Monday, January 20, 2020

From potholed roads to dead citizens

Some time back on my twitter timeline I witnessed a tetchy exchange that led me to ask whether or not we understood the relationship between the government and the people it is meant to serve and I am afraid that few of us understand what that relationship is or what it is supposed to be like. Government is a many-limbed monster held together by laws, policies, politics, inter-personal relationships and coercive forces. As an entity, Government is impersonal and almost always destructive and self-destructive. As an agglomeration of humans, humans contained in ministries, departments, agencies, commissions, offices, boards, committees, task forces, working groups, entities, legislatures, services and all those other units that comprise "Government", Government is not a flick-the-switch easy-to-understand-or-control entity.

It is why when we insist that Government can be fixed by electing the "right people" that I fear we don't know what we want or what we are saying. Take my department, as an example. It is not particularly large - the whole entity barley has 1,000 officers. The senior-most officer is unelected but yield enormous power. The majority of officers are permanently employed and to dismiss any of them from service follows a processionals that is time-consuming and expensive. The majority of officers will never interact directly with the members of the public - we are not what is known as a "customer-facing" organisation. The ones that do interact with the public do so in incredibly intimate ways. The strange thing is that not even the senior-most officer has absolute say on the legislation that governs the functions of our department even though he has overall say over the policies the affect us. It is also important to remember that theses policies are not made in a vacuum - they are made in the context of larger Government policies, which have been made on technical, procedural and political grounds, with political grounds playing an outsized role.

We have tried piecemeal solutions in the past. They have almost always failed. From the appointment of the Ndegwa Commission in the 1970s to the Golden Handshake Era of the Dream Team of the late 1990s, piecemeal solutions have been the preferred way for dealing with the inexorable deterioration of public services in the light of the increasing role of political considerations in policy-making, law-making and the appointment of public officers. It should be fairly obvious that if we elect bad politicians, they will make poor political decisions. And if political decisions play an outsized role in public policy and legislation, then it follows that policies and laws will be inherently bad. However, the reverse isn't necessarily true in light of the sheer number of changes that have taken place over the past forty years: electing "good" politicians alone will not guarantee the decline in public services.

It is the for root-and-branch changes that are driven by the people. Top-down changes in which the political elite decide what we should get have failed. It is time for a bottom-up approach in which the people tell the political elite what they need and punish the political elite for failing to provide it. The key lies in taking over the existing political and social institutions by our sheer numbers. How we do so remains the hardest nut to crack because few of us have shown any true interest in doing anything about the state of our political or social institutions.

We are very vocal about our participation in elections and every now and then, we are very violent about our political colours. Whether we are incited to violence during elections is, in my opinion, irrelevant compared to our the style of our political engagement. In 2013, I was shocked to find out I was a registered member of The National Alliance party. I knew - or had a very good idea - how my identification details had been used to make me a member of a political party in neither supported nor wished to be associated with. Like many others, I couldn't even be bothered to write to the Registrar of Political Parties with instructions to strike my name off that party's register of members. This apathy pervades the whole country - there are few true believers, let alone committed card-carrying members of political parties anymore. And it shows. Political parties continue to nominate thieves, thugs, rapists, embezzlers and murderers, and may of these characters become waheshimiwa every five years - or whenever a by-election is held.

Before we can even begin root-and-branch reforms of public services, we must demonstrate our commitment to change by joining political parties that reflect our values and fight within those parties to make sure that those values are upheld. We must make the era of briefcase political parties a thing of the past. We must bring all our skills and knowledge to reforming the primary vehicles for determining political policies that affect us, sometimes in intimate ways. If we don't, we will elect Moses Kurias and Babu Owinos who will continue to have outsized roles in public policies and we will end up with dead citizens every time we protect potholed roads.

Friday, January 03, 2020

"I told you so" is not a good strategy

I spend a great deal of time on Twitter. Yesterday, there was a brief, revealing conversation about a fatal motorcycle accident. A boda boda rider and his passenger were in an accident that involved a Nissan Xtrail The boda boda rider was fatally injured - cut to four pieces, according to the person who witnessed the accident and wrote about it on Twitter. His passenger was seriously injured while the Xtrail suffered some damage. Someone retweeted the tweet about the accident with the seemingly jubilant "We thank Darwin."

Those of you who are familiar with the Darwin Awards, especially the ones awarded on Twitter, know for the most part that the videos that tend to be retweeted are usually humorous ones and presumed to be fatal - hence the "Darwin" in the Darwin awards. They are a humorous take on the theory of natural selection. In our case, the death of the boda boda rider is not a case of natural selection. It is not humorous in any way. It is deeply tragic. It is also very revealing.

There are a few Kenyans who have contributed significantly to discussing the ways we can improve urban mobility in Kenya, highlighting the benefits of non-motorised transport infrastructure and facilities and improved road designs with the aim of reducing reliance on motorised transport systems and improving the safety of road users. These are things that we should all care deeply about because they affect how we access and use the built environment that we rely on for our livelihoods.

Some of us are privileged enough to be able to plan our day down to the minute, knowing where we need to be and when, and having the capacity to organise our movements in the most efficient way possible using a mix of private vehicles and public service vehicles. Some of us are also privileged enough that we don't have to rely on motorcycle taxis. However, we are a minority among the multitudes that use a combination of private cars, PSVs and motorcycle taxi services to go about unpredictable, income-earning days. The privileged few tend to conduct their business with other similarly privileged people, and so the need for urgent flitting from appointment to appointment is not something that deeply impacts our day, hence the lesser need for motorcycle taxi services.

We tend to look down our noses at the ones that are habitually run off their feet and must therefore, rely on the risk-taking quick-as-a-flea fleet-footed motorcycle taxis that defy every known canon of road safety. On many occasions, our contempt for the users and givers of motorcycle taxi services is expressed with the smug "We thank Darwin" when injuries or death abound. In our eyes, Kenya is a wonderful country but for some of the people in it. It is why, every now and then, no lesser than high government officials make statements about the "indecency" of large swathes of the population merely because they are not in a position to lead supposedly overtly "civilised" lives but instead "paint the country in a poor light".

I cringe every time I drive in the city. It is one of the most stress-inducing activities one can engage in. The stress isn't just produced by the seemingly crazed drivers of PSVs or the reckless way in which motorcycle taxi riders navigate increasingly clogged streets but also by the way supposedly "civilised" private motorists and chauffeured government vehicles bully other road users without a twinge of remorse. It isn't just in the way that they drive, but where and how they park, defying the "civilised" conventions that they insist other motorists must abide by. In my opinion, the largest contributors to the chaos experienced on the roads are private motorists hell-bent on serving selfishly private motoring needs, the safety of all other be damned. For this reason, few, if any, contribute meaningfully to seeking or proposing solutions, smugly satisfied in declaring that they are law-abiding, and that everyone else is a scofflaw that deserves death or injury.

Motorcycle taxi riders are an entrenched part of the transport system in Kenya. Treating them like vermin - treating them with the same contempt that we treat mkokoteni pullers - is simple burying our heads in the sand about the true reasons why such risk-taking is so commonplace: the design of the road transport system is deeply flawed; its operation is highly fragmented; and few road users have a real incentive to play by the rules when it comes to road use. Pedestrians, motorists, PSV and boda boda passengers are all guilty. Acknowledging the legitimacy of the boda boda and the culpability of all road users is the first step to finding lasting solutions that enhance road safety for all. Smug I-told-you-sos are not a solution.

The past as prologue

From the moment the Supreme Court declared that Uhuru Kenyatta had been validly elected, the question of who would succeed him as Kenya's fifth president has been hanging fire. The Second Kenyatta Succession has inspired boycotts, violence, death, handshakes, tangatanga-ing, kueleweka-ing, inua-ing and embrace-ing. But the thing that has woven all these different impulses together has been the Building Bridges agreement between the president and the doyen of the opposition, the former prime minister. It has drawn a clear line for those who have chosen sides in the succession politics aimed at the 2022 general election: you are either pro-William Ruto or you are not. For only the second time in Kenyan politics, the question of whether or not the president will be succeeded by his deputy has become the organising principle for all political actors.

When Kihika Kimani and his Change the Constitution Movement took flight in the late 1970s, Daniel Moi was seen as weak and ineffectual, forgetting that he had survived in Kenyan politics by biding his time and picking his battles. He had not put a foot wrong from the moment Jaramogi Odinga over-estimated his sway with the electorate in the Little General Election of 1969. The Kieleweke and Tangatanga windbags, and the feminine versions of Team Embrace and Inua Dada, under the cover of the Building Bridges Initiative, have simply updated the Change the Constitution Movement with snappier made-for-TV messaging, social media strategies and vastly larger amounts of cash bribes to wavering politicians. The objective remains the same as it was forty years ago: prevent the president's deputy from succeeding him. The outcome, I think, will be the same: these people under-estimate the deputy president at every turn.

In the pursuit of political power, it is remarkable how little the constitutional structure matters in Kenya. The same political machinations have survived unchanged from the pre-2020 constitutional order. While Kenya attempted to turn back the clock to the 1963 - 1964 Majimbo Constitution, the only truly new thing in the whole arrangement was a Supreme Court that Kenya neither needed nor particularly wanted, and the unnecessary expansion of commissions and independent offices whose utility, as demonstrated by the thankfully short-lived Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, is middling at best. The Ouko Auditor-General's office has published our fiscal scandals for all to see but so long as no one has been jailed over it, what good was he or his shiny new office?

Kenya's political ambitions have always been small and small-minded. The 1963 - 1964 ambitions were to position the president as a god-king, infallible and all-knowing. The 1964 - 1969 ambitions were to cut down to size any ambitious pretenders to the throne - or to cut them down, period. The 1969 - 1978 ambitions were to build a cult of personality that didn't invite pesky queries - and keep the country guessing as to whether this person or the other was best suited to adopt the mantle of President for Life. This cycle replayed itself between 1978 and 2002, and once again between 2002 and 2013, constitutional change notwithstanding. That the BBI smoke and mirrors is being sold as a wholly new thing is a testament to how narratives can be shaped on the collective amnesia of those who should know better.

The next two years will be spent almost entirely dealing with the politics of succession and hiding from the people the dire economic straits they are faced with. The fire and brimstone of "constitutional change" will keep nearly all of us occupied, trying to answer the question whether or not William Ruto will be Uhuru Kenyatta's political heir or a footnote of history, rather than dealing with the accelerating destruction of livelihoods, savings and grassroots wealth. The revolution you have been promised on Twitter by notable windbags like Miguna Miguna will not materialise. In the end, we shall come full circle and the cycle shall play itself out for the next ten years.

As by law established

The members of my profession, the ones with a pompous sense of importance, tend to use phrases whose value has diminished greatly since the ...