Monday, June 10, 2013

Reforms? When did pigs grow wings?

This author continues to be astounded that Kenyans are awestruck by the Jubilee administration, and the promises that it is attempting to keep. In the Sunday Nation, Ahmednasir Abdulahi attempts to predict that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto will be the true reformers of the Kenya body politic (Uhuru's should be first reform-inspired government, 10/06/13). Part of his hope lies in the choice of Cabinet and Principle Secretaries, and another part lies in a combination of the "power, beliefs and principles" that the two men possess.

It is difficult to see what "reforms" Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto will bring to the Kenya body politic. Nothing in their past demonstrates a desire to break completely with Kenya's past; the choices both men have made at every turn have been instructive. When the Saitoti Committee (1990/91)went round the country over the niggling questions of reforming the Kenya African National Union a little-remembered event at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre hinted at the kind of politician Uhuru Kenyatta would be. He, and several scions of Kenya's faux landed gentry, met with the Saitoti Committee in camera. What was discussed, and what was resolved from those discussions, remain closely guarded secrets twenty-three years later. This penchant for secrecy and tight information control remain hallmarks of Mr Kenyatta's political evolution. It is a trait that Mr Ruto shares; even today, very few people know exactly what role he played in the Youth for Kanu '92 outfit. But it is quite clear that the partnership they formed for Mr Kenyatta's doomed 2002 presidential bid was not entirely dissolved with Mr Ruto dalliance with the ODM machinery or Mr Kenyatta's magnanimity during Mr Kibaki's 2007 run.

This is not to argue that Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto did not make capable Cabinet ministers. especially in Mwai Kibaki's two administrations, the two men demonstrated the capacity for intelligent problem-solving and hard work that more experienced colleagues had abandoned for the all-politics-all-the-time mindset that made them the bane of all Kenyans. As Local Government minister and, later, as Finance minister, Mr Kenyatta was not just hardworking and capable, he managed to get a lot done, much that was undermined by his successors. as did Mr Ruto when he was in charge of higher education and agriculture. But despite these positive attributes, the two did not demonstrate a reform-oriented bone in their bodies.

Two examples should suffice. When Mr Kenyatta decided to reform government fleet management, his desire was to lower the cost of transporting the army of Kenya's upper echelons of the civil service. He decreed that fuel-guzzlers would be sold; including his Cabinet colleagues, civil servants would be limited to vehicles of 1,800cc engine capacity and below. Mercedes-Benz was out; VW Passat was in. DT Dobie was out; CMC Motors was in. It was field day for the "supply chain managers" of the Government of Kenya. Disposing of the fuel guzzlers was expedited; well-connected winners of the tenders drove off with top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz vehicles. But it is CMC Motors that continues to smile all the way to the bank; the Passat has proven to be more expensive to run and maintain than the much-maligned Mercedes. The idea was that Kenya would benefit from the decision to scale-down the opulence in public service; but really all it was is a sweetheart deal with a well-connected car-dealer.

The second is the shoddy manner that the Secretary to the Cabinet has treated Raila Odinga, Kenya's former Prime Minister. While this author does not believe that the former PM deserves special treatment, he is willing to accept that many Kenyans do want him to receive special treatment. These include some of the more peculiarly Kenyan habits of special access lanes in public places, overly-deferential treatment even by complete strangers, and an acceptance by minions of the State that you are indeed a Very Important Person. Even without proof, it seems that the circular by the Secretary to the Cabinet regarding the use of "government" VIP facilities might have been targeted at the former PM, even though he is not mentioned at all. If Mr Kenyatta has not made it clear to his minions that he is making a break with the past, sacking the Secretary to the Cabinet will be a good start, and anyone else who would see fit to employ KANU-Era tactics to make a point or prove their loyalty.

The bold ideas are well and good. Many will be of immense benefit to millions of Kenyans. But they are also like opium; they are meant to pacify and placate the masses while an odious, base, sclerotic, iniquitous and inequitable system persists for the greater benefit of an elite few. If Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto are truly the faces of a reformed Kenyan body politic, and if radical and bold ideas will define their reign, it will not be enough to bin all gas-guzzlers; the day we see Cabinet Secretaries, Principle Secretaries and all senior civil servants pay for their own transport, out of their pockets, without waiting for car-and-driver-at-taxpayers'-expense, then we'll start believing the pie-in-the-sky predictions of their "reformist" credentials.

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