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Kenya's middle class challenges political system

While politicians promote ethnic rivalries, the educated professionals keep economy going.

Traders clamor as Nairobi stock exchange staff post prices during a frenetic day of trading on May 17, 2006. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

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.