Sunday, May 28, 2023

Rich, fat and stupid

What little I remember of the economics I learnt during the BA part of my university education is reduced to this: we have needs and we have wants. Quite often, the quality of the needs we get influences our ability to acquire the wants we desire. Nine times out of ten, we are responsible for solving our needs. While the State will provide us with institutions of learning, for instance, and the teachers who teach there, it is our personal initiative that will ensure whether the education we get stands us in good stead or not. I won't go into the quality of the institutions and teachers the State provides. Suffice to say, if you are provided with the best of both, and you sleep through all your lessons, your education is likely to be "half-baked" at best.

The same is true of health services. The state can build the health facilities and train the healthcare workers, but we are responsible for maintaining high standards hygiene at home so that we are not plagued by vector-borne diseases.

But when the state fails to do its duty, after collecting taxes through laws and menaces, and instead imposes the obligation of doing for ourselves what the state should have done for us, and at our own expense to boot, then the men and women who contributed to this state of affairs cannot possibly be trusted to offer us advice on how to live our lives or chastise us for how we leave our lives.

Anyone who has lived in Nairobi over the past thirty years will have noticed that even as the taxes imposed on them have gone up, the services that should have been provided by the state have reduced. It is true when it comes to access to affordable real assets. In the last decade of Daniel Moi's kleptocracy, public land was allocated to men and women connected to his thieving government at a rate that was staggering. So long as you and the Commissioner of Lands were on the same page, you would end up with a title deed in your name. Much of this land was acquired for purely speculative reasons; few of it was developed during the last decade of the Moi presidency. When Mwai Kibaki assumed office, still more public land, especially land held by state corporations, was transferred into private hands without so much as a by your leave.

We sowed the wind and now we reap the whirlwind. The acreage available for lease to small scale vendors at affordable rates is nonexistent in Nairobi. Much of that land is occupied by sixteen-story blocks of flats (or offices) that are, at best, half-occupied. The armies of Nairobi's itinerant traders have nowhere to go except to the last "open" space available: road reserves and pedestrian walkways. Nairobi is now neatly divided into two: land speculators and vibandanskis.

The same scarcity of affordable land hamstringing the middle class dream of owning an affordable house has also locked out millions of small-scale businessmen. The challenge is the same, whether you want an affordable three-bedroom-two-bath semi-detached maisonette in Buru Buru or you want to open a café to serve the on-a-budget crowd of office gremlins: land prices are unrealistically high. The solution is the same: seize all irregularly acquired land and give access to the millions who need them to build homes or businesses at an affordable price. The reality is predictable: the state will tax Kenyans to the bone first before it troubles the land thieves of the 1990s and 2000s.

So it is a bit rich to read the screeds by lawyers about how Nairobi is being turned into a slum of vibanda where dodgy food of doubtful safety is being served by shady vendors who don't even appear to have the necessary public health paperwork to be allowed to sell food to the public. These lawyers who only concentrated on "human rights" when it meant change-the-government, but were silent as their new boon friends carried on with the same corruption as the government they overthrew are hypocrites of a particularly nasty type. They pretend to be virtuous only until they get a chance to sup at the big table with the devil himself.

My take is simple: vibanda, in and of themselves, are not bad. The people who operate the vibanda are not bad. The people who take their custom to vibanda are not bad. They are making do, with meagre resources, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It is not their fault. No matter how many SANYs are deployed to demolish the vibanda, they will never be erased so long as land prices continue to soar in Nairobi. But this is too much to expect of the senior members of my profession. They are too rich and too fat-headed to think in these terms anymore. Listen to them only if you wish to be as rich, fat and stupid as they.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Loyalty and affordable housing

Preamble

This will be a bit long so find something else to read if you don't have the patience for wonky, ill-written, badly-argued, semi-literate analyses.

I

I pledge my loyalty to the President and Nation of Kenya. My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our Republic. My devotion to the words of our national anthem. My life and strength in the task of our nation's building. In the living spirit embodied in our national motto - Harambee! And perpetuated in the Nyayo Philosophy of Peace, Love and Unity.

II

"mandatory patriotism"

III

"eradicating slums in Kenya"

IV

No one wants to live in sub-prime housing. No one wants a house in a neighbourhood plagued by blocked sewers and drainage, where garbage piles on for years in end, where the street lights have never been installed, where footpaths turn into muddy rivers in the rainy seasons, where access to water is only through the sufferance of water shylocks who charge extortionate prices and where, if you survive all this, the "house" is a four-walled metal shack that barely fits two and is vulnerable to the privations of violent criminals and equally violent police. Suffice to say what electricity is available in these places is neither official nor cheap.

V

The reasons for the deductions into the Housing Development Fund have varied. It is designed to offer the downpayment for an affordable house. It is a savings scheme for Kenyans. It is a source of financing for the private development of affordable housing. It will spur employment among the youth of Kenya. It is meant to supplement ones retirement benefits scheme funds.

I don't think there is a Kenyan who has any fundamental objection to a scheme that provides affordable housing for Kenyans, especially Kenyans living and working in cities and urban areas who don't have access to affordable housing. The mainstream news press has breathlessly repeated the statistics that say Kenya suffers from a severe housing shortage and ignores the explanations offered by economists and professional architects that the shortage is artificial due to, among other things, the high taxes imposed not he housing industry and the high prices charged for the thousands of vacant housing units in places like Nairobi City.

It would pay if we knew what we were being told, and whether what we were told squared with the facts on the ground.

VI

The [National Housing] Corporation may, from the National Housing Development Fund and from time to time, in the manner provided by this Act...make loans to any company, society or individual person for the purpose of enabling such company, society or individual person to acquire land and construct thereon approved dwellings or to carry out approved schemes...[and] construct dwellings, carry out approved schemes and lay out and provide services for approved schemes. - Housing Act, Cap. 1117 [s. 8(1)(b) and (c)]

VII

The functions and powers of the county are...County planning and development, including...housing. [Paragraph 8(d), Part Two, Constitution of Kenya]

VIII

When Mr. Raila Odinga, as Minister of Roads, Public Works and Housing in the first Mwai Kibaki Government, initiated the Slum Upgrading Programme in 2004, he set off a chain of events that ended in the complete subversion of the role of local government in the provision of social and affordable housing in Kenya. Of course, we can't ignore the fact that local government had become a hotbed of corruption - the failure of the City Council of Nairobi and the Nairobi City Commission are stark reminders of that corruption. However, instead of making the necessary corrective changes in governance and integrity, Mr. Odinga, with he support of the central government bureaucracy that had become wedded to contractors, took over a role it had never performed and undertook the project without further reference to the people ostensibly for whom the project was initiated.

Anyone who has followed up on the Slum Upgrading Programme will be able to confirm that while the "affordable" housing units were indeed constructed and delivered for occupation, the current occupants are not the original targets of the Programme; many of them, if not all, rent out the units to Nairobi's who can afford to pay the rent, and they have gone back to the slums from which they were supposed to be "rescued".

The 2018 Affordable Housing Scheme was challenged in the High Court and the Employment and Labour Relations Court. Among the arguments was that too was a usurpation of the role of county governments in the development of housing as prescribed by the Fourth Schedule to the Constitution. Both courts granted injunctions preventing the implementation of the Programme. The petitions were withdrawn, without the superior courts rendering a judgment, after the law was amended to repeal all references to the Programme. The re-introduction of the Programme, in the same way it was introduced in 2018, using nearly the same language, in the absence of a definitive ruling by the superior courts, risks the same kind of litigation that saw it being suspended for two years and then scrapped.

IX

I read once in the tabloid press that there are place sin Nairobi where the price of an acre of land has exceeded one billion shillings. There are many factors affecting the price of land, not least being the scarcity of serviced land at affordable rates for the construction of affordable housing. In more mature markets, such as South Africa, a flat of 100m² costs less than ten million shillings. In Nairobi, prices start at twelve million shillings. The continued existence of large swathes of the City being "single dwelling bungalows in quarter-acre" is a scandal of poor physical and land use planning.

The redevelopment of "leafy suburbs" like Lavington, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Jamhuri was long overdue. The same re-zoning should be done for Parklands, Westlands, Spring Valley and Kitisuru to open up uneconomically utilised land for higher housing density instead of concentrating the densification of housing in Eastlands which, in any case, has long passed saturation point. In the long run, Muthaiga, Nyari and Runda should also cease to be low-density residential areas given their proximity to the Central Business District. Re-zoning these areas will unlock land at affordable rates and spur the private development of affordable housing, and thereby obviate the need for an additional tax on already highly-taxed Kenyans.

Coda

There is a large swathe of land in Nairobi between the Makadara Railway Station and the Central Railway Station that is ripe for redevelopment. Part, if not all, of it is owned by the Kenya Railways Corporation Staff Retirement Scheme. It will cost and arm and a leg to compulsorily acquire but not is the best alternative option to a mandatory tax on hard-taxedKenyans and it may stave off the day that Runda, Muthaiga and Nyari have to be converted into high-rise paradises. The National Social Security Fund, and the retirement benefits schemes for the employees of the former local authorities, have the money to acquire and redevelop the land. If they buy in, the dozen or so major private retirement benefits schemes will have the confidence to buy in as well. Private funds for the redevelopment of the land is available. There is no need to trouble salaried Kenyans unless they wish to buy into REITs.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Laws, godmen, the state and death

No law is ever clear and any person, especially a lawyer, who claims that the law is clear is a charlatan and should be shunned by right-thinking members of the society. If the law was clear, if any law was clear, we wouldn't need the courts of law to interpret what they said or how they could be applied. So anyone that comes to you, unctuous oiliness dialled up to ten, and tells you that the law relating to ministries of religion is clear, is trying to gaslight you. Don't let them get away with it.

I don't wish to dwell on the intricacies of the Societies Act or the Income Tax Act when it comes to the "regulation of churches" but only to say that the law on the regulation of church societies exists, it has been abused, and as a consequence, there are many unregistered church societies that cause serious and continuing harm to many Kenyans. But, and as we have discovered with that shady minister of religion in Mombasa, many church societies also strictly abide by the letter of the law.

The problem in Kenya is not the law. It is not even the interpretation of the law. It is that the legitimacy of the law has never been high to begin with. An apocryphal story relates to the development of social housing in Nairobi in the 1950s. The wazungu in charge fiddled so much with the books of account that anyone who can say with a serious face that they know how much it cost to build Ngara or Pangani estates is a liar. Kenyan civil servants were initiated and indoctrinated in procurement corruption by Her Majesty the Queen's subjects and it s a lesson we took to heart.

Many of the thieves in our government attend church with a regularity that sometimes is a bit disturbing. For sure, the church is where sins go to get washed, where the penitent seek God's forgiveness. But that is not the relationship ministers of government and ministers of religion enjoy. Some may truly believe that the blood of Jesus washes all sins. But the majority, the overwhelming majority, attend church because, in some way, the pastor and the civil servant need each other to steal from the rest of us. Not only do they steal our money through procurement graft and the redirection of tithes and Sunday offertory to fancy Range Rovers, they rob us of our spiritual dignity and find innovative ways to blame us for being so gullible.

We tolerated this grand heist when the leadership of the ministries of religion allowed one among them to depart from the thieving path and speak the truth about the things that were being done to us. But nowadays, there are no honest men of the cloth left. Even the ones we invite to our corrupt TV stations to be interviewed by the less salubrious lying TV personalities have one foot out the door. They are not real rebels. They are agents sent out tot he world to gaslight us that the church exists to serve our spiritual needs and blind us to the material and spiritual robberies taking place in our lives.

There is no way that a ministry of religion can hide the deaths of 179 Kenyans and the disappearance of over 600 others without the officials of government knowing. It simply doesn't make any sense. Yet that is what concerted efforts by diverse spokesmen of the church and the state wish us to believe. They know that if we believe these lies, there is nothing they will not get past us. Don't let them get away with, literally, murder.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

The wages of constitutional illiteracy

Some time last week I witnessed the limits of education. On a panel discussing something that the Government had done, was doing, was going to do, whatever, a panelist suggested that Kenya would benefit if the "opposition formed a shadow government", the same as existed in the 10th Parliament before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. therefore, she saw many benefits in the establishment of the office of the Leader of the Official Opposition as proposed by both the last Jubilee administration and the current Kenya Kwanza one. She, and many like-minded pundits, have given up on the constitutional arrangements we have made for the government and they seemingly have no interest in holding any of their elected politicians to account.

The reliance on magical thinking is distressing, but not surprising. It informs much of the public discourse on public administration and politics. We are susceptible to this kind of magical thinking: if I make this change, that has nothing to do with the underlying issues, I will improve my lot in life. It almost never is true. It almost always leads to more destructive outcomes.

The constitutional structure of the government is not that difficult to discern. It is a presidential system, with parliamentary vestiges no one thought would become a problem thirteen years after we promulgated the constitution. The president, deputy president, cabinet secretaries and attorney-general no longer sit in parliament; parliamentarians no longer sit in the cabinet; and the president can only appoint the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court with the approval of parliament. Parliament is divided into the majority party and minority party who, collectively, are supposed to oversee the national executive and judiciary (also known as checks and balances). While it is expected that the majority party in parliament will be the president's and deputy president's party, under the current arrangement it is possible to have a divided government where the majority party controls parliament and the minority party holds the presidency.

As a consequence, the Official Opposition is an anachronism from the Westminster system that Kenya did away with on the 27th August, 2010. An Official Opposition is a vital part of a parliamentary system where the members of the executive are elected parliamentarians as well (save for the attorney-general, who is an ex officio member of parliament without a right to vote). An Official Opposition would choose, from among members of its Parliamentary Group, shadow ministers who would lead the questioning of members of the cabinet during Parliamentary Question Time (in the UK, they call it Prime Minister's Question Time).

What President Uhuru Kenyatta and, now, President William Ruto, did was to extend the vestiges of the Westminster system far beyond its utility for the purposes of the transition from the former constitution to the current one. As a result, the general public, including commentators and pundits, are under the impression that the government is still divided into a ruling party and official opposition, rather than the majority party and minority party. Therefore, few see nothing constitutionally untoward in the suggestion that the office of the Leader of the Official Opposition should be revived "in order to hold the government to account" rather than the majority and minority parties holding the executive branch to account as the constitution contemplates.

I am all for inclusion as a way of mediating political conflict; but I don't think it is in the national interest to establish a constitutionally dubious office simply because the incumbent's regime is uncertain about its political legitimacy. From the Yash Pal Ghai commission to the Committee of Experts, the majority of voters were adamant that they did not want parliament and the executive to conspire to undermine the national interest. Most voters wanted a clear separation of the executive from parliament; the independence of the judiciary was taken as a given. President Kenyatta overworked to blur the lines between the three. President Ruto still has the opportunity to reverse course though he appears hell-bent on walking the same path as his immediate predecessor. An office of the Leader of the Official Opposition may solve the immediate political problems of the incumbent; it will do nothing to hold the national executive to account or improve constitutionalism. Only the ordinary Kenyan on the street will come off the worse.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

The pride of prejudice

Dr. Ndemo says, "It would be great if there were no manipulative persons who would take advantage of the legal provisions and the vulnerability of poor people in our society." (Trouble with religious freedom, Business Daily)

He makes a fundamental assumption, one many of us have unconsciously made: poor people are more vulnerable to charismatic leaders of death cults. But, as one of my favourite interlocutors on Twitter asks, how many poor people do you know that can afford to keep four children in school in the Kenya of today? 

It is a prejudice we have of poor people and it colours the way we discuss matters where people we perceive as vulnerable are impacted b y the actions of others. The Kilifi death cult leader, and his counterpart in Mombasa, do not appear to have attracted only the poor. In fact, the way many of the stories of their victims are told, it would appear, after a bit of digging, that many had access to resources that were sufficient to support them as they relocated themselves and their children to Kilifi and Mombasa to participate in the fatal activities of the cults.

When I worked for my previous employer, I met and interacted with people in challenging circumstances. Many of them may not have know the law the way that I did, or may not have read Government policies the way I had read them, but they were not gullible, naive or stupid. For sure they were exploited, but only in the context that they were often left with choices that were difficult, if not impossible, to make. But they did not easily fall for sleek-tongued rogues come bearing gifts.

Many of the victims of the cults have been impoverished by the cult. They didn't start their death march living in penury. The cult leaders managed to persuade these frequently educated, well-travelled and informed men and women to abandon their families, communities, jobs and lives back home, give the cult leaders all their worldly possessions, and then kill themselves in a slow and painful process in the hopes that their souls would ascend to heaven.

What we have obscured in these sagas, focussing as we have on the poverty of the victims, is the numbers of our high and mighty who seem to be involved in the affairs of these killer preachers. We have seen them sup together, commune with each other, promote each others' work. Were we to probe these relationships, we would be able to identify many of the reasons why otherwise stable-minded men and women killed themselves and their children.

They all fall, eventually

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