Only once have Marianne and I questioned our involvement with Tanzania: late in 2007 and early in 2008 when we worried for a time that post-election violence in Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, Kenya, would scare volunteers away from East Africa. The fury provoked by Kenya’s disputed—or possibly stolen—presidential election killed a thousand or more people and displaced another two hundred thousand. Yet only one out of nearly fifty applicants for our 2008 trip to Tanzania ever mentioned the crisis in Kenya and the chance it might spill southward into Tanzania. Do few Americans pay attention to the news from Africa? Or do many Americans simply assume that travel to Africa entails a high risk of violence? Last spring, one of our volunteers for the summer of 2009 startled Marianne and me by asking if we would encounter child soldiers in Tanzania—a question she asked after making a nonrefundable payment of more than two thousand dollars for her airfare!
In any case, the Kenyan violence did not touch Tanzania. My concern that it could do so has led me to follow events in Kenya, however, though I don’t dare to claim expertise. But recently I met someone who can make that claim, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, a Kenyan assistant professor in the Politics department at the University of San Francisco. Wanjiru also founded and serves as executive director of Akili Dada (www.akilidada.org), an NGO that works to empower Kenyan women to become leaders. She writes a blog called “Can? We? Save? Africa?” and remarked in her July 5 post that the “violence that rocked the country after the 2007 elections should not have been that surprising” and that overall she remained “optimistic about Kenya’s prospect of completing the transition” to democracy (http://savingafrica.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/analysis-of-the-kenyan-political-landscape/).
I certainly hope she’s right. I’m less inclined to optimism although, given that Dr. Kamau-Rutenberg knows Kenya a thousand times better than I do, I probably shouldn’t worry so much. Still, it concerns me that to speak as Wanjiru does elsewhere in her blog about “ongoing transition to democracy” begs the question. I worry that the patronage democracy now obtaining in Kenya does not necessarily represent a stage on a long road from the one-party state of the 1970s and 1980s to authentic democracy. Patronage democracy is a debased form of democracy, characterized above all by the capacity of politicians to hand out favors. This capacity exists in some measure in probably every political system. But it rises to a critical mass under patronage democracy, producing radical distortions in social and economic life and corrupt elections.
No doubt British colonial tax-farming—rewarding leaders among the colonized with a percentage of the tax revenues collected and thus encouraging heavy taxation—and divide-and-rule policies fostered a tradition of the strongman. The strongman became equally practiced at dispensing favors to chosen segments of the populace to secure their help in his accumulation of wealth and power, at ignoring the needs of unfavored segments of the populace, and at defending his authoritarian rule based on its alleged speed and efficiency relative to democracy. And I grant that, half a century after independence, one can assume Kenyans possess the political maturity to see through the strongman’s double-dealing.
While conceding my modest knowledge of Kenyan history, however, I suspect its people needed nothing approaching half a century to grasp the need for a different kind of politics. Patronage democracy could become firmly entrenched in Kenya, I fear, but not because its people can’t grow up politically; they’ve already grown up. The problem is that this impostor of democracy can retain its appeal to a critical mass of people for generations as long as generations of politicians retain their fathers’ skills at dispensing favors and at demagoguing against the trust—hence the vulnerability—crucial to authentic democracy. Because certain attractions accrue inherently to patronage democracy, one cannot assume its demise.
But I want to stress that I have not made a prediction; I’ve merely voiced an anxiety. To the extent Kenyans hear intelligent and informed critical voices like Wanjiru’s, we can expect those people in the grip of patronage democracy to grow increasingly tired of the favors and the demagoguing. A genuinely democratic Kenya likelier would mean a more prosperous Kenya and, since economics is not a zero-sum game, a more prosperous Tanzania. So I hope to continue hearing from Wanjiru and other critics of Kenya’s troubled political system.–Don Stoll