Life in Kenya is as complicated as ever, but there's a lot to suggest that the country is moving in the right direction. High (and consistent) economic growth levels and a muscular democratic scene that seems to have survived yet another fiercely disputed election, along with improving security and a dynamic cultural scene, are all signs that Kenya is an increasingly good place to live. However, age-old problems such as drought, a growing population and conflict over shrinking resources remain.
The Challenges of Democracy
Ever since the widespread political and ethnic violence that followed the disputed 2007 elections, when more than 1000 people were killed, Kenya and its friends hold their collective breath whenever the country goes to the polls. Thankfully, Kenya's hotly contested 2017 elections ended peacefully. And then, in an event unprecedented in African politics, Kenya's highest court ruled in favour of an opposition challenge, the elections were annulled and new elections were scheduled. It was a landmark moment in Kenya's road to democracy. Sadly, however, the rerun was boycotted by the opposition, one of the country's electoral commissioners fled to the US, and barely one-third of Kenyans cast their ballots (compared with 80% in the first round). Although Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner, the future appears more uncertain than ever. Just when Kenyans thought they had survived another election…
Climbing Out of Poverty?
Kenya’s economy is booming, and neither natural disasters, postelection violence or war with Somalia can shake the country’s confidence that Kenya is on the up. There’s just one problem: only a small percentage of Kenyans see the benefits of the growing prosperity. And many don't trust their politicians – hardly surprising when Kenya's leaders are among the richest people in the country while unemployment sits at around 40%, a staggering 50% of Kenyans live below the poverty line and the prices of basic foodstuffs are soaring. By one estimate, Kenya would require an annual growth rate of 11% for the prosperity gains to even begin to trickle down to poorer sectors of society. Although Kenya has shown some gains in recent years, the Human Development Index (which measures the well-being of a country, taking into account life expectancy, education and standard of living) ranked Kenya at a fairly dismal 146 out of 188 countries in 2016, while the country’s income gap between rich and poor remains within the 10 worst in the world.
The Coming Environmental Crisis?
Drought has always stalked East Africa, with some parts of Kenya just one failed rainy season from a major crisis. For all the growth in Kenya's urban middle class, much of the population continues to live at subsistence levels, wholly dependent upon the rains that sustain their crops or provide grazing for their livestock. Often these people live alongside wildlife-rich national parks or private ranches and conservancies that are closed to them despite having what could be prime grazing or agricultural lands within their borders. Failed rains in 2016 and again the following year, especially in the country's north and west, prompted the large-scale movement of armed herders and gangs onto the Laikipia plateau, where many of the ranches are owned by white Kenyans. One prominent conservationist was killed, another was critically injured, and a number of lodges were burned to the ground. Things have quietened down since then, but there are fears that these may be the first shots in a coming war in a country with a rapidly growing population, increasingly unpredictable rains and fiercely contested yet scarce resources.
War & Peace
In October 2011, for the first time in its independent history, Kenya went to war. The spark for such a drastic move was a series of cross-border raids allegedly carried out by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali group. Kenya initially paid a high price for its involvement in Somalia. Major terrorist attacks in 2013, 2014 and 2015, coupled with a consistently high death toll among Kenyan soldiers serving in Somalia, left many Kenyans wondering whether Kenya's Somali mission was actually inflaming tensions. A couple of years later, the government has yet to publicly articulate its exit strategy, but a crackdown and greater military presence within Kenya has eased many of those concerns – with each month that passes without a terrorist incident on Kenyan soil, the more the country grows in confidence. One thorny (and related) issue does remain unresolved: Kenya's government has promised to close the notorious Dadaab Refugee camp, the largest in the world with over 300,000 Somalis living there. When it does happen, expect rising tensions along the Somali border, where safety and stability are already precarious.