Bo Göransson: Half a century of politics

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    Mr Bo Göransson. Photo: Cecilia Bäcklander.

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    Mr Bo Göransson. Photo: Niklas Eriksson.

Liberation movements, education and women’s rights. Urbanisation, democracy and com-plex geopolitics. Where are we at and where are we heading? Diplomat and development champion Bo Göransson looks back at 50 years of Swedish-Kenyan relations from a political point of view.

Few Swedes have devoted as much time, passion and intellectual commitment to the group of countries making up East Africa, as diplomat and development champion Bo Göransson has. He began his versatile career as consultant of rural water in Sudan, in the late 1960’s. Since then, he has held a series of key positions as public official, not least at Sida, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, both in the region and back ”home”, in Stockholm.

In January 2003, after a decade long session as Sida’s Director General, Bo Göransson was appointed Swedish Ambassador to Kenya (and to the neighbouring countries Rwanda, Bu-rundi, Somalia, Seychelles and Comoros). Outspoken, energetic and well-versed, it should come as no surprise that his four years in Nairobi were, for want of a better word, ”action-packed”.

”When I was appointed, our analysis showed that two issues in particular would be of vast importance”, he says when we meet for a neatly piled prawn sandwich at Kulturhuset, in central Stockholm. ”Firstly there was corruption, a fight we weren’t the only ones to be involved in. Secondly there was inequality, which unfortunately didn’t attract nearly as much international interest”, Mr Göransson adds.

”It’s a clearly recognized fact that inequality impedes economic growth. But for anyone to listen to us, and actually do something about it, is a different story altogether,” he adds with a wry smile.

This “story”, described in detail in his 2009 book Nattvandrare och fredslöpare, co-written with partner and journalist Cecilia Bäcklander, is far from trivial. What formal right did Swedes have to try and change ingrained customs regarding class and gender? What moral right? And if they decided to proceed, how could it be done effectively? As it turned out, Mr Göransson pretty much tried everything: from old-school ministerial networking and a close partnership with prominent Kenyan feminist, MP and minister Linah Kilimo, to becoming a recurring columnist in Kenya’s leading newspaper The Daily Nation. Possibly not the most common approach?

”They kind of liked it”, he muses “that a non-Kenyan was writing about their world. But sure, some people asked me if that was really the job of an ambassador. We were asked if an ambassador could really write like that? Our answer was: Well, obviously.”

Bo Göransson’s formal commitment to Kenya ended seven years ago. After that, his new  main assignment was as Special Advisor to the President of the African Development Bank. Surely, this means he has stopped debating social welfare issues, corruption and female circumcision in Kenyan newspapers? Well, no. As late as in November 2013 he wrote an article in the Daily Nation in support of press freedom. His love for the country is strong – as is his frustration when things don’t turn out the way they are supposed to.

”The tumult and violence surrounding the 2007 election is a prime example. The Kenyan people thought democracy was around the corner. The election in 2002 and the constitutional referendum in 2005 were both considered free and fair. Then, two years later, vote rigging returned and democracy was taken from right before our eyes,” reminisces Mr Göransson.

”My point is that throughout this process, in the last 8 to 10 years, the ethnical dimension (of domestic politics) has become increasingly apparent. It’s not just the electoral fraud – however that was carried out. It is also reflected in the different moral and legal problems concerning Kenya’s land owners, and who has the right to the land. This discussion goes back to the early days of British land appropriation.”

The broader context of this series of portraits is the relationship between Sweden and Kenya, during the last half century. What is its nature? How has Sweden’s position as democratic world player, however minor, played a part to form events? Has there been a specific Swedish policy, and if so, what has it been?

”There was a very distinct starting point for Sweden when it comes to the co-operation and partnership with African countries. It was about supporting the country’s liberation move-ments. If you look at these things over time, you can see that Swedish aid programmes gravitate towards areas where there is a genuine strive for emancipation. It’s really as simple as that,” Mr Göransson explains.

This approach, he argues, was perhaps further assisted by the fact that Kenya was a poten-tially more industrially advanced country than some of its neighbors. Also, the coastal location made it a natural transportation hub or corridor. It was, in short, “the Strong Country”.

”Another factor that I think has been important for the ‘harmony’ between Kenya and Sweden is the United Nations. Nairobi is a UN centre in Africa, and Kenya is unique in the sense that it is the only developing country with a United Nations Headquarter, he says, referring to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and UN Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme), both of which have their headquarters in Nairobi.
”Sweden emphatically supported the creation of these programmes, including their geo-graphic location. Even later on we have been very active in their respective boards, contrib-uting to the strength they have today,” Bo Göransson explains, adding that ”the interfaces, and possible different stands on foreign policy issues with Sweden, and in the last decades with the EU, have thus been limited.”

Things are changing, though. Only in the last decade or so, the region has been an increasingly important player in the global quest for Africa’s natural resources. Influential actors like India, China and Brazil are entering the region. Furthermore, Kenya’s importance in the complicated economic and political puzzle that is the East African Community, will hardly diminish when its young oil-rich neighbor in northwest, South Sudan, plans for massive investments in transit routes through northern Kenya and a possible membership of the EAC.

”To put it bluntly: Kenya has been forced out onto the international arena. Through brutal security concerns with economic repercussions. These, of course, affect tourism (a sector which, in 2012, contributed to 14% of GDP) and not just in the coastal regions, but also in the game reserves and parks inland. Every time there’s a terrorist attack, like the awful events in Westgate, the economy is inevitably affected by a slump in tourism,” Bo Göransson says.

The ongoing transformation of the geopolitical map will, of course, not only have an impact on Kenya’s own political agenda, but on all the countries with a broad interest in the region – may that interest be in peace, oil or ideology.

”Thus, the commitment to foreign policies will increase. Sweden’s and EU’s roles will become more important. And when the political interface is expanded, so is the risk of potential conflict. So these are interesting, and important, times”, he adds.

Looking forward, lastly, what are some of the formative components that can help to give Kenya a stable democracy in general, and economic growth in particular?

Bo Göransson suggests an answer. One key factor in the foreseeable future, he says, will be the issue of women’s emancipation. That may hold true for several countries in the region, but in Kenya, many of the prerequisites for such a progress are already in place.

”The prospects are looking good. I really believe that. The average educational level among women is high, generally speaking. There’s a strong urban growth, not just into the capital. The urbanisation is breaking old habits, and changing views on gender issues. Everything is changing.”

”As always, this is a question of power struggles and attitudes. Today, a mere five percent of the land in Kenya is owned by women, who are the main farmers of the land. That’s a skewed power relation, if ever there was one. Women couldn’t inherit land until recently and very few women actually own land in Kenya today. Now, one should ask oneself: Why haven’t these things changed already? But they will change. I firmly believe that. The price of not going in that direction will simply be way too high…” concludes Bo Göransson.

Text: Niklas Eriksson.