging compromise before things get out of hand. The unemployment rate in Kenya is 10%, but youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 35% -- making it extremely difficult for Kenyans under 35 years old to make a living and potentially contributing to the civil unrest and political violence surrounding the presidential election.

Attempting to Stay Out of the Fray

Bordered by Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania, Kenya has maintained a relative peace in the past few years in the midst of a chaotic region. Al-Shabab, a militant Islamic group active in Somalia, has attacked the country in the past. The group is loosely tied to Al-Qaeda, but focuses particularly on Kenya because of Operation Linda Nchi, a coordinated operation between the Kenyan and Somali militaries in pursuit of al-Shabab militants who kidnapped tourists and aid workers inside Kenya.

In September 2013, al-Shabab stormed Westgate Shopping Mall, killing 67 people and injuring 175 more, in retaliation to the Kenyan military being deployed to Somalia. In April 2015, al-Shabab attacked Kenya again, this time killing 148 people at Garissa University College. The gunmen took over 700 students hostage, killing anyone identifying as Christian and allowing the Muslims to go free. The attack was the deadliest in recent history. 

The Dadaab refugee camp is merely 60 miles from Garissa University College, causing many to believe that al-Shabab recruits from the refugee camp. Dadaab was established in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 refugees from Somalia, and has grown into a massive, city-like settlement that holds over 350,000 refugees. It is the third largest population center in Kenya, behind Nairobi and Mombasa, and it’s estimated that the camp injects over $14 million into the Kenyan economy annually. With renewed criticism from Somalia and international groups, the Kenyan government announced in May that the camp would be closed and all refugees would be repatriated. The decision is controversial: the government asserts that closing the camp is in Kenya’s best interest in terms of national security, but others argue that sending refugees back to an incredibly unstable Somalia will cause more harm than good, and could have a large impact on Kenya’s society and economy.

A Growing Economy

Although Kenya’s economy is the largest and most advanced in the Central and East Africa region, the Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.519, ranking 145th out of 186 in the world. Over 17% of Kenyans live on less than $1.25 per day, with a third of household incomes going towards bribes.

However, the economy has expanded a lot in the past few years, mostly through tourism and telecommunications. The World Bank estimates Kenya’s economy will grow at a rate of 5.9% in 2016 and 6.1% in 2017. Many businesses previously run by the state have been privatized -- a particular success story is Safaricom, a defunct state organization that was revived through private investment. The service industry is growing in Kenya through the massive tourist boom, contributing over 60% of the GDP.

In 2007, the government introduced Vision 2030, an economic development project that aims to put the country on the same path as Asian nations experiencing an economic renaissance. A few years later, the Kenyan government launched a National Climate Change Action Plan, setting out a vision for a “low carbon, climate-resilient development pathway.” This plan creates a framework for delivery and ensures climate change is considered in any economic discussions in the future.

Finally, Kenya has achieved a few of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) recently, including universal primary school enrollment, narrowing gender gaps in education, and reducing child mortality. By devolving the healthcare system and offering free maternal healthcare, a more equal system of health has been created for Kenyans. The country is on the path to becoming a true success story in Africa, with a growing private sector, healthy democratic institutions, and ability to address development challenges.

To keep up-to-date on what is going on in Kenya, check out the Kenya Risk Assessment Country Guide.

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Kenya Risk Assessment Guide