In our bad old days there used to be the joke of the Nigerian and Kenyan ministers. The Kenyan visits Abuja, is impressed by the wealth of his counterpart and so asks how he does it. 'Look out that window,' says the Nigerian. The Kenyan sees a skyscraper rising out of the jungle. 'Ten per cent,' says the Nigerian. 'Aha,' smiles the Kenyan. The next month the Nigerian visits Nairobi and asks how his Kenyan friend is doing. 'Look out that window,' answers the Kenyan. The Nigerian sees nothing but an empty space full of rubbish. He looks quizzically at his African brother. 'A hundred per cent,' grins the Kenyan.
But that's all in the past now, we're told. Kenya recently concluded the most significant elections in Africa's history. Until now, the continent's polls have marked the end of colonial rule, apartheid, one-party or military dictatorships or wars. They involved no true competition, but handed power over to unopposed knobocracies. Kenya, after years as a one-party dictatorship, returned to pluralism ten years ago. Elsewhere in Africa, America and the West rushed states that were ill-prepared - Rwanda and Burundi for example - into 'democratic' processes that simply brought ethnic hatreds to the surface, which then erupted into genocidal wars. By contrast, Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi, for all his faults, told the West to bugger off. During the last decade, he prepared the nation for the truly democratic, amazingly peaceful, mature competition of December's polls. To be sure, his cabinet rigged, stole and misruled in the interim. He said he was going to retire, but nobody quite believed him. The gracious way he did it - and saw his party defeated - makes him a great African.
Clare Short and her ilk love the 'African renaissance' leaders. These include military fascists like Kagame of Rwanda and Uganda's Museveni who talk a good game to guilt-ridden lefty Westerners, wear combat trousers and massacre civilians. Our new President Mwai Kibaki is 72, wears a pinstripe suit and plays golf at the Muthaiga Club. He won because Kenyans want an end to corruption. Kibaki also promises to sell off loss-making state corporations and revive the economy through private investment. His ruling party is a loose coalition, with a healthy opposition. His cabinet has more women in it than any other African government. His policies include astutely populist social schemes, which are going to be almost impossible to finance. Will this all convince Ms Short to get her chequebook out? Watch this space.
If it's any consolation to Ms Short, we're all going to have to change our views of Kenya. 'Corruption will now cease to be a way of life,' Kibaki said at his inauguration. Traffic cops waved me down outside the desert town of Voi shortly after I heard this on the radio. As I handed over a hundred bob note to a fat officer, I felt giddy at the thought that it would be the last time this had to happen.
I now look around and see that there's almost nothing that I've been able to do honestly in my entire adult life in Kenya. 'Corruption,' says the manager on the ranch where we live on the Laikipia plateau. 'There are disadvantages, but also many advantages.'
For example, I recall how corruption came in handy when obtaining my driving licence. To get it, I attended repeated tests and failed every one. In Kenya, part of the test involves driving Dinky cars across a diorama of Nairobi's streets. 'Right,' said the fat police test instructor. 'Your car is the yellow Mercedes. I want you to guide it with your fingers. Keep in lane, overtake that red lorry and observe the traffic-light signals at the roundabout,' he said. I looked at the toy traffic lights. 'How do I know if it's red, amber or green?' I asked. He said: 'I'll shout out the changing colours like this - Red! Amber! Green! OK, then I want you to drive around the roundabout, head down Kenyatta Avenue and end up parking here so that you can go and have a Tusker beer at the Thorn Tree cafZ. Got it?' I replied: 'I think so.' I put my fingers on the yellow Mercedes and began driving along. 'Brrroom,' I said. 'you have failed your test!' the policeman shouted happily. 'Why?' I protested. 'Because the yellow Mercedes was positioned on the wrong side of the road when you put your fingers on it! You should have identified this very obvious mistake!' 'How can we get around this problem?' I asked. 'Oooh, let's say 4,000 bob?' he said. 'Done,' I said.
I wonder if those days are truly over.