NAIROBI LETTER:THE POLICEMAN tucked his AK-47 under his arm and swaggered out of the dark towards the door of my car. As he reached my open window though, it became clear that his lurching walk was not so much of a swagger as a stagger, writes ROB CRILLY
He slurred his words as he demanded my driving licence. He was drunk.
I had arrived in Nairobi amid a wave of optimism that a new president was going to clean up Kenya’s corrupt public life. Five years later, a week or so before I was planning to leave the country forever, I was caught in a police shakedown.
“This is big trouble,” said the policeman, waggling my pink EU driver’s licence with his podgy fingers. “You haven’t got a Kenyan licence. You must get out of the car and we can sort this out.” It was the classic Kenyan cop ruse. Stop a mzungu – white man – and find some imagined fault with car or paperwork. For a small fee I could be on my way again. Plenty of people paid, not wanting an altercation at a roadblock with a drunk, armed policeman.
Not this time though. “As you very well know,” I said, indignation rising, “I do not need a Kenyan driving licence, an EU one is perfectly valid. Let me see your supervisor.”
The roadblock commander wandered over. He was unable to speak, even more drunk than the man who had waved me down with a torch.
I thought about driving away. Plenty of expats refuse to stop at these ad hoc checkpoints, but fleeing would mean leaving my licence behind. Neither of the officers was wearing their identification badge, the plastic number tag that was supposed to keep them in line.
This was my opening. “Where are your badges? I will do what you want so long as you identify yourself properly, in accordance with the law.” It was the sort of pompous outburst – white man to African – that generally left me cold. But in Kenya’s odd class system, based on 1950s Britain, a display of colonial bravado often worked wonders.
I was given my licence back and was on my way in seconds. It was not supposed to be like this.
I touched down in Nairobi in September 2004, 18 months or so after President Mwai Kibaki took office. He swept aside two decades of Daniel Arap Moi’s thuggish, sleaze-tainted rule, setting up anti-corruption hotlines, installing a graft tzar and promising investigations into dodgy government deals.
The country had changed overnight, I was told by my new friends. You could almost touch the optimism, as newspapers threw off the shackles of state interference and delighted in poking fun at MPs or delving into murky public finances.
The conservationist Wangari Maathai, who had once been beaten by Moi’s brutal police, won a Nobel Peace Prize. The transformation to a modern democracy seemed complete.
But it was only ever a mirage.
Diplomats, speaking with the benefit of hindsight, now tell me Kibaki’s commitment to cleaning up Kenya was only paper thin. He was relying for support on the same money-men who had been milking the country dry for decades. He couldn’t or wouldn’t even protect the man charged with leading the war on corruption.
John Githongo, a former journalist whom Kibaki had appointed permanent secretary for governance and ethics, fled Kenya after two years in the job.
He said his family had received death threats and also questioned the government’s commitment to rooting out sleaze.
His downfall had been to investigate millions of dollars of procurement deals involving phantom companies. Not only had he unearthed details of how the contracts had been set up by members of the previous regime but, most damaging of all, he had found that similar deals had been struck since the change of president.
That was enough to kill off any pretence of a new way of doing things. The war on corruption came to a shuddering halt.
Kibaki supporters rigged an election in December 2007, prompting weeks of rioting by opposition supporters which eventually morphed into tribal unrest, leaving 1,500 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
If this could happen in Kenya, one of Africa’s most developed countries, what then for the rest of this blighted continent of coups, “big man” presidents and Swiss bank accounts?
After five years in Africa it was easy to be pessimistic. Things had come full circle. A man representing new hope had turned out to be little different than the man he replaced.
As I pack my bags ready to return to Europe, I notice one thing has changed: the attitude of ordinary Kenyans. The shrugging acceptance of their leaders’ weaknesses is gone, replaced by anger at politicians’ impunity.
Today's hottest book in Kenya tells the story of Githongo's exile. It's Our Turn to Eatby British journalist Michela Wrong is too controversial for most bookshops, which fear a government raid.
But Kenyans have responded with characteristic inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit. The book, laying bare the corruption of the Kibaki regime, is arriving in diplomatic bags or smuggled in suitcases by Kenyans returning from Britain. Certain stores have a copy or two under the counter. Just make sure you ask for “The Book” rather than mentioning the title by name.
Kenyans, buffeted by disease and poverty, have for too long adopted a fatalistic view on life. It was the only way to survive. Now they are getting angry, and maybe everything else will change in light of that – maybe even the cops.