Written by Washington Gikunju
An instability index map of Africa.
March 26, 2009: Kenya is Eastern Africa’s most vulnerable country to political and social upheaval that is expected to arise from a long drawn-out global recession, a new report on the possible impact of the economic meltdown on global security indicates.
London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says the level of risk in East Africa’s biggest economy has been heightened by rapid population growth, high levels of inequality, and widespread poverty that is expected to deepen with the global downturn.
“A stalled constitutional review process, rampant corruption in government and a general breakdown in the rule of law has deepened Kenya’s exposure to social and political tension putting at risk the stability of the coalition government,” the EIU report says.
Kenya’s business leaders endorsed the report as a realistic reflection of the danger that the country faces in wake of incessant political bickering that has dominated the national agenda in the last one year as economic welfare declined.
“Last year’s post poll chaos sent a clear signal that the level of political risk in Kenya is higher than has been indicated. We finally realised that it is possible to descend into the chaos that have over the years dogged neighbouring states with disastrous economic results,” says Dr X N Iraki, a strategic management lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
Official statistics show that in the past 14 months, economic conditions have worsened for an estimated 17.5 million Kenyans or 46 per cent of the population, raising the country’s risk profile.
Civil unrest that followed the disputed December 2007 presidential vote put Kenya on the world map and a recurrence of the violence is seen as the greatest threat to the country’s stability.
“Formation of a grand coalition government stemmed the crisis, but to prevent a repeat (or worse) requires settlement of long-term grievances, including land disputes, establishment of a new constitutional dispensation and an end to the culture of impunity,” says the EIU.
More than a thousand people were killed and 350,000 displaced in ethnic and political violence that followed the disputed presidential poll.
Ms Violet Barasa, a policy analyst with Africa Policy Institute, says Kenya’s problems are compounded by the fact that formation of the coalition government “merely saved lives, but lacked concrete plans on how to tackle the economic challenges.”
Other factors such as a raging famine — which has exposed an estimated 10 million to starvation — and the unfolding global economic crisis have pushed Kenya closer to the brink of political and social upheaval.
“Even before the onset of the global economic crisis, our economy was not at its best. The 2002-2007 growth did not trickle down to the masses adding to the embers to the smouldering fires in land and inequality,” said Dr Iraki.
“So far the grand coalition government has not taken any concrete measures to tackle the looming global economic hardships,” he said.
EIU has ranked Zimbabwe as the most vulnerable to political upheaval with an index score of 8.8.
The index measures vulnerability on a scale of zero (no vulnerability) to 10 (highest vulnerability).
Kenya, with a political instability index of 7.5, is ranked the 19th most vulnerable country, way ahead of neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania who are ranked 63 and 88 respectively.
South Africa, with an instability index of seven, is the 38th most vulnerable State while Nigeria is in the 43rd position.
The ranking is based on 15 key indicators based on what the report refers to as “underlying” and “economic distress” indices.
Somalia and Western Sahara, two African countries that have no functional governments are considered failed states and are not rated in the survey.
The publication of the Economist’s findings comes only two weeks after Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta described the swelling number of unemployed youth as a time bomb waiting to explode.
Early this month, the government launched a Sh15 billion emergency programme aimed at creating about 300,000 jobs for the youth to tackle rising national security concerns.
The Political Instability Index developed by EIU is based on 15 social, political and economic indicators.
Of the 15, 12 represent “underlying vulnerability” pointers, which rank countries according to the level of inequality in their populations, strength of the state and governance, levels of social provision, history of labour unrest, ethnic fragmentation, regime type, public trust in political institutions, neighbourhood effects and history of unrest.
The other three “economic distress” indicators measure the level of development, growth in GDP per head and unemployment.
Of the 165 countries surveyed, 27 (including Kenya) are considered to be in the “very high risk” category, 68 are in the “high risk” group while 53 have “moderate” risk of instability.
Only 17, almost all highly developed states, are rated as low risk.
According to the survey, Norway faces the lowest risk of political and social upheavals with an instability index of 1.2 followed by Denmark (2.2), Canada (2.8), Sweden (3.2) and Finland (3.2).
It is believed that a worsening of the world economic crisis will shrink demand for goods and services in the developed world, leading to job losses worldwide and deepening poverty for the most vulnerable.
This projection has seen warnings of dire social unrest come with increasing frequency.
Mr Dennis Blair, America’s new intelligence chief, says political turmoil from the global recession has replaced terrorism as the country’s biggest security threat.
He declared in a testimony before the US Senate last month that the primary near-term security concern of the US is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications.
“The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to US strategic interests,” he said.
The world already had a taste of what may follow prolonged economic recession early last year when a number of countries erupted into turmoil as food prices rose to record highs rendering millions unable to feed themselves.
Food riots were reported in Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, and only abated when international oil prices eased forcing down food prices.
Signs of agitation also emerged in Kenya late last year, after the price of maize meal shot to over Sh120 per two kilogram packet.
So far, two governments (Iceland and Latvia) have fallen as a result of the global economic crisis.
Dr Iraki says Kenya should take advantage of the current crisis to institute far-reaching political and economic reforms. “Without reforms, the fundamentals that led to the events of 2008 will remain and the possibility of future implosions too,” he said.