I've had the happy opportunity to participate in a couple of discussion seminars/roundtable events over the past 10 days on the East African region. Here are some thoughts and reflections. What follows is intended as a discussion opener, rather than as anything definitive.
On Kenya, pessimism abounds ...
For a country styling itself as the 'strategic hub' of East Africa, there is an awful lot of gloom going around about the state of Kenya's politics. In fact, analysis is as pessimistic as I've seen it for about 5 years.
Much of this is justified given the partisan, ethnicised nature of the government under Uhuru Kenyatta, the demands for a 'National Dialogue' and unfolding 'Saba Saba'-style demonstrations coming from Raila Odinga's CORD, and the spate of Al-Shabaab perpetrated (or inspired?) terrorist attacks - currently in the process of crippling the tourist industry.
The narrative of gloom states that the mercifully peaceful 2013 elections weren't a sign that Kenya had worked through its political problems, but rather that during this election period they were not acted on.
The government, however, learned from the 07/08 experience and got a much better handle on security during the election. The opposition realised it could not call its people out onto the streets despite deep unhappiness at the way the polls were conducted.
High profile terror attacks (notably Westgate and Mpeketoni) are a consequence of Kenya's risky adventurism in Southern Somalia, but they also indicate that the security and intelligence services do not have a handle on what is, admittedly, an extremely challenging problem. Arbitrarily arresting many of the country's Somali population is, however, probably not a good way of stemming the growth of a home-grown islamist movement.
This insecurity is also now having negative impact on investor perceptions. I heard from an employee of an oil company operating in the region that they have assigned a "business critical" status to all travel to Nairobi at present. It will be increasingly difficult (and expensive) to recruit skilled people to work in Kenya.
The Kenyatta administration is aggressive but relatively ineffective. For the first 12 months it seemed like its major task was getting its leader off his ICC charge. Since this appears to have been achieved it doesn't have a clear strategic direction. Those members of the government who have the capacity to drive a real programme of reform are too busy making money while it's their turn to eat.
... but economics may outpace it
There is, however, some analytical tension here as Kenya remains the most important country in the East African region. It has the biggest and most dynamic economy, the most sophisticated metropolitan hub and the best strategic position. The country's economy grew at a fair clip over the past decade, particularly under Kibaki, despite severe political instability surrounding the 07/08 election (and the fallout from the global economic downturn).
I can't help but wonder whether economic rationality will eventually trump political dysfunction. Powerful and competent people in Kenya will surely take hold of the agenda, kick the security services into action and crack down on the most destructive instances of corruption. Politics apart, Kenya has much going for it.
Oil and gas could transform the region, but not as quickly as hoped
Out of 7 countries you might conceivably place within the ambit of East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) 5 have oil or gas either being exported (South Sudan), being developed (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) or in existence, but unexploited due to political instability (Somalia). This, for good or ill, is a major change.
Geographically, these countries can broadly be fitted around the theoretical Kenyan hub. South Sudan though continues to look north towards the Republic of Sudan via the pipeline to Port Sudan, and given the rumbling civil war, the prospect of building an alternative route southwards (as part of the LAPSETT corridor) is remote. As an industry professional stated "there are hydrocarbons there [in East Africa], the question is how difficult will it be to extract them?"
Of the 'new' oil finds, Uganda was the first in 2006. However, as previously discussed here, development of the asset has been delayed by, amongst other things, political wrangles over the construction of an oil refinery within Uganda - a pet project of the President, but one for which the business case is not compelling.
Kenya's oil developments are moving faster (and may beat Uganda to First Oil), but are situated in the traditionally ignored Turkana district - moving people and resources to the region is difficult, expensive and insecure.
Tanzania's offshore LNG finds are potentially the most significant single discovery in the region. However, violent protests have already taken place in the south, in Mtwara, which will be the country's LNG hub.
Despite the development of a Chinese-financed pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam, things are likely to move slowly, especially given the approaching general election in 2016. After a delay of a year the government only published a gas policy in December 2013
Last week a report was leaked suggesting that the Tanzanian government had failed to negotiate itself a good deal over its Production Sharing Agreement with Statoil. Vocal opposition MP Zitto Kabwe responded to this story, writing in his blog: "For Tanzania to transform our wealth in natural resources to benefit the entire society, TRANSPARENCY must be a key. Let us make a campaign to make all these contracts in Oil and Gas open."
Developmental authoritarianism requires competence to achieve anything
Whatever you think about Paul Kagame's regime in Rwanda, there is no denying that the RPF gets things done. Rwanda, however, remains hamstrung by its geography - what do you produce when you're a small, poorly-connected country in Central Africa with an under-educated workforce?
Neighbouring Uganda has authoritarian tendencies with power tightly held within the hands of the ruling family and no prospect of a transition. But Uganda, like Kenya, has a competence problem. Authoritarianism seems to work well within the political realm - both countries have been effective at neutering the media and civil society and have won elections, but not in actually making things work (trains run on time etc.)
I'm sure citizens of Kenya and Uganda would trade a bit of their current pseudo-democracy for better run public services. At present they have neither.
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.