Monday, October 29, 2018

Looking for a legacy

When I was in Standard 3 at Rabai Road primary School, Peter Oloo Aringo was the Minister of Education (this is before we switched prepositions, so bear with me), and Kenya had entered the uncharted waters of Bretton-Woods-prescribed Structural Adjustment Programmes. The expression "cost-sharing", which I didn't understand and still don't, entered the national discourse and my father was told to part with money so that City Hall could build a workshop at Rabai Primary School. The workshop was duly built and when I was in Standard 7 and 8, I spent many, many happy hours in it sawing, planing, sanding and hammering various bits of wood into creations that gave great, great pleasure.

Baba Moi was getting into the swing of things at Harambee House, sprinkling the public service with his favoured political pets, many in high offices where policies were made, unmade and ignored. Few Kenyans appreciated the effect of Baba Moi's version of structural adjustment and few could foresee just how bad things would get by the time Mzee was being given the rudest send-off at the relatively peaceful end of his presidency. What I do remember, even in the midst of the rapid-fire changes, is that all waziris and their senior-most mandarins were driven about in Peugeot 504s, even the Vice-President, the flashiest French import we had at the time.

Not even Mzee saw the political virtues of zipping about in helicopters and a fleet of V8 VXs (though, to be fair to the modern-day waheshimiwa, he didn't need to when Voice of Kenya spent 25 of its allotted 30 minutes singing his praises in increasingly unsubtle ways at 1:00pm, 4:00pm, 6:00pm, 7:00pm and 9:00pm. Things were predictable. My workshop was built because Baba Moi decreed that it should be built.

Mzee didn't make promises often. Which comes as a bit of a surprise when I think about it. He almost always directed something to be done and the machinery of Government swung into action. He decreed free milk and soon enough, KCC lorries were delivering orange tetrapaks of Maziwa ya Nyayo. His successors have been mightily unlucky. They couldn't decree anything without appearing foolish. It is why the wonkish Kibaki delegated the arm-twisting and head-knocking to the likes of John Michuki, Chris Murungaru and Martha Karua or charm offensives to the like of the sharp-as-a-tack Mutula Kilonzo and scandal-prone Masaa-ni-ya-Mama Charity Ngilu. Baks's successor doesn't even have a Michuki in his corner; the hard-charging Matiang'i will one day prove to be the millstone that sinks his "legacy" for all eternity.

Mzee may have bankrupted the nation, morally, politically and fiscally, but when you see him lifting rocks above his head in some rural backwater as his Government fights to reverse mmonyoko wa udongo, you remember that the gabions kept your farmhouse from being washed away one more time by raging waters and mud. When you see him set his head back and laugh uproariously at the antics of the Vitimbi cast during some public holiday at the Nyayo National Stadium, you realise that he didn't crush everything underneath his heel. But try as you might, you can't summon the same sense of occasion when you remember Baks's "superhighway" or his successor's "SGR". Instead, it is relentless torrent of bad and worse news connected to the filching of many, many billions that boggle the mind.

Mzee suppressed and oppressed and, ironically, because of his heavy hand, Kenyans and Kenyan communities had a sense of pride when one of their children stood up to him. We feared him. And we suffered for it. But we never held him in contempt even when morally dubious stories about him were whispered in bars and funerals. No one feared Baks. No one fears his successor. Baks has the respect of economists because he managed a minor miracle with the economy, even if he cocked it up in the end. But his successor? Moi gave me a workshop. Baks gave me the opportunity to say mean things about the president without fearing that I would find my gonads in a vice. This one is looking for a "legacy". I fear that he will be unluckiest of them all.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Pufferies of the self-absorbed

"Sometimes though, I get the feeling that we are our own worst enemies. When everything seems to be going well for us, we scatter all to the four winds...The latest example is the call by Kenya Airways crew to go on strike, just as the country was jubilating that a journey of 10 years — for a direct flight to the United States — has come to an end." -
Have you dreamed of travelling to the USA directly from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport? have you ever thought that, as a national priority, flying directly to the USA came before universal and comprehensive free basic education or an efficient, effective and affordable public healthcare system? When you think of Kenya, do you liken it to other brands like Coca-cola, Blue Band or

There are many things that are going right with Kenya. Despite the best efforts of the ruling elite, more and more Kenyans are speaking out about the things that matter to the people. Though it may not seem like it, every single Okiya Omtata litigation victory is a good thing; it is among the many ways that Kenyans are building a rule-of-law judicial system.

Despite these, and many other, positive steps, we must also stare the truth in its face: Kenya has a long way to go to shrug off the corruption, tribalism and poverty that stalks the lives of millions of Kenyans. For Kenya Airways, perhaps, direct flights to the USA may prove the tonic needed for it to unwind its ruinous fiscal circumstances but a lifetime of lessons about the false promise of foreign markets tempers our expectations about the chances of a minnow like KQ in the vast, shark-filled ocean of global aviation in which it has floundered again and again and again.

For KQ's boosters to ignore that the company has been consistently and ruinously managed by its succession of politically-appointed managers, and the deleterious impacts of these managers' decisions on the rank-and-file of the company, is to live in an elite bubble of stupefying obscurity. Since the turn of the century, KQ has struggled to do right by its employees even though its managers (and directors) have almost always made off like bandits. The latest threat to strike is not the first and bar some Eastern European miracle, it shall not be last. Instead of captains of industry wringing their hands in despair at the selfishness of KQ's employees, perhaps it is time they started asking the serious questions about the roles of a few robber-barons in the c-suites of the national flag carrier.

Do not hide behind jingoism. I can guarantee, even without the benefit of an opinion poll, that the vast majority of Kenyans don't care all that much about KQ's direct flights to New York. But many of them will feel the righteousness of the demands by KQ employees because many of them are in the same straitened circumstances. The ranks of the poor, the unemployed and those living hand-to-mouth are increasing while the foreign bank accounts of the movers and the shakers continue to fatten. Kenyans will celebrate and jubilate only when they can hold their heads high with pride because they are no longer ashamed of looking their loved ones in the eye because they can't put three square ones on the table every day. International connections are well and good but unless they guarantee decent wages and personal well-being, they are merely the pufferies of the self-absorbed elitist windbags.

The kumira-kumira era is no improvement

Maybe it was intended to troll those Kenyans who had been uncharitable about her qualifications to manage one of Kenya's most important sectors. Maybe. When the Cabinet Secretary for Education declared that her ministry would not allow national exam candidates to be "disturbed" by "prayer days" or "visitors", which would also serve the goal of preventing examinations cheating, I thought that maybe she had forgotten what her role was supposed to be. But it became immediately clear that she was dead serious when the President (and commander-in-chief of the Kenya Defence Forces) declared with deadpan seriousness that if a national exam candidate was caught cheating, not only would Government throw the book at him, Government would also revoke the candidate's parents' examination certificates.

The Cabinet Secretary and the President, treading the same path as the immediate former Cabinet Secretary, who now happens to be in charge of the State policing and intelligence machinery, have come to the simple conclusion that the only way to measure educational attainment is by maximising the number of children who sit and pass national exams - and minimising, if not eliminating, the number of children who successfully get away with cheating. If it means jailing children, well, hey, now that we have converted Kenya's prisons into commercial enterprises, they will never want for semi-educated workers, will they?

The prosperity gospel favoured by Christian ministers of faith patronised by many of Kenya's political classes has become a national faith, if not religion. Every public institution is exhorted, with the silent acquiescence of public institutions of conscience, to "maximise revenues" in the light of increasing public debt ( and a ballooning public wage bill). While Government decreed "free" basic education in Government-funded schools on the one hand, it turned the Kenya Prisons service into a commercial enterprise intended to compete with the private sector in agriculture, furniture and handicrafts, and, of course, real estate development. Everything we now do, as a people and as a country, is measured down to the last cent. The results have been stark.

Back when we were a KANU dictatorship, before the Bretton-Woods assassins stuck stilettos in our collective rib-cage, we may have been poor and under the yoke of a fascist ethnic criminal enterprise (from which its victims are still recovering), but we not saddled with an unsustainable public debt that had largely been sequestered in Indian Ocean tax havens of ill repute without a hope of ever being recovered. The KANU mafia had stolen billions but not even them had had the balls to turn public debt into private profit on the scale it has been today. The creeping privatisation of the public service - prisons are just the latest step - is taking on a life of its own and consuming institutions that require the greatest care and protection such as public basic education and public primary healthcare services. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance yet the Cabinet Secretary is determined to provide a path to incarceration for as many young Kenyans as she can - unless they all toe the party line and do as they are told without question or challenge.

Much of what made Kenyans Kenyan is being steamrolled into conformity by the I-know-best attitude of the CS and her Cabinet colleagues and private sector enablers. When you think of the performing arts, benga and rumba, stage plays and poetry, public intellectualism and dissenting public opinion, the way was not lit by the shining lamps of the KANU-ya-jenga-nchi chants, but by the underground streams of protest that refused to be held back, official opprobrium notwithstanding. But with the rise of KANU and KANU-lite apparatchiks, using modern tools of suppression and for shaping public opinion, such as Ezekiel Caesar, the national finger-wagging this-is-un-Kenyan scold, old school performing arts are being suppressed, repressed and erased. And it is being replaced by milquetoast pap designed to pacify, stupefy and terrify while the national treasury is emptied of its last cent and the national silver is bartered to the highest bidder.  No one wants to return to the KANU-ni-baba-na-mama days but make no mistake, the only ones who think that the kumira-kumira era is an improvement are the ones with their twenty fat little fingers and toes in the national cookie jar.

Some bosses lead, some bosses blame

Bosses make great CX a central part of strategy and mission. Bosses set standards at the top of organizations. Bosses recruit, train, and de...