Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Uhuru's headaches (No, not the ICC)

Margaret Thatcher will be lionised by many when she is laid to rest. The Iron Lady, inspiration perhaps for Kenya's Martha Karua, changed the face of British politics and international relations. Thatcherism became a byword for making hard choices as and when needed, even when those choices ended in a lot of pain a a lot of people. In her foreign policy, however, are lessons for Kenya's brand new administration. She used he close relationship with Ronald Reagan to sustain British influence in world affairs at a time when the decline of Great Britain was being accelerated by economic woes and labour troubles as well as IRA terrorism.

Uhuru Kenyatta assumes the presidency at a time when Kenya is attempting to square the circle of low revenues against huge development priorities, especially in education, healthcare and infrastructure. Until the Chinese came calling with open wallets and a no-questions asked attitude, Kenya was at the mercy of the diktats from mandarins of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Its participation in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks, that morphed into the World Trade Organisation talks, Kenya was constrained in its dealings even with its neighbours because of the strings attached to all the money it had borrowed or all the agreements it had signed with the United States, the United Kingdom, or the European Union.

When Mwai Kibaki began the long and arduous task of disentangling Kenya's messed up finances, his Look East policy was a shrewd calculation that even a wholesome embrace of the Chinese Dragon would not push away Kenya's traditional Western development partners. When Uhuru Kenyatta finally demonstrated that he had the capacity to mount a credible presidential bid, despite his indictment at the ICC, Kenya's development partners, save for those in Asia and Africa, were aghast. The United Kingdom led the charge with its waffling talk of "essential contacts" while the United States piled in with its warnings of "consequences". William Ruto captured the mood of the people when he celebrated our peculiarities; instead of heeding the wise counsel of the West, we not only ignored them, but not only elected Uhuru Kenyatta and his ICC co-indictee as president and deputy president, we supported the Supreme Court when it upheld their election and asked the losers, especially Raila Odinga, to let it go and move on.

Mr Kenyatta faces tougher challenges than providing 800,000 free laptops to Standard One children in 2014. While Mwai Kibaki finally managed to turn around the economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity, job-creation is woefully low, economic growth is only in upper reaches of the middle classes and the wealthy, and the quality of essential public services such as healthcare and education continues to be a continental embarrassment. His challenge lies in not only ensuring the continued inflow of Chinese direct investment in infrastructure, but also keeping the West on-side in terms of technology transfer and a sympathetic ear in the halls of global institutions such as the United Nations Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank. He should chart a largely independent line when it comes to future revenue policies; if he allows them to be dictated by the West, the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the '90s will seem like a cakewalk. If he allows Chinese investments to raise the inflation rate, he'll have a balance of payments crisis on his hands that coupled with increasingly high cost of living that may lead to civil instability. He must temper his enthusiasm for domestic public spending with one for expanding manufacturing, exports of finished goods, increased food production and value addition for commercial crops. It is one of the ways that he can keep both the West and the Chinese in their proper places.

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