Friday, 31 October 2014

Kenyans must choose between being a hawk or dove nation

This month, President Uhuru Kenyatta chose to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in continuation of his case as a suspected organiser of violence during the breakdown of law and order that followed Kenya's 2007 election. One of the strange things about his ICC trial is that, while Kenyatta denies the charges, there is a certain PR supremacy he has gained in domestic politics for being someone prepared to do hard things when necessary. In times of chaos, it is believed, Kenyatta has the guts to stand up for his community. This is of course contradictory, because either he organised the killing of those of other ethnic groups in 2008 or he didn't - there are no two ways about it. Nevertheless his ability to appear a "dove" at the international level and a "hawk" at home has done wonders for his political career.

But the longer this goes on the more we will have to ask: What does Kenyatta see himself as? What does he want Kenya to be, a dove or a hawk nation?

Kenya's history is in being the dove of Africa: friendly to international trade, welcoming to tourists, enthusiastic in participating with international charities. But the Kenya of Kenyatta is none of these things.

Tanzania now tends to be preferred to Kenya as a regional trading partner because it has less opportunistic corruption, a better managed port and links to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Tourists in Kenya are suffering the ongoing threat of terrorism and, when their embassies support their evacuation away from danger zones, the Kenyan media writes furiously that these embassies are against the country's development. Most of all, and something hardly known within Kenya, the reputation of charitable organisations operating in the country has suffered steep decline. The credit crunch of Europe and North America from 2007 onwards has forced governments and charities to provide better justification for their spending, and to watch carefully against any wastage. This makes givers think twice about whether Kenya is the best place to provide help, riddled as the country's NGO sector is with corruption.

This leaves us with the option of becoming a hawk nation, as Kenyatta seems to prefer. A hawk nation is one that tells other people the rules and makes those who deviate from these rules feel the consequences. It is about dictating terms to others, and using economic and military might to build the right environment for one's own interests.

Being a "hawk" is a term used in American politics for those who prefer war to diplomacy. It has connotations with the symbolic eagle of the Roman Empire, where Rome followed a policy of either assimilating or conquering those it came across - either way you are forced to play by the Empire's rules.

That is the approach Kenyatta is pursuing, though he is focusing for the time being on appearing a hawk mostly at home. This is evident enough in his decision last month to be the first Kenyan president to attend a public event wearing combat military fatigues. When local artist Collins Okello drew a picture of it that went viral on social media, the president was flattered enough to invite the artist to state house for his 53rd birthday.

And so Kenya is being led at home by a hawk, but on the international stage by a dove. This contradiction cannot hold for long, and embassies based in Nairobi have already woken up to that fact. The key thing now is to ask which of the two Kenyans really want.