Nairobi gets chilly in July. Barely fifty miles from the equator its 5,200ft elevation means that night temperatures sometimes drop to 50 degrees. A friend met us at Nairobi airport dressed in a jacket, sweater and tie. Africa is a continent of riches – the vegetable abundance is legendary – and there is the vast mineral wealth – diamonds, gold, copper, oil, uranium, cobalt, bauxite and so on. Africa is also a prey to violence (in Kenya rape is the topmost crime), corruption, disease, drought and famine. In Kenya the parliament has passed a new constitution which is not universally popular, and there were street demonstrations in Nairobi the day before we arrived. Students enthusiastically joined in the protest; one man was killed in this mini-riot. In the papers were headline articles, photographs of bleeding men, and troubled leaders questioning whether the police use of guns was not becoming a first rather than a last resort.
During the colonial period in the history of Africa white patterns were imposed on black landscapes. Nearly half the frontiers fixed during the Victorian scramble for Africa were straight lines, cutting through some 190 culture groups. Kenya’s eastern and southern borders are such lines on maps for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Later civil wars were encouraged by such artificial boundaries and spurious national identities. Initially there was a tiny educated class to sustain democracy. Fifty years ago black Africa’s population of 200 million included only 8,000 people who had been to secondary school.
The dawn of African independence was joyful and expectant; today there is a more sombre mood. Kwame Nkrumah inherited one of the richest countries in Africa with a competent administration and an established parliament. By 1965 Nkrumah had reduced Ghana to a corrupt and bankrupt despotism. Elsewhere the new rulers followed suit with looting on a large scale, starving their country’s hospitals, schools and roads of funds. Mobutu the “Zairean Caligula”, ran the most grotesque tyranny of all, chartering Concorde for his own personal use, seizing a third of the state’s revenue; other tyrannies took barbaric and bizarre forms. Idi Amin, Mandela, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Nasser, Mobutu, Obiang – you couldn’t make up their stories. Since Nkrumah’s days Africa has been through 186 coups, 26 wars and seven million dead. There are many areas in which it is impossible for missionaries to work.
Africa contains 70 per cent of the world’s AIDS sufferers. By 2000 a fifth of South African adults were established to be HIV positive, yet Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, treated Aids as a white capitalist conspiracy. Today Africa is the world’s poorest continent. Half its 880 million inhabitants live on under a dollar a day and its entire economic output is less than that of Mexico.
Western political and economic policy has not been uniformly helpful, to say the least. Western farm subsidies and tariff barriers cripple African producers, outweighing foreign aid. Tony Blair and the leaders of the richest nations in the world cannot redeem Africa. The condition of these countries is beyond the reach of foreseeable government solutions. African rulers and the politicians who run their nations are regarded by the citizens as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival. From the outside Africa looks hopeless, but inside Africa the continent never feels hopeless. Africans live on a mixture of stoicism, humour and hope. The influence of the Christian gospel has been immense enabling Africans to survive calamities and thwarted expectations that would drive unbelievers to despair. In the church the people speak positively of better days ahead at all levels of national life. The non-Christian African hopes the environment will steadily become too unhealthy for vice to thrive. The Kenyan man in the street thinks, “This government is not what the people hoped for, but it is our government. We elected it and if it doesn’t measure up we can dump it come 2007.” The Christian is encouraged by the amount of light and salt in the nation.
There is always spurts of economic improvement throughout the vast continent; more Africans have shoes than 20 years ago; more homes have corrugated iron roofs, thatch has almost disappeared, and even the iron roofs are being steadily replaced with tiles as the tide of prosperity slowly spreads out from the cities, in spite of political failure. The number of African millionaire businessmen has increased greatly. Democratic freedoms also advance; in an increasing number of countries presidents have been forced to allow newspapers to print stories that 20 years ago would have landed their editors in jail for life. Radio stations now broadcast the views of callers that formerly would have brought swift retaliation. Almost everyone with a job has a mobile phone, so news and views spread ten times faster than before. Someone has asked whether the Rwandan genocide could have happened if there had been mobiles; they are certainly transforming commerce.
Newspaper editors have much more to target. After decades of dictatorship in December 2002 Kenyan voters swept Mwai Kibaki to power in Kenya at the head of his N.A.R.C rainbow coalition on an anti-corruption ticket. ‘Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya,’ Kibaki promised. Then the very first law Kibaki’s parliament passed rewarded politicians (especially paying back those who had jumped ship from the former ruling party K.A.N.U. to join Kibaki) with 172 per cent salary increase. MPs’ take-home pay is now about 65,000 pounds per annum (compared with a British MP’s 57,500 pounds gross) and the Kenyan MPs’ fat package of allowances includes a 23,000 pounds grant to buy a duty-free car, together with a monthly 535 pounds fuel and maintenance allowance.
These grants fall way short of what many politicians actually spend on their official and private cars, Kibaki’s ministers especially. Soon after taking power the government spurned its ‘corrupt’ predecessors’ Mercedes E220 models and upgraded with the purchase of 32 new models for top officials, including seven for the Office of the President. Most of these were new E240s, while the minister in charge of Kenya’s dilapidated roads, Raila Odinga, went for a customised S500 at a probable cost of 100,000 pounds. Not to be outdone, Kibaki got himself the S600L limousine.
How can Kibaki spend up to 350,000 pounds on a car when Kenyans’ average annual per capita income is 210 pounds? It seems an obscene decision in the light of a campaign so self-righteously targeting corruption. Kibaki’s purchase is legal because parliament approved it, but does that make it acceptable when Kenya is in vast debt and demanding more aid from the West? A deacon in Baptist church travelling back to Nairobi on Monday hit a typical mega-pothole and turned the car over three times. He and his wife were without serious injury, but they could have been killed. What is a government’s priority, better roads for all or a fleet of swish customised Mercedes-Benz cars for the WaBenzi – a Swahili term for the Big Men of Africa? These leaders have been joyriding their way through six Marshall Plans’ worth of aid since the 1960s, yet Africa is poorer today than 25 years ago. Still the WaBenzi want more. Meanwhile teachers, civil servants and police are paid a pittance. Will men of quality aspire to those profess
ions if the pay demeans the office?
The largest slum in the world is a couple of miles from the Nairobi parliament building. The Kibera neighbourhood occupies one square mile of space where 1.2 million people live. A huge infusion of refugees have gravitated to such slums dotted around Nairobi. Hundreds of thousands of Rwanda Tutsis fled to Kenya from Hutu genocide. Sudanese non-Muslims flowed down from the northwest. Victims of revolution in faraway Congo, from nearby Zimbabwe and from distant Somalia and Ethiopia have all drifted into gatherings of refugees from those nations in the various slums. They attend the churches and sit together in groups, as do the members of distant Kenyan tribes who have come to the capital looking for work.
The city’s poor residents burn whatever they can to keep warm. Wood, charcoal and even dung are the primary sources of energy in Kenya and much of Africa, providing heat for the home and cooking. Clean fuels such as natural gas and electricity are luxuries. Why do most Africans in the 21st century have to rely on dirty energy sources which encourage widespread respiratory illnesses? For the same reason that they are poor; in many countries, though not in Kenya, beneficial economic activities are prevented by their oppressive governments. A business cannot be started without a license, and licences are available only to those with government connections. Even if it were possible to operate a business few would have the necessary capital. While their governments have been borrowing as if there were no tomorrow, most Africans cannot obtain a loan at any reasonable rate of interest.
The former British High Commissioner to Nairobi is the outspoken Sir Edward Clay. Last year he denounced the ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’ as gluttons who were so overfed they left the signs of their theft in their trail as clearly as if they had been sick. He said in the language of an Old Testament prophet at his most disdainful, “The evidence of corruption in Kenya amounts to vomit, not just on the shoes of donors but also all over the shoes of Kenyans and the feet of those who can’t afford shoes.”
In February this year Clay boldly produced another set of accusations alluding to the fact that 550 million pounds had been stolen since Kibaki’s government assumed power two years ago. Kenyan ministers responded by accusing the British envoy of being a white colonialist whom nobody need listen to. Britain is a nasty former colonial power – that happens to have just increased Kenyan aid massively to a million pounds a week. More aid equals more Mercedes-Benzes while the tax-paying Brits funding all of this drive around in their Vauxhalls and Rovers.
On June 8 Kenya’s 2005-6 budget was read out by finance minister David Mwiraria to a cheering parliament. It declared that the government had allocated three million pounds for the purchase of a fleet of new vehicles for the Office of the President. A further similar sum has been set aside for the maintenance of the existing car-pool of vehicles. Does this expenditure have anything to do with the arrival of a million pounds a week in aid from the UK?
African nations have to produce their own prophet-like Edward Clays, pitiless in their resolve to make pariahs of black Africa’s cruel and rotten governments. Where is the satire, where the anger, where the mockery and derision that these men deserve? That is the duty of a Christian journalist. Didn’t Christ dismiss Herod as a fox and the Pharisees as a nest of vipers? Should not the law of God be declared from the pulpits to the WaBenzi as earnestly as to any other sinners? On the flight to Nairobi on July 12 one read a report in the Times of the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, who had just spent nearly one million pounds on three luxury cars in a shopping spree in South Africa. Most of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea survive on less that a dollar a day. He stayed in Cape Town in the 700 pounds a night Mount Nelson Hotel and ran up a bill of 1,300 pounds for champagne.
The pulpits do not focus on such people because such men of greed are not sitting in the congregation. They are a soft target for preachers who want to display huffin’-puffin’ moral outrage while avoiding the sins of the very people sitting before them. Preachers need also to pray for all that are in authority, even when moral leadership is lacking in many nations. This passivity of the people before a ruling class of greedy men is suffocating the people of Africa. You ask how such men can stay in power all over the continent. The reason is that political revolution is virtually impossible in contemporary dictatorships, and the small people in Africa passively tolerate, even in some cases sneakingly admire, their leaders’ greed and rascality. The cult of the Big Man is the taproot of Africa’s suffering. That culture has to change, and nothing but the gospel of the God-man who displayed greatness in self-denial and in the sacrificing service of others can do it.
Evangelical Christianity has been a immeasurable force for good in this continent. It has overcome superstition with truth; into the immorality of paganism it has brought the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. It has brought a message of forgiveness of sins and a reconciled God to those who did not know the Christ of the Bible. It has injected the power of the indwelling Spirit enabling ordinary men and women to live lives of self-control, modesty, love and holy living. It has established the family and brought its own censures against polygamy. It has educated, treated, fed and brought hope to a multitude of Africans. It has quietly worked against evil systems, such as apartheid and African tyranny. Humble men and women have spend heroic lives in little villages in the hills and bushes of Africa spreading a gospel of grace, education and godliness, preaching the free offer of God’s mercy to all men.