Uhuru might have run out of time but his successor could pick and run with his ideas

POLITICS |

President Uhuru Kenyatta signs visitors book at White House before meeting with US President Joe Biden.

It is more than likely that President Uhuru Kenyatta is not enjoying his tenure right now. There is a sense that he is exiting himself out of the job, or less finely, he is “lame-ducking” himself. 

The justice system seems to be a particular problem. Endless court orders and decisions – security laws, Huduma Namba, Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), minimum tax, public appointments and more – suggest he cannot adjust to a progressive Kenyan constitutional order that our Judiciary is duty bound to keep on track.

This cognitive rule of law dissonance seems to extend to the international arena. First, the International Criminal Court. This week, the International Court of Justice and our Somalia sniff of political and legal incompetence. Then there is the convoluted response to the Pandora Papers. It is difficult to contemplate what US President Joe Biden was thinking about when the two of them met at the White House this week.

Finish What and Go Where?

Having said this, Uhuru is still our president. The current media obsession is with his breakaway from his deputy, his embrace of the Opposition and his “chosen” successor. One suspects it is a bit more complex than that. Politics is not about lifelong friends, but shifting interests. And private interests as well. What the Pandora Papers confirm is that all interests are personal, private and propertied, the ultimate PPP (public-private partnership).

That there is a national feeling of “finish and go” is no longer in doubt. Legacies are built after, not before, the fact. Kenya is already thinking about 2022 and beyond. We have not eaten Jubilee’s GDP growth. This is why we are hearing more and more promises about richer hustlers and better households.

The technical answer to why we don’t feel growth is simple. It went to the owners of capital.

Yet, a calmer analysis may suggest that our President is internationally relevant in a way that almost all potential successors to his throne are not. Twenty years ago, the international community had two searching questions after Raila Odinga’s “Kibaki Tosha” proclamation. “Why not Uhuru?” was the first. “What will Raila do?” was the second. The rest is history. The untidy argument that is promoted around Uhuru is “finish what and go where”?  Not the cleaner “just finish and go”. The reason our Constitution is so amazing is that our clever presidential term limits can only be breached by World War Three. This will not happen in our modern lifetimes.

Is there a Legacy?

Legacy discussions tend to be simplistic. The focus is always on “what you did”, not “who you were”. President Jomo Kenyatta’s legacy was his unerring focus, good or bad. President Moi’s was his fantastic discipline, good and bad. President Kibaki’s was his nonchalant “smarts”. What, pray, shall be the legacy of our fourth President (memo to prospective fifth one too)? It gets complex when you want to be remembered before you are forgotten. On the other hand our first president counseled us to “forgive, but not forget”.

But let us be simplistic. Uhuru seems like a personable chap, articulate in speech, quick thinker when needed, careful when required. That’s the “who”? Now let’s simplify this to the “what”.

Infrastructure has been his big game. A Sh500 billion plus Standard Gauge Railway sounds like one of his signal moments, economic and financial unviability notwithstanding. Roads are another, as are electricity connections that get to mud huts. And this is the trouble–our President has “projectised” government.

Without even getting into discussions around “budgeted corruption”, it is tempting to believe that the legacy of high cost infrastructure (and we have not got to energy) will be painfully Kenyan for Kenyans.

Legacy: Fixing Good Ideas

While the President has run out of time, his ideas have not. Here are five that his successor may explore.

 Fixing Devolution:  Devolving the Big Four Agenda

The Big Four agenda was a fine idea. It spoke to the heart of Article 43 of our hard-fought Constitution on socio-economic rights. But it was supposed to be a county, not national, government enterprise. It should not have been envisaged as a personal commercial enterprise. This was about food, health, housing and jobs that this column has spoken to as basic household needs. Private, yes. Personal, no. Among promises made, his successor may shift resources away from national bureaucracy to local efforts.

Fixing Private Sector: Why MSMEs matter

Government may jump up and down about this thought, but there is no logical business space for the typical micro, small or medium enterprise. Correction, SMEs are your little restaurants and other operations. Micro-enterprise is the “hand to mouth” endeavour that drives Kenya. Our potential future leaders are walking around the country promising cash and goodies to “little people”. Not enough. Despite this, the President promised a single funding house called “Biashara Kenya”. How is that going?

Among promises made, his successor must address the entire MSME business ecosystem – money, skills, markets, regulation and all else in between. Official private sector can wait. Kenya is not a business.

Fixing Government: Huduma Citizens not Customers

One of the main reasons why government frustrates us is because it treats us as customers and not citizens. If a bribe is not the first point of stress, long queues are the next. The nabobs at the top will exhort service transformation because they need not line up in endless queues for service as punishment. Our Huduma Centres have been a fantastic, award-winning innovation, but the people at the desk are consistently wont to believe that we are customers seeking service, not citizens exercising our rights.

Among promises made, our next leader must get that “gava ya madharau” is no longer on the menu. As further outlined below, Kenyans do not want development, we want service.

Fixing the Budget:  We want Service, not Roads and Buildings

This gets a little technical, but is easy to summarise. The conception of roads and buildings as development (the modern word is “enablers”) does not wash with the people. Developing states look to progress, not developments. By example, building education or health centres or roads represents completed work. It is physical development, not human progress. Progress begins with school or hospice attendance, or road usage. In outcome terms it is better results or usage. Impact-wise, it translates progress to prosperity. Among promises made, our next leader cannot be about shiny projects. Period.

The Big Fix: Not Huduma Namba

Huduma Namba has been struck down by our courts for the umpteenth time. It did not need the courts to do this; its essential titling is both unwise and untidy. It was promoted as a threat to denial of government service. It was envisaged to be fully operational by Jamhuri Day this year. But mostly, it failed the wider and far more progressive and principled Umoja Kenya idea of an integrated persons-establishment-land-assets that would have got Kenya Revenue Authority collecting Sh5 trillion in seamless taxes every year while delivering a couple of trillion on its own in next to no time.

That it ended up being couched as a private cash and data collection scheme is a real tragedy against the wider idea. By example, we could have voted from anywhere and everywhere!

Among promises made, our next leader, respecting our data protection and privacy issues, fixes this mess. One imagines that the smart ones among our candidates will pick up and get this stuff done. It might require a situation analysis for the first time ever. It will need a smart leader to build Kenya better.

Kabaara is a management consultant and institutional reform specialist.

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