That East Africa is full of local lords has never been in dispute: Warlords and ethnic kingpins compete with drug lords and tax evaders for influence. Thanks to modern communication, more people can now get to know about the excesses and ostentatious lifestyles of this despicable lot.
A report on South Sudan by The Sentry, an American watchdog, has laid bare the theft of that country’s resources by its leaders even as conflict rages.
Both President Salva Kiir and his eternal opponent Dr Riek Machar own luxurious homes in an upmarket neighbourhood in Nairobi, alongside other top leaders on both sides of the conflict.
Other reports show that the combatants in the world’s youngest nation are rearming, with the government forces having now reportedly acquired sophisticated weapons and fighter jets. It goes without saying that their opponents are not resting on their laurels, and the next flare-up of hostilities will obviously be worse than the last.
As all this is happening, millions of people in South Sudan face drought and famine. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced and sought refuge in camps run by the United Nations, or fled the country altogether and are living as refugees in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
And while South Sudan is the country that is right now in the spotlight, it is by no means the only culprit. Somalia went to the dogs a long time ago, with one set of warlords after another wreaking havoc. Today, regional and international actors have entered the fray, complicating the situation as they develop their own corruption networks.
Burundi, too, has over time found itself in civil strife, bringing untold suffering to its people. As is the case with South Sudan, efforts to forge peace are frustrated by functionaries in the despotic regime in the belief that they have the upper hand and can win militarily over their rivals.
What about the rest of East Africa? While open armed conflict may be rare, the warlords are never far from the surface. In Kenya, this became apparent during the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The mayhem led to the failed trials of the alleged masterminds of the violence at the International Criminal Court.
During peacetime, these ethnic-based leaders are usually busy extending their patronage-based corruption and extortion networks. They are ruthless, caring only about their own gain from the people and resources under their influence. These are the people principally responsible for maintaining drug cartels and extortion rings in the police force and elsewhere.
It is a measure of the gullibility of the masses that they follow their leaders like sheep being led to a slaughterhouse, literally. This was readily apparent, for instance, when Kenya’s ruling Jubilee coalition held a delegates conference to celebrate its merger with about 10 other parties, most of them briefcase outfits.
It did not take long for it to become obvious that the thousands of people who attended the Jubilee meeting were in it for the cash that they had been promised. It was a sorry state to see so many people ready to protect their ethnic kingpins in exchange for a meal, just like Esau of old.
While the root cause of this complacency by the citizenry may be attributed to poverty, there is always a heavy price to pay in the days ahead. And when a country is threatened with war and destruction, it is these ordinary, sheepish citizens who will bear the brunt.
Unfortunately, East African countries are seemingly unable to get out of this problem. Leaders have sold the interests of their citizens to foreigners, whom they serve with gusto. The aim is to control people and resources for selfish gain, spiriting away most of the profit to foreign lands.
It will not be easy to change this situation. It will require the concerted action of both local and international actors to make an impact, before most of the region becomes a war zone. East Africa cannot be allowed to become some sort of Wild West where ethnic warlords hold sway.