Monday, March 20, 2017

On academic creds in politics

To tell you the truth, I am not sure what his name is. Is it Mike Sonko, or Mike Mbuvi, or Gideon Mike Mbuvi, or Gedion Mike Mbuvi, or Gidion Mbuvi, or a complicated combination of all the foregoing? Either way, Nairobi City County's senator has managed to be "cleared" by the Jubilee Party of Kenya to contest in the election of Nairobi's next governor. He faces off against Peter Kenneth, Miguna Miguna and the incumbent, Evans Kidero, among others.

What seems to have roused many to take note of Mr Sonko's candidature are his academic credentials because they highlight the other extreme end of the over-credentialing of public offices: the number of elected and aspiring representatives "pursuing" undergraduate and post-graduate credentials has exploded in recent years. Some, like lawyer Nelson Havi, ardently believe that the higher the academic credentials one obtains, the likelier one is intelligent and capable of performing adequately in the legislature.

But this is Kenya and we do our thing slightly differently.

There was a time when academic credentials in Kenya were held in high esteem. The chances of civil servants being university graduates or holders of A-levels certificates were high in the years after Independence. Civil servants, university graduates and students, and trained teachers were held in high esteem because it as presumed that they not only possessed excellent academic credentials, but that they were also highly educated and because of their education, they were better-placed to offer expert advice on a host of public questions.

Even in Parliament, in the early years, parliamentarians were expected to be well-read and familiar with the difficult and technical questions that the Executive intended to implement. Despite the fact that many parliamentarians did not hold academic credentials beyond basic education, the Hansard reveals that the contributions of many of them in the early years were well-thought out, well-structured, erudite and well-informed. 

One of the strange phenomenons with our Parliament was that the more authoritarian our government became, the more parliamentarians held academic credentials but the worse they performed their parliamentary duties. It didn't matter whether one held a PhD in mathematics or economic or whether one could barely string a coherent sentence together in Swahili. All that mattered was that a parliamentarian spoke the language of the Baba na Mama party, KANU, and suspended his thinking privileges for the duration of his elected life.

But, surely you argue, this is the twenty-first century and a first-rate academic bent is indispensable in public service. I couldn't agree more but is this what the largely barely-educated masses want? Mr Sonko's elections offers a clue. It is argued that he bought the Makadara by-election that first sent him to the National Assembly for one-hundred and fifty million shillings. But his decisive senatorial victory in 2013 did not elicit the same "Mr Moneybags" derision because he wasn't the only candidate who successfully outspent his rivals. Mr Sonko's academic credentials were irrelevant to his constituents in 2010 and in 2013; what they cared was that he spoke their language and, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "felt their pain".

Higher educational credentials will not improve the quality of parliamentary debate or the performance of parliamentary functions if such a demand isn't accompanied by an overall improvement in the services offered to and by parliamentarians in general. Indeed, if parliamentarians do suffer a pay cut in the Twelfth Parliament, the savings should go towards building up the capacity of parliamentary support services, especially when it comes to policy assessment and law-writing. For sure, a well-facilitated parliamentary library that has more than bound volumes of the Laws of Kenya and the Hansard is necessary in the Knowledge Century.

Look at it from this perspective. The Governor of Nairobi holds a science degree while the Governor of Mombasa's degree remains shrouded in mystery as to its provenance, yet both preside over two of the most dysfunctional counties in the country that have been completely overwhelmed by solid waste and PSVs. Their academic credentials have been useless in the politics and policy-making snakepits of their county governments.

What we need are good political leaders with the capability of leading effective governments. What we have are grandstanding crybabies with super-sensitive thin skins incapable of effective governance. Academic credentials will not cure our problems.

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