“Kenyans got used to the idea of exceptionalism, that they are different,” said Patrick Gathara, a commentator and cartoonist. “The violence in 2008 made them realize they could go the way of their neighbors.”
The tremendous economic growth of Ethiopia, he said, has posed a further threat to Kenya’s status.
“We are trying to find out where we fit into the region,” he said. “It’s no longer about looking over our shoulders. It’s about looking around us.”
The plane crash, though, was also a sharp reminder of how Nairobi and the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, have become twin hubs in East Africa, with different focuses.
Kenya’s economy grew to nearly $80 billion in 2017 from $13 billion in 1999, according to the World Bank. In the same period, Ethiopia’s economy surged to $80 billion from less than $8 billion, while its population surged to 105 million from 64 million.
Still, it is Ethiopia that exudes the buzz these days.
In recent years, Chinese and Gulf investors have poured in. A dynamic new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, made peace with the country’s archrival, Eritrea, within months of his election last year. He has taken first steps toward liberalizing the economy.
The national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is one of the most prominent in Africa, with a fleet of new planes, a growing network of routes, and a base at Addis Ababa’s shiny new airport.
“The Ethiopians are reaching for the kind of cosmopolitanism you find in Kenya,” said Mr. Mutiga, the analyst. “They want to be more engaged with the world. At the same time, going from an authoritarian to a liberalized system is very difficult. They face some formidable challenges.”