Kenya's political and economic crisis

KENYA, a key United States ally on the Indian Ocean perimeter of Africa, is imperiled by its questionable management of an already weakened economy, by food shortages, and by potentially serious internal political conflicts.

Western-oriented and devoted to individual initiative since gaining its independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya was once a stellar performer among the economically less well-endowed nations of eastern Africa. Exports of coffee and tea, combined with local food sufficiency and enlightened fiscal policies, gave Kenya the financial health to which the socialist-minded Somalia, Tanzania, and Zambia and war-torn Uganda could but aspire.

In the late 1970s and again this year severe drought exposed Kenya's underlying frailty. In 1983-84, the rains failed dramatically, drying up grazing lands and therefore the herds of cattle on which Kenya's many pastoralists depend. Wheat and maize crops failed in large portions of the Texas-size country , only 20 percent of which is arable.

Kenya's grain shortfall is now estimated at 1.4 million tons. Moreover, its pastoralists, like the Masai, have lost the supplies of milk and meat on which they traditionally subsist.

Government purchases of Asian and US maize, and relief shipments of maize and wheat from the US that are expected in January, will make up about 65 percent of the grain deficit, and additional help can be expected from the crops being grown now, during the currently normal but short rainy season. If the long rains in February and March again fail, however, Kenya's famine could compare with Ethiopia's. Or if the government's transport network, largely controlled by well-placed officials, fails to distribute the grain in a timely fashion, pockets of hunger could also expand. The pastoralists will also be at risk, for it will take months to build up herds from scratch.

A hidden problem is that Kenya's balance-of-payments position is precarious. Buying grain and other consumer staples on the world market will drain scarce reserves. So will the cost of petroleum with which to move goods upcountry from Mombasa, Kenya's port.

Coffee, tea, and other agricultural exports fetch 70 percent of Kenya's earnings, and coffee and tea now command high prices. But Kenya is also spending at least as much as it earns abroad on dubious public-works projects, governmental enterprises, defense purchases, and luxuries.

The World Bank, which has refused to approve a third structural adjustment loan, wants Kenya to reduce the state's growing control of the local economy. So does the US, which seeks ways to make continued assistance conditional on the reform of an economy that has become as state-dominated as the socialist countries of Africa or the Middle East, especially in the crucial agricultural sector.

The US, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international agencies are also alarmed at Kenya's inability to begin curbing its population growth. At independence, Kenya was a nation of 8 million. Now there are 19 million Kenyans. The World Bank's conservative estimate for Kenya in 2050 is 69 million, for the country is now growing faster than any other place on earth. Its 4.3 percent rate of annual demographic increase is double that of India.

The consequences of such growth are obvious. Jobs cannot be created fast enough, particularly in a sluggish economy. Real standards of living decline, creating social unrest and driving people off the land into the squalid cities. Even without the drought, Kenya was losing its ability to feed itself. Unless the government provides additional incentives for farmers and, according to World Bank and others, at least permits the private shipment of food between districts (now controlled by government), the food situation will continue to worsen at a time when there are more and more mouths to feed.

The drought and the demographic reality have added to the government's woes. But outsiders and many Kenyans also blame a leadership that is highly centralized, ethnically divisive, and visibly corrupt for Kenya's lack of direction and a slumping national morale.

A few powerful men around President Daniel arap Moi control critical sectors of the economy, not always in the public interest. Through interlocking affiliations, for example, they direct the storage and transport of food and supervise export contracts. They expend government resources on major capital projects, not uniformly with public advantages in mind.

This new power at the top is in the hands of the country's less populous ethnic groups. President Moi, a Kalenjin, has destroyed the political grip on Kenya of the Kikuyu, who were dominant in the time of President Jomo Kenyatta ( 1963-78). Now Western diplomats and others fear renewed conflict between the Kikuyu and others if President Moi presses his rearrangement of political and economic power too harshly.

There seems no immediate danger of a coup like the abortive one of 1982, but Kenya is on edge. Food shortages could add to that tension, and the US may be compelled next year to rethink the security of its strategic alliance with a Kenya that is as fragile and endangered as it was once thought unshakable.Robert I. Rothberg, recently returned from a month in Kenya, is a professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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