Kenya's middle class challenges political system

NAIROBI, Kenya — To the outside world Kenya used to mean safari parks, rare animals and that even rarer thing: the African success story.

Then a violent response to an election in late 2007 caused death and destruction and Kenya took on a new meaning: visceral ethnic murder sparked by dangerously corrupt politics.

But there is another Kenya. It can be found in shopping malls and multi-screen cinemas, in high class restaurants and sweaty nightclubs, it can be found amongst Kenyans browsing the web on wireless laptops in the Java Coffee House (Kenya’s very own Starbucks) or browsing for new houses at property trade fairs and keeping tabs on their investments in the stock market reports published in the national business daily. 

Some observers say that the worlds of Kenya’s scrapping politicians and growing middle classes are set to collide.

More on Africa's middle class:

Who is part of Kenya's middle class is not completely clear. The group cannot be judged simply by a strict level of income. Education, career paths and aspirations are also important features that determine who is in the middle class. Kenya's middle class wants a growing economy and political stability. This was threatened by the country's political violence in 2008 and by the ongoing inertia in the government.

“The current political class has run out of ideas but we have political forces outside the party system. We have the middle classes,” said John Githongo, a respected Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner who blew the lid on a multi-billion dollar scandal involving top politicians from his own ethnic group.

He argues that the presence of a well-educated, professional middle class strengthens Kenya's democracy because they hold politicians accountable. Kenya's middle class cuts across the country’s diverse ethnic groups and Githongo says that is a key factor that separates Kenya from countries such as Liberia or Sierra Leone or Burundi where ethnic politics dragged their people into long-lasting maelstroms of violence.

Outside pressure led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan halted the violence that followed the national elections in 2007. Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga became president and prime minister in a power-sharing coalition and their tribal followers — Kikuyus for Kibaki and Luos for Odinga — laid down their machetes and jerry cans of kerosene.

The killing that had by then taken 1,500 lives stopped but the fall-out is still being felt. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague signaled his intent to bring to trial those most responsible for organizing the violence.

“Everyone’s been clinging to the mirage of a functioning political system because it’s all we’ve got,” said Githongo. “Only something from outside that system can fix the current situation.

“The power is shifting to the professional groups: all activities that don’t require policy decisions are going on. The private sector continues to function in the absence of political leadership,” he said.

And that’s where the hope lies. Kenya’s urbanized, cosmopolitan middle classes travel frequently to the U.S. or Europe to build business alliances or visit family members in the diaspora. As horizons expand the lure of the homeland and the ancestral places loses its pull.

On Nairobi’s western outskirts lies a vast sprawling cemetery, where people from Nairobi are buried daily. Langata Cemetery is all but bursting with the bodies of city dwellers who no longer feel the need to be buried back in the rural homes, a sure sign that traditional bonds of ethnicity and unthinking allegiance to tribal elders is being eroded.

Increasingly those who live in the city identify with the it. Ask where they are from the answer is as likely "Nairobi" as the ethnic heartland from which they hail.

John Mwangi, a 35-year-old Kenyan businessman, landlord and hotelier who drives a Mercedes and owns a second 4x4 for his wife, does not put much stock in ethnic differences. His friends are drawn from across the ethnic spectrum, and they were all as appalled by the post-election violence as were outsiders.

“Our politicians, the old men, are all corrupt,” he said, echoing a common sentiment expressed in the capital Nairobi. “They just lead us into problem after problem.”

But while Mwangi can see where things go wrong he is more concerned with improving his own, and his family’s, condition than that of his country. “I say leave the politics to the politicians. I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.

In his recent book "Wars, Guns & Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places," the Oxford-based economist Paul Collier makes the point that when political systems become corrupt and are run by thieves, they only attract more thieves.

The danger for Kenya, some argue, is that the middle classes are the very people who should be able to find solutions to the country's current political malaise and help to plot a new way forward. If they do not get involved, however, that will the leave the old guard of politicians, increasingly entrenched and corrupt, to continue with the status quo.

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," education opportunities in Ghana, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.