NAIROBI, Kenya â€” The line at the water tank in the Kibera slum is not as long as it used to be. Itâ€™s not because of a sudden advent of indoor plumbing. Itâ€™s because fewer people can afford a 10-cent jerrycan of water.
The cost of just about everything here is going up: rice, wood, rent, gas, minibuses. Hundreds of thousands of young men remain jobless, marooned in the muddy slums, selling garbage or hunting for casual work. And their ranks are growing only because a pillar of Kenyaâ€™s economy â€” tourism â€” has been walloped by a wave of terrorist attacks, including a brazen raid on a coastal village last week that killed more than 40 people.
Adding to the woes are rising political tensions, with critics accusing the government of trying to snuff out dissent and Kenyaâ€™s opposition leaders threatening to stage nationwide protests.
â€œIâ€™m not talking small protests,â€ Raila Odinga, an opposition leader, said, his eyes glowing. â€œIâ€™m talking massive.â€
On Friday, Mr. Odinga held a rally in a stadium in the western town of Eldoret, where thousands of young men pumped their fists and some called for the end of the current government. Kenyaâ€™s police chief initially banned the rally, saying violence could break out, but police officials relented after they were accused of abusing their powers. Scores of riot officers, in helmets and camouflage fatigues, ringed the stadium.
But even as anxiety, fear, malaise and pessimism are spreading here, and many speak of a dark cloud settling over Kenya, the outside world still sees mostly clear skies.
Glass towers are rising across the capital, Nairobi, many financed by investors in Europe and the Middle East, and chugging bulldozers have become nearly as commonplace as minibuses. There are new roads everywhere, new bridges and huge malls being dug out of hillsides.
Just this month, Kenya issued Africaâ€™s biggest debut Eurobond for an impressive $2 billion, and the deal was so oversubscribed â€” Morgan Stanley was among the investors â€” that the cost of the loan was substantially lower than expected.
But at 51 years old, Kenya, which just celebrated its anniversary of independence from Britain, is a bit like a classic car: beautiful on the outside and nice to look at. But under the hood, many Kenyans say, the wiring, and especially the steering, need serious work.
The biggest concern remains governance. And it is not only the recent moves by President Uhuru Kenyattaâ€™s administration to solidify control, threatening to pass a punitive news media bill and to start a nationwide neighborhood watch program that critics say is tantamount to an internal spy network. It is Kenyaâ€™s entire system, which can best be described as an ethnocracy; it is a democracy, but politics are determined almost exclusively along ethnic lines and are often highly polarizing.
People vote for members of their own group, however sullied the politiciansâ€™ reputations are, and coalitions among the five or so major ethnic groups are held together, somewhat tenuously, by doling out posts, often to people grossly unqualified.
â€œEverybody knows the interior minister is an embarrassment, but the government canâ€™t fire him because heâ€™s Maasai and they need a Maasai,â€ said Boniface Mwangi, a young artist who had been leading protests until he said he received death threats â€” from the police.
He waved his hand dismissively.
That tribal arithmetic can be explosive, as in 2008 when more than 1,000 Kenyans were slaughtered in ethnic clashes after a bungled election.
Not since then have Kenyans been so worried about the direction of their country. Public safety seems to be deteriorating rapidly. Five workers were recently bludgeoned to death at a gas station, a schoolgirl was decapitated this month and a recent newspaper headline blared: â€œHyena unearths four bodies in secret graves.â€
In the attack last week, two truckloads of militants roared into the coastal village with black flags, black scarves, AK-47s, bazookas, grenades and illumination flares. They shot dozens of people, slit throats, then burned down a good chunk of the town. It seemed more akin to an insurgency. Though the Shabab militant group from Somalia claimed responsibility, Mr. Kenyatta blamed â€œlocal political networks.â€ On Wednesday, his police services arrested the governor of that area in connection with murder.
All of this raises the question of how much more a business community, however talented, can accomplish in a place that is increasingly insecure. African terrorist groups seem to have suddenly realized how vulnerable many states are at their core. Nigeria is a cautionary tale. It boasts one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, but at the same time, Boko Haram, a Nigerian militant group, is growing even faster. Nearly every week it stages bold attacks, including the kidnapping of more than 200 girls, still missing. But Nigeria produces nearly two million barrels of crude oil per day. It does not live or die on outside investment.
Mr. Odinga, the opposition leader who lost in Kenyaâ€™s last presidential election, remains the most potent shaper of the rising discontent. He holds no official government position, he is dismissed by many as having no clear plan, and he is 69. Still, he can instantly stir up the passions and loyalty of millions of fellow Luos, among others.
In a recent interview at a hotel cafe, while slurping the froth off a cappuccino and snacking on peanuts, he said the people were fed up â€” so much so that they were â€œwilling to take the bullet.â€
And you? he was asked.
Mr. Odinga tossed a few more peanuts into his mouth, paused, chewed and then grunted yes.
Kibera slum is his base. People there barely get by. Boys wheel battered carts up sloppy paths, and women fry sardines in a drop of oil in gummy, tarred skillets. Not far from the water tank sat Peter Mutunga, vendor of secondhand pipe fittings. He had carefully laid out his wares on a plastic tarp, but nobody was buying. Nairobiâ€™s fancy new malls seemed a million miles away.
â€œThere are really only two tribes in Kenya,â€ he said wistfully. â€œThe poor and the rich.â€