17 November 2012

Kenya: Samburu Killings Have Rattled Foreign Investors


When I was thinking about what to write about for this Saturday, I was toying with a couple of ideas, some of them a bit middle-class-y: US private equity firm Carlyle have made their first investment in sub Saharan Africa, and in an agricultural trading, logistics and warehousing firm - interesting for a number of reasons, not the least because I think the big business/smallholder connection is quite promising.

Or a look at whether Kenya's buzzy fashion industry would actually be able to cope with becoming properly successful? If, say, dresses or bags find their way into international fashion magazines and designers here suddenly get orders for 5,000 pieces - then what?

I also thought that the cappuccino-drinking middle class so maligned by NGOs has more frivolous things to do with Naked Pizza opening in Nairobi. The pizza is great, but in this context, it is more interesting to me that the nascent middle class (and if I get bitched at more by NGOs, I might just take up cappuccino-drinking in malls to spite them) is a strong enough commercial lure for international franchises.

Then again, private equity firm ECP recently acquired a stake in the Java chain, so it doesn't matter much whether upmarket food chains are local or international. There's enough of you lot who loiter around in malls who have money to spend on food that isn't ugali.

But in the end, this week was really overshadowed by the police killings in Samburu. So far, 46 police officers have died in the operation in Samburu when they tried to intervene in cattle rustling. It was heartbreaking to read the media reports: Ill equipped, often young police officers unfamiliar with the terrain practically made to walk into heavily armed raiders who did not give a flying thingie that they were killing police officers.

Did those men ever stand a chance? I can't even begin to imagine the grief of their family and friends. And then their bodies were literally left to rot before they were eventually taken back to Nairobi (Where were all those helicopters that politicians so regularly 'traverse' the country in?) It is a tragedy that this should have happened in the first place, but it is even more of a crying shame how this was handled in the aftermath.

This became bigger picture stuff as clients asked me about it, too. Security is always a concern for existing and potential international investors (well, it is for local investors, too, and pretty for everyone here, but this is what clients abroad asked me). They also wonder about the police's capacity to keep peace during the elections next year, and generally about stability in Kenya. This incident - following so shortly after the Mombasa riots and the previous incidences in the Tana Delta - is on their radar screen. Not, mind you, in a sort of clueless 'Violence in Kenya - country about to implode' manner, but they did ask.

I've had few pleasant encounters with the police in Kenya, that's true. The police force is regularly a leading contender in the vote for the most corrupt institution in East Africa. But amongst the many reasons for this is also that you can hardly expect police officers to do their best if they are barely paid a living salary.

This is similar to other areas of the civil service: If you strive to be employed in it for the illicit fringe benefits (anything from 'something small' to something distinctly bigger once you move up the career ladder), then there won't be any quality public service. This is bad news for tax payers. And in a line of work where officers are exposed to danger, it is also bad news for those officers.

I wrote about this because it was a gut-wrenching incident of state failure that highlighted a number of issues: police capacity, for one, security in Kenya's remote areas, the curious business of cattle rustling that is surely under-analysed in national media.

I also wrote about it because we were just again treated to another glimpse of where the priorities of our elected representatives lie - you know, after your MPs fighting such a heroic major human rights battle over their morbidly obese golden handshake on top of their morbidly obese monthly income (all from your taxes).

It was a parody of contrasts: The leading elected representatives couldn't really be rattled into any immediate or compassionate action regarding the police officers (leaving their bodies for two days??). But the official 'unveiling' of the new VP residence - Sh400m of your taxes - in Karen was a big party. The President came.

The VP, stunningly, said 'It will take prayers and encouragement to move in' (as reported in the Star. It may be possible that the VP never said this. Or that he was quoted out of context). He also said, just as gobsmackingly: 'This project ... is an assurance of the government's commitment to improve the lives of Kenyans.' (again as reported in the Star. It may be possible that the VP never said this. Or that he was quoted out of context). The lives of Kenyans in the employment of the state were just thrown away in Suguta Valley.

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