Saturday, February 25, 2023

You won't save them

Unless you are in it, there is no way you can tell how you will be changed by being an insider in a government. Most of what you think you know about the mechanics of a government are quite often wrong, wrong-headed and uninformed. The day you become a member of that category of civil servants known as "State officers", your fortunes change for the better in dramatic, and disconcerting, fashion. You cease to be a member of the hoi polloi, and you become a member of the elite. Even if your office is a temporary one, your life is changed forever and unless you are a complete imbecile, you will never backslide into the category of Kenyan that lives hand-to-mouth. Ever.

In 2017, a young political hopeful in Meru campaigned in the poetry of the people he hoped to represent and won an electoral upset that inspired many young people across the country. It took a handsome gift from the head of state to put paid to his ambitions of being a peoples' representative. When he next floated across our view, he was waving a pistol around and firing in the air because the people he was meant to represent had a few hard words to have with him. The other young people who came after him have fallen faster from grace than one could say "woman representative".

One is whingeing that his net monthly salary of 91,000 is "too little". For a man paying a mortgage of over 500,000, that's a bit rich. His counterpart, a woman representative, spent two-thirds of her allowance for a constituency office paying close relatives' salaries. She seems to have missed the memo on nepotism in the public service.

The reason you are shocked about how these people are behaving is because you think that they have the strength of character to keep their head when they become part of the eating society. You only pick and choose what to eat and what to cast aside if you already have eaten too much and you can't eat anymore. These people, especially the more youthful ones, have never been exposed to this much money, power and privilege, especially the kind of money, power and privilege that comes without accountability or transparency. They are coddled and protected by a system that has become self-sustaining and self-protecting at a very high level.

They live in a cocoon of privilege that the outside world does not trouble. They don't have to, and they actively avoid, having to sit and talk to the people who have conferred them with the privilege, power and money they enjoy. It matters not whether they sit in legislative chambers or ministerial offices; once they occupy those positions, they and the people are divided. A wall is erected that separates them from the people, and the truth of their iniquitous existence. It is why, within a very short time, they lose whatever empathy they have for the man in the street and instead, assume the visage and character of ogres from fairy tale.

Indeed, when confronted with the horrors of their hypocrisy, the system they have joined educates them in the ways of gaslighting and blaming the victim. What you think they had promised, they say, is a figment of your febrile imagination. What you think they should do to ameliorate your straitened circumstances, is the road to communism. If things don't improve for the better, it is your fault.

You can't have known this unless you live and breath the air these people breathe. The day they suck in their first lungfuls of this rarefied atmosphere, save for those with the mental and psychological strength to know themselves, is the day you loose them. And once lost, they can never be saved. Ever.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Welcome to tragedy

When they went round the country seeking our vote, they promised the moon. Or, as is increasingly becoming apparent, the appeared to promise the moon. Now that the bill has fallen due, they have resorted to increasingly aggressive interpretations of what exactly they meant. This should not come a s a surprise. Ten years of Jubilationist two-faced-ness should have prepared us for extreme disappointment if not despair.

I don't much care for political manifestos or promises; they are largely meaningless documents that are rarely supported with any kind of deep thinking or planning. The last three presidential elections have seen teams of wonks pick their candidates and "advise" them on the best way to achieve one policy objective or the other. But even then, the wonks have played a secondary role, at best. Their job, it appears, has been to manufacture pithy one-liners and going-viral soundbites, rather than actually think through the intricate and intimate difficulty of making government do something meaningful.

I once deprecated the civil society types who fought and won elections or were appointed to the senior ranks of the national executive. I had observed that nearly, if not all, of them had turned out to be great disappointments. The promises many of them made to "combat corruption" turned out to be the snake oil they sold us in order for them to get heir hands in the proverbial cookie jar. Not one of them has ever emerged from the political arena smelling of roses. They have all been tainted.

The same is true of our favourite wonks. When they are on the outside with their noses pressed against the window, they make all the right noises about how they will craft sound government policies to solve seemingly intractable problems as diverse as chronic youth unemployment, rampant banditry in ASALs, implementation of new basic education curriculums, provision of universal health coverage, and development of large quantities of affordable housing for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

When they are eventually invited to the party, and they are shown the mess that was left behind by the previous team of promise-makers, and they finally realise that they will need at least ten years to just undo the last guys' messes, they almost always scale down, if not give up, their lofty ambitions and instead focus, body and soul, to winning the next general election. Governing and governance are shat into the deepest pit latrine they can find and, with their fingers still smelling of shit, they enter into a quasi-fugue state where they lecture us about how we misunderstood the promises they made. Some are quite good at the finger-wagging. Most are just crass.

What we see, what pisses us off, is the reckless way they adopt the airs, foibles, mistakes and white elephants of their predecessors, almost walls with less class or subtlety. In Kenya, the period between 2003 and 2005 was the most impactful to and for Kenyans. What Mwai Kibaki, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, Martha Karua, Raila Odinga and Wycliffe Oparanya achieved was felt way into the 2010s What his successor did, the depths to which he sunk, will reveberate in infamy for decades. That the new kids on the block have ignored the lessons of the excesses of the last guy is tragic.

Seriously difficult decisions need to be made. We know it. They know it. Whether or not the decisions will be made appears to be foresworn, for now, as we are treated to theatres of the absurd: random senators waging war with polygamous spouses; random TikTok celebrities being appointed to policy-making committees; random shirtless "spokesmen of the youth" getting arrested for some new asinine demonstration; over-the-hill politicians whingeing about unopened servers; and so on and so forth. History repeats, first as farce and then as tragedy. Welcome to the tragedy.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The fast-closing window for change

When one listens to some of the Cabinet Secretaries, one may be mistaken for thinking that new institutions are being established to undertake heretofore functions that have never been performed by Government. In one remarkable screed in the Daily Nation tabloid, there are these astonishing paragraphs:

The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) in a communique to its members on Friday said it would push for talks with the government regarding its plans to set up the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC).

KNTC will be funded by Afreximbank and will enable the company to guarantee sufficient importation of key commodities including grains, processed edible oils and fertilizers.

Had the various editors who allowed the story to be published checked, they would have discovered that the Kenya National Trading Corporation, which is a State Corporation in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Development, was incorporated in 1965. It is mandated to act as a procurement agent for the Government and to participate in the promotion of wholesale and retail trade in order to strengthen the supply chain of essential products. But the Daily Nation tabloid would have you believe, based on statements by the Cabinet Secretary, that a new KNTC is being established and that it will be financed by the African Export-Import Bank (Afriexim Bank). (The less said about the appalling journalistic standards of Kenya's tabloids, the better.)

These kinds of missteps now characterise a large swathe of the Cabinet. The Cabinet Secretary for Health, for example, appears unaware of long-standing public health policies regarding sexual and reproductive health especially among teenagers. The ball had been set rolling with the initial announcements by the Deputy President regarding the re-introduction of the shamba system (Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme) without taking into account the reasons why the scheme had failed or what the current policies in agriculture and forestry, under two separate ministries, entailed.

The Cabinet Secretary for Interior and national Administration, and his counterpart in the Defence Ministry, jumped the gun regarding the deployment of the Kenya Defence Forces in "bandit-prone areas" to quell "cattle-rustling". The obligation to seek the approval of Parliament appears to have caught them by surprise they worked overtime to find constitutional and legal justifications for why such approval was not required. They persuaded few.

Governing, at the best of times, is difficult. It is doubly so when one is dealing with a fractious political coalition wedded to patronage and graft. But it is nigh on impossible to do when you are faced with drought and famine, violent lawlessness in remote regions, an underperforming economy that is sluggish after sharp pandemic downturns, a demographic bulge that is plagued with chronic underemployment and unemployment, and a balance of payments scenario that has no positive outlook for at least five to ten years. So it needs a deft hand to ensure that the messaging by members of the Cabinet is consistent and somewhat intelligent.

No magic wand will fix the structural defects of government. All one can do is make incremental improvements in the hope that his programmes will survive political challenge, parliamentary scrutiny and public criticism. Scarce funds will have to be allocated and relocated in order to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in the shortest time possible. In order to achieve this, the national political leadership cannot be competing with each other to make ever more reckless stamens about their dockets, leave alone others' dockets. It is instructive, for example, that they are no longer singing the praises of weekly Cabinet meetings, because the current policy incoherence is an indictment of the worth of those meetings.

The window to make meaningful changes from how the Jubilation governed is fast closing. If the new regime is not careful, it will carry over the worst instincts from the former Government, including a penchant for public relations gimmickry to camouflage poor decision-making and inconsistent implementation of public policies.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

It's time for us to quit Mr Odinga

There is a twinge of grief when we witness a towering man lose his so way very publicly. What we are witnessing with Mr Raila Odinga, Prime Minister, Doyen of the Opposition, indefatigable liberation fighter, political colossus and bugbear of presidents and governments, is saddening. In the immediate aftermath of the 2022 presidential election, there was a bit of public sympathy for his fifth loss. That sympathy has ebbed away since the shambolic way he prosecuted the presidential election petition. His latest gambit, admitting to have paid foreigners to compromise the IEBC computer systems in search of proof to satisfy his needs, might very well be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back.

It is one thing to refuse to accept the results of the election or the judgment of the Supreme Court. One can refuse to accept both outcomes. One might even deny the legitimacy of both outcomes. One might even mount a blistering attack in the court of public opinion against both outcomes. But in a modern democracy, one that was hard fought, it might not be in the public interest to undertake a sustained siege against the foundations of the constitutional framework a people have adopted for themselves.

What Mr Odinga and, to a large extent, what his acolytes and mouthpieces have done, is to not just deny the legitimacy of a presidential election and presidential election petition judgment, they deny the legitimacy of institutions of state that they themselves had attempted to undermine in nefarious ways. Mr Odinga appears oblivious to his efforts to undermine the presidential election, relying, as he did, on the active connivance of Sate officers who had no business campaigning for him or using public resources to do so. For him to turn around and declare that it is his electorally successful rival who misused public resources and compromised the election commission and Supreme Court, is a bit rich.

This is not to say tax the way the president is behaving is kosher. Far from it. But to expect him to not take steps to forestall a political crisis in his government is naive. That Mr Odinga and his colleagues int he minority are incapable of formulating a coherent strategy to counteract the president's overtures, to prevent the total subsuming of the legislature to the diktats of the presidency, is an indictment of Mr Odinga and his colleagues rather than proof of the president's political deviousness. Mr Odinga is so wedded to the idea that he could still be president that he has thrown all political caution to the winds and is now admitting to criminal conspiracies that in a mature democracy would have had him answering difficult questions before a magistrate.

Mr Odinga, by his behaviour, extends the hangover over the Westminster Model we abandoned over twelve years ago. It is because of his nuttiness that the idea of an office of the "Leader of the Official Opposition" is proceeding ahead in the National Assembly. Kenya's constitutional framework is no longer about the ruling party and the official opposition; it is about checks and balances among the three main arms of government: parliament, the national executive and the judiciary, with all of them being kept honest by constitutional commissions and independent offices.

But Mr Odinga is determined to paint the majority party int he colours of the ruling party if only so that he can continue to paint himself in the colours of an opposition politician. This mentality prevents parliament from playing its proper role of oversight, especially of the national executive, instead of becoming the handmaiden to the president, regardless of the fitness of the president's policies. In my opinion, the reason why the government has failed to formulate an effective famine response framework is because of Mr Odinga's intransigent grip on his identity as an opposition politician. Because of him, parliamentarians define themselves along the same line: ruling party versus opposition. And as a result, not a single member of the majority party has raised any significant query against the famine response by the national executive, leading to prolonged suffering across large swathes of the Northern Frontier.

It is time for us to quit Mr Odinga of only so that we can build the government we actually agreed to in the Constitution. The longer that he continues to hold us back, the longer we will be unable to deploy the checks and balances needed to hold presidents, their cabinets and their state agencies to accounts for their policies, programmes and projects. So long as Mr Odinga's mentality continues to undermine the role of parliament, harebrained white elephants like the Nairobi Expressway will continue to impoverish the nation.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Wash-rinse-repeat. Sigh.

It is plain as the nose on your face: Kenya's politicians are incapable of quitting bad habits. The wash-rinse-repeat instinct is strong in them. Take, for example, the instinct to investigate and persecute former presidents. When Mwai Kibaki finally assumed office as The Third, some of the more zealous members of his Cabinet initiated the process of evicting Daniel Moi from Kabarnet Gardens, ostensibly because the property was "owned by the government" and, as a former government official, President Moi was not entitled to continue living there. President Kibaki, in his characteristically wise way, instead directed the Commissioner of Lands and Minister of Lands to proceed with haste to process and issue a title deed to the property in President Moi's name, and that was the end of that rubbish.

It seems that President Ruto's more excitable acolytes (with an unusual assist from the more semi-literate members of the putative minority party) have not taken any lessons from the proceedings of 2003. They are, with ill-grace, determined to sicc the police, the taxman, anticorruption authorities and public prosecutors on his predecessor, and they are determined to get their way no matter how churlish, small-minded and petty it makes them look. They are replaying the destabilising politics of 2003 and they don't care how it undermines the President's agenda or detracts from the necessary political work needed for the President's agenda to succeed.

The 2022 general election, especially the presidential election, was hard-fought. The winner prevailed despite him and his loyal lieutenants being the targets of state agencies, including the police and taxman. Instead of consolidating the president's victory, as had appeared to be the case in the first few weeks after the Supreme Court judgment, they have now turned their attention to schemes that do little to focus the mind on the president's agenda. Instead of behaving as a victorious political agglomeration, they are conducting themselves as if they are still intimidated by the leaders of the minority party, taking every public event by the leaders of the minority party as a mortal threat to their political survival. Consequently, they have done little to develop innovative policies that are needed to see through their grand ambitions.

Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe the public ill-will is a careful camouflage of nefarious schemes. Maybe they are throwing up enough smoke to distract us from the five-fingered discounts they are helping themselves to from the public purse. Who knows? But if they want to be taken seriously, f they want their agenda to be taken seriously, then they should do less ex-president baiting, and more agenda-setting. But, going with he current antics, it is unlikely that they will rouse themselves to govern or even govern effectively.

We need to learn, again, how to think

I don't think the parliamentarians of the National Assembly will heed the call and #RejectFinanceBill2024. They will tinker. They will v...