Saturday, August 26, 2023

The roads to failure

President Uhuru Kenyatta, The Fourth, is a tragic president. Save for the acolytes who trailed his coattails, like the slime that follows a slug's trail, not many Kenyans can point to things that made their lives better. The "Big 4 Agenda" - affordable housing, manufacturing, universal healthcare, and food security - have little to show in the way of improved quality of life for the billions of dollars that President Kenyatta showered on them. Sadly, President Ruto has learnt all the wrong lessons from his predecessor.

 The error, I believe, was a failure of imagination in President Kenyatta's entire presidency. In trying to emulate President Mwai Kibaki's successes, especially successes founded on the budding or construction of things and institutions, President Kenyatta failed to understand that legacies are not cast in concrete but in how well the citizenry lives its life. It is meaningless to building hundreds of thousands of square metres of hospital space if one has no doctors, nurses,  clinicians, dieticians, pharmacists, radiologists and surgeons to provide medical services in them. Uhuru Kenyatta carried in the capital-intensive construction foundation that Mwai Kibaki had bequeathed him and in the bargain wasted money that could have gone to training and deploying the experts needed to manage the infrastructure Mwai Kibaki had constructed. And as a result, while Kenyans were burdened by billions of dollars in public debt, fewer of them enjoyed an improved quality of life. President Ruto is embarking on the same fool's errand that Uhuru Kenyatta had.

While it is certainly true that Kenyans lack adequate hospital facilities, classrooms, police stations, and public transport, the solution is not to put all our financial eggs in the one basket of a construction-fuelled boom. Instead, President Ruto should focus 99% of his fiscal energies in supplying the healthcare workers and teachers and matatu drivers of the highest professional calibre that Kenyans need to offer the public services they desperately need. Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta have already supplied William Ruto with the concrete-and-steel foundation he needs to deliver high-quality public services. He should seize the opportunity if he truly wishes to succeed as The Fifth.

An example might suffice. The bulk of Nairobi's office workers live in Eastlands. They rely primarily on Jogoo Road to get to and from their office jobs. If President Ruto does as Kenya's infrastructure demons are urging him to do - expand Jogoo Road into a four-lane highway - all he will supply is an even more intractable traffic jam problem. But if, instead, he spent the bulk of his public transport money allocated to Jogoo Road to improving the commuter train service, finally reforming the matatu saccos operating in Eastlands, and improving the existing road and rail infrastructure, he will deliver, on orders of magnitude, more benefits to the residents of Eastlands than Uhuru Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki combined. Simple things like road lane -markings and street lights will do more to reduce traffic accidents and improve traffic enforcement than all the new roads in all of the world ever will. It will take courage for the President to do this - the courage to suppress the instinct to outdo Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta in the total kilometres of new roads built during a presidency.

I want the president to succeed. If he builds more new roads then spends money to maintain and improve the existing ones, he will fail.

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