Kenya: Freedoms tied to corruption war

Sub-Saharan Africa joined the non-Baltic states of the former Soviet Union last year as the regions showing the most pronounced decline in global freedom. According to a survey by the Washington-based Freedom House, an international NGO that monitors civil liberties, last year marked the third consecutive year in which freedoms declined across the world.


The latest edition of Freedom in the World, an annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, was released on January 12. Kenya's absence from the list of 12 sub-Saharan countries and one territory reported as experiencing setbacks is not a sign all was well. Far from it: The introduction of bans on protests and certain political gatherings, laws to regulate' the Press and so on are all confirmation the gains made since 2003 have been eroded.

Kenya's absence from the list of main offenders is merely a reflection of a growing authoritarianism in many countries, both in Africa and abroad, led forcefully by nations like China and Russia, which are increasingly emerging as tomorrow's global powers.

The worst of sub-Saharan Africa's declines were noted in Senegal, Mauritania, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Somaliland. Only five — Comoros, Angola, Zambia and Cote d'Ivoire — had positive developments.


Worst

The suppression of political opposition and civil society has had a resurgence in recent years, most notably in Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe is presiding over a nation in ruins with little fear of censure from African leaders. While the humanitarian crises there and a chorus of condemnation from western nations have highlighted this, similar setbacks can be noted in many other African nations ruled by despots and in countries like Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

There is nothing to be proud off in being better than the worst, especially as Kenya seemed well on the way to leaving the ranks of the Partly Free nations with ambitious reforms initiated by the Narc Government. Any declines, even if modest' in comparison to repression going on elsewhere, are a terrible thing. That said, the good news is we are working on the issues that were raised in determining this year's ranking.

"Kenya's political rights rating declined due to significant irregularities in the December 2007 presidential election vote-counting process," the report found. "Democratic development suffered a sharp reversal as a result of apparent manipulation."

On the Press, it found Government often restricts freedoms by broadly interpreting the Official Secrets Act, the penal code and criminal libel legislation.

"The independence of the typically vibrant media was also threatened by… the establishment of a statutory media council to regulate the media and the banning of live news broadcasts following the failed presidential election in December."

Despite some successes early on in President Kibaki's regime, Freedom House notes that "worrisome trends" emerged in 2006, when the Anglo Leasing scandal exploded in the wake of the unsuccessful constitutional reform process. Corruption, with its capacity to unseat the powerful, is a major factor in the repression of the opposition, civil society organisations and the Press.

Admittedly, there are forces in Government working to achieve a freer nation. Reform efforts are blunted by a number of factors, however, including "lack of political will, the fragility of the governing coalition, significant resource constraints and the threat of terrorism".


Greed

If there is a lesson for us in the Freedom in the World surve, it is that the battles to end corruption and to have greater freedoms go hand in hand. Political rights and civil liberties are more easily defended by officials in a Government not riven by infighting over access to power and to opportunities for self-aggrandisement.

In this sense, the push to complete constitutional review is only half the task: Achieving a state of zero tolerance' to corruption is important to complete it.

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