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Kenya: Of Political Visions & Promises

Of Political Visions & Promises
By Matunda Nyanchama
Sunday, May 13, 2007

The plethora of visions we have heard from presidential contenders is healthy for our politics. Ideas from candidates should generate debate and engage Kenyans more. Such debates are important as we consider the possibilities of what the country could be, what it would take to get there and who is best placed to lead the charge. In the, hopefully, we would move towards issue-based ideas as opposed to ethnic-based politics that dominates the landscape.

Reading through the various vision documents, one notices substantial similarities. This should not be a surprise. All the candidates have matured in the same political environment and experienced the same politics – they are cut from the same cloth and hence are like-minded! And as the old adage goes like minds think alike!

There is a sense of competition to outdo each other as well. For example, when one candidate promises tuition-free secondary education, the other promises to make it totally free; a candidate speaks about investment in infrastructure, another promises massive investment in infrastructure. They all talk about national diversity and promise to appoint the right people to key government positions. None has talked about reforming the process of such public appointments!

Others are clearly excessive that beg imagination on how the country can afford them. For example, how can the country afford a universal welfare system with current economic performance? At the current economic growth and tax base, can we really afford such welfare for all? We should challenge the candidates to back their promises with clear plans on how to pay for them. And if we cannot afford these, what would be alternative means for reaching the “promised land”.

Fee-free (100% free!) schooling to high school with creative financing for university education would be good for the country as it would allow access to a large segment of the population. More money would be good for research to ensure we can generate ideas, knowledge and solutions to local problems. Greater investment would be good for health care so as to have a healthy work force and increased productivity. Incentives (which could be in the form of tax breaks) would be good for businesses that create jobs, especially in rural Kenya. And, oh yes, we would all like all there is that Kenya could be!

We need three components in the debate. Can we afford all that is being promised? Secondly, what would be the priorities? In other words what are the top issues that would have the greatest impact? Finally, does the math add up? We need the numbers (revenue and spending sides) as a reality check.

There have also been suggestions that could be termed interesting. A good example is William Ruto’s suggestion to deploy the army for policing duties. The former minister should understand the distinction between the role of the army and that of the police. It would be dangerous to let the army out of the barracks and into villages and streets. That does not mean that we cannot leverage the latent potential of our armed forces. A good would be to engage mechanized divisions in infrastructure construction and maintenance, and use army doctors to complement public health services and so on.

One could also raise a fundamental question regarding the size of the armed forces and how it could be reduced to free up some resources for use elsewhere. Assuring greater peace would be at the core of this. Could a regional pact assuring peace be such means? Such a pact would affirm, among other things, that no pact member can attack another member without exhausting a defined process of arbitration under the auspices of an authority such as the East African Community and/or African Union.

Candidates have also made efforts to trace origins of current problems. Raila Odinga is partially right on systemic corruption when he traces it to the Ndegwa Commission recommendations. The other factor is what could be termed the umma mentality. In Kenya the attitude is that what belongs to the public can be plundered with impunity. Mali ya umma ni ya kupondwa! This attitude is rooted, in part, in the in the resistance to colonial regime. And we know that independent Kenya inherited colonial instruments of power intact and citizens never underwent a mental re-orientation to emphasize that they were the umma; and that plundering what belonged to the public was plundering one-self.

On the Ndegwa Commission, Raila said, inter alia, that: “This sorry state of affairs was made infinitely worse with the publication and implementation of the Ndegwa Commission Report of 1971, which allowed civil servants also to engage in private business. This in effect legalised and institutionalised conflict of interest within the civil service, which led to gross inefficiency and exploitation of the system for personal gain.”

The spirit of the Ndegwa Commission was right for the country. There was absolutely no reason (nor does there exist one today) to bar civil servants from engaging in private business. Social democratic and capitalist regimes allow private enterprise as a right of all citizens. Engaging in business, investing in viable enterprises, and encouraging savings are all engines that fuel economic growth.

The problem with the Ndegwa Commission recommendations was that they were implemented in the absence of a strong conflict of interest regime. There were neither clear rules nor enforcement against conflict of interest to deter individuals from corruption. In the absence of such rules, corruption thrived! Human beings will always push boundary limits as long as they can get away with it. The question is this: had we had strong deterrence against conflict of interest, would we have ended with as much corruption as we see today?

A vision is nearly like a dream. Visions should be about big ideas as well. The problem with our presidential leadership contenders is that none seems to propose big (as in grand) ideas. Grand ideas are great for rallying a nation and a people to action. They make people dream and commit themselves to the dream; they galvanize people to action and hence tap to collective energies of the people towards a common goal.

And there is value in grand ideas. The euphoria that results from achievement (however small) of a grand idea reverberates through a nation, generating positive energy that in turns results in further forward momentum. The campaign for freedom several decades before independence was a grand idea! Some people thought it could not be done. Independence took time to happen but happen it did! The impetus from independence may be partially responsible for the social economic gains the country attained in the 1960s and 1970s.

The campaign against illiteracy of the 1960s and 1970s also took us to another level with substantial consequences in the nation’s well-being. A literate population easily comprehends issues and acts upon them. Public health is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of literacy with it subsequent results such as low infant mortality rates, successful immunization campaigns and among others.

There is another value of great ideas: often the results attained go beyond the idea itself.

The case of ethnicity in Kenya is a clear candidate. Suppose we had a policy that required that all schools in the country admit at least 50% of its students from outside the ethnicity in which they are located? Such a policy would effectively reverse one from the Moi regime that required 85% intake from the local district. The new policy would allow Kenyans of different cultures to mix, learn, understand and make friends with each other. Years later, when they turn up working together, ethnic barriers would have been surmounted already! It is obvious that such a policy would contribute to national cohesion. It would also have reverberations long into the future!

One could do more with schools. How about a plan to network all Kenyan schools, polytechnics and universities by (say) the year 2015? This should be achievable considering plans in the works to produce a $300 personal computer.

The Kenyan population lives largely in rural areas. Microfinance has been shown to have substantial impact, spurring economic growth and transforming rural lives with women and children benefiting the most. How about injecting funding (through partnerships and incentives to companies) into microfinance to transform rural Kenya? No candidate has spoken about this.

We alluded earlier to regional security pacts as a means of reducing the size of the armed forces. It would be interesting to hear candidates commit to regional integration to facilitate the free flow of people, goods and services. How about a commitment by candidates to an East African federation? They could be honouring and fulfilling the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s dream. Mwalimu promised to delay Tanzanian independence if only Kenya and Uganda could promise to join an East African federation.

The idea of making Mombasa a free port has been floated in the past. No candidate has explored this possibility and the benefits (jobs, foreign exchange earnings and so on) that would bring to the country.

Nairobi is a major regional and international city. As an example, the city is home to the third largest UN contingent after New York and Geneva. It has the potential to scale further heights as a regional hub for commerce, financial and information services. A while back, a report was published of the Nairobi We Want with recommendations that have yet to see the light of day. No candidate has committed to implement those recommendations as a matter of priority. The vision for Nairobi would be to make it the most attractive business centre across the region and Africa; a hub for investment, tourism, transportation and trade.

There is more. How about tapping the country’s brand as an athletics nation? Construction of facilities for national, regional and global athletics meets in the country would further enhance that brand, create jobs and earn the country substantial foreign exchange. Investment in developing athletic talent, expertise in managing and marketing this talent, along with sound management practices would further enhance the nation’s sporting image; earn a slice of the global sporting business while providing jobs for a number of Kenyans.

The debate about where to take the country is healthy. Hopefully, candidates can demonstrate the achievability of their visions. The debate further offers a chance to evaluate candidates for what they promise to do. In the end, it would nudge us Kenyans to move from purely ethnic considerations in electing people to a system of merit where candidates are evaluated for what they can do for the country.

© May 13, 2007, Matunda Nyanchama

Matunda Nyanchama, an information security professional, is a past President of the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA). He can be reached at

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