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BLOG: In Conversation with Richard Leakey on Kenyan Politics and Conservation in Africa

last modified Aug 24, 2017 04:17 PM
Providing a glimpse into a life of adventure worthy of a Hollywood film (sadly cancelled), the CGHR was honoured to host Dr. Richard Leakey at Cambridge this week for a discussion on Kenyan politics. One of the key figures in Kenya's post-colonial history, Dr. Leakey shared erudite and often entertaining anecdotes from his diverse career as a revered paleoanthropologist, former head of the Kenyan civil service, retired director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and a former opposition leader.

Dr. Leakey began by discussing the challenges he faced whilst creating an opposition party during the "hurly-burly of opposition politics coming out of a dictatorship", and the tactics he employed to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Kenya's civil service. He noted that many of his tactics – such as the removal of seventeen ministerial posts – were deeply unpopular amongst established political elites, yet these ameliorations fostered a sense of pride amongst ordinary Kenyans. However, he swiftly realised that these radical changes produced an evaporation of political will, preventing him from continuing as head of the Kenyan civil service.

Whilst Dr. Leakey's experience as head of the Kenyan civil service and his relationship withPresident Moi dominated much of the discussion, Dr. Leakey also extended his observations to other fields. His stories of meeting with a wealth of former and current East African leaders including Paul Kagame, Julius Nyerere, and Uhuru Kenyatta were particularly informative, as were his insights on Kenya's foreign policy in Somalia. However, the most memorable anecdote was his story of persuading the Kenyan Air Force to conduct their training exercises over Tsavo National Park instead of Nairobi, thereby solving two problems at once. First, the arrival of helicopter gunships frightened poachers and reduced poaching in the park, and second, Dr. Leakey could sleep better in Nairobi because the "dreadful racket" of the training exercises was no more!

Dr. Leakey also had several predictions about the future of Kenyan politics. Naming corruption as the singular most destructive force in Kenya today, Dr. Leakey noted that its pervasiveness makes educated members of the diaspora wary of returning. He also mentioned the challenge of tackling fundamentalism.

However, Dr. Leakey was considerably more positive about the future of Kenya. He noted that Kenya's new constitution and the devolution of powers to the county level has provided 'tribalism'  with a "place in the sun", and that this exposure of ethnic divisions will encourage greater inter-ethnic cooperation over the distribution of resources, thereby sounding the death knell for 'tribalism' in Kenya. This positive end-note echoed a conviction of Dr. Leakey's, that in pursuing change, one must be optimistic and inventive. His career is a testament to this belief.

David Orr works on the CGHR Student Group as an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.