12 December 2013

Kenya Celebrates 50 Years of Independence Despite Challenges

Kenyans marked half a century of independence from Britain on Thursday, celebrating progress of the regional economic powerhouse but also struggling to shake off a legacy of corruption, inequality and ethnic violence.

Celebrations began at midnight on Wednesday, with the Kenyan flag raised in Nairobi's Uhuru Gardens which means 'freedom' in Swahili, in a re-enactment of the moment 50 years earlier when Britain's rule since 1895 came to a close.

The country has been hailed as an anchor of stability in Africa. Kenyans are proud of their achievements, but they are also critical of their leaders and of themselves. Here are five perspectives.

Embracing high-tech

The numerous Internet cafes in the capital Nairobi are popular hangouts for Kenya's youth. More than 60 percent of Kenyans are under 24 years old. Sybille Munyika, who works in a hotel in Beirut, left Kenya because she could not find any work.

"I wish we can have better leaders that are not corrupt," she says while she surfs in an Internet café.

Sitting next to Munyika and reading their emails are 19-year-old Joane Ochieng Onyango a university student and Samuel, who works in the logistics sector. They view the development in their country positively.

Majority of young Kenyans have embraced IT

"We are better off than guys 50 years ago," Samuel says. Especially the access to modern technology had changed the country in recent years. Not only in the big cities but also in rural areas, cell phones, above all, are making life a lot easier, Joane adds.

Because of the boom in the local IT sector, Kenya has recently been dubbed 'Silicon Savannah.' M-Pesa' a cell phone-based money transfer service, was established just a few years ago. About a fifth of the country's gross national product is already being transferred via cell phone.

During the wave of violence in 2008, Kenyans developed Ushahidi, which means 'witness account.' Ushahidi is an interactive Internet platform that collects information on violent incidents in crisis areas and makes them accessible to everyone.

Press Freedoms under threat

Kenya has an open and diverse media landscape. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, Kenya comes in 71st place in a list of 179 countries, which means it ranks roughly in the middle.

However, the Kenyan parliament has submitted a new media bill to President Uhuru Kenyatta for his signature, and under this law the state would have considerable control over media content.

The bill has come as a shock to Victor Bwire, who is deputy director of the Media Council of Kenya, an independent association of journalists and media entrepreneurs. If the politicians get their way, journalists can be fined up to 12,000 US dollars and media companies over 200,000 dollars for reports that are deemed subversive.

"That bill has aspects of breaking the law [constitution] that are draconian. They are criminalizing the profession. They are scaring away people from investing and practicing journalism in the country," Bwire said. Journalists could feel compelled to censor their work for fear of reprisals.

President Uhuru has called for Africa to be treated equally on the world stage

Kenya lobbies for case deferrals

President Uhuru Kenyatta's most immediate concern is his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.Together with his deputy William Ruto, they are accused of crimes against humanity during the post election violence in 2007.

He is stirring up public opinion in Africa against the tribunal with anti-imperialist slogans, and trying to get the international community to either defer the trial or drop it entirely. Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are accused of crimes against humanity.

In Europe, Kenyatta's rhetoric has raised concerns that the tribunal might be weakened. Lately, the dispute between supporters of the court, including Germany, and Kenya has become harsher.

"Individual sanctions against Kenya are possible or a warrant for Kenyatta's arrest could be issued," said Karsten Dümmel, the Nairobi head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

On the other hand, he added, the West regarded Kenya as an important partner in the fight against terrorism, and Kenya was also participating in the African military mission in Somalia.

Therefore, Dümmel does not think the Europeans would break with Kenya entirely. It could even be possible that the trial would eventually be dropped, because Europe and the US needed a strong Kenya.

Ethnic tensions over resources

For many Kenyans, including human rights activist and political scientist Mwalimu Mati, tribalism and an unjust distribution of land rank among the country's most urgent problems.

Conflicts in the multi-ethnic state were driven by an unjust distribution of resources such as access to water and grazing rights. These conflicts have repeatedly led to eruptions of violence, leaving many people dead or wounded.

"The conflicts are over resources, which in Europe you don't fight about anymore," says Mati. "That really should not be happening in the 21st century."

The post-election violence in 2007, which left with more than 1,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands, was a huge setback in the quest for national unity in Kenya.

Post election violence in 2007 claimed at least 1200 lives

At the time, politicians had managed to set various ethnic groups against each other. On the 50th anniversary of Kenya's independence, the Kenyan sociologist Auma Obama expressed the wish for more cohesion and unity between her compatriots.

The founder of the aid organization Sauti Kuu and half sister of US President Barack Obama thinks that Kenyans should treat each other better."I think we are very aggressive toward one another. We are not kind to each other," she said.

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