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Lasting change needs institutions

By The Standard | Updated Wed, January 4th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3

The men to watch this year are Fred Matiang’i and his right-hand man, Prof George Magoha. The two are cleaning the veritable Aegean stables that the Kenyan education sector is.

Listening to the word on the ground, the two gentlemen will easily become the most popular leaders, if hubris or political shenanigans don’t obliterate them. You can be sure the special interests that rule this country are honing their machetes.

There is a lot of excitement in the public. When you hear a new vocabulary stringing out of a personal name, like ‘Matianging’, as is with Dr Matiang’i, then you know the fellow has struck a popular chord in the public.

However, I cannot help wonder; is this a one-man show or will these ‘Matiang’i’ reforms’ permanently restore sanity to this much-maligned ministry? But I do not mean Dr Matiang’i’s rules are fake.

He may as well be the messiah we have been waiting for. However, the question still remains if these reforms in the education sector are ego-driven or whether they are being institutionalised for sustainability.

We have a history of false reforms. There were the coffee reforms in the 1990s, the start-stop constitutional reforms before the final thing in 2010. There are the land reforms.

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There was the untiring Michuki who single-handedly tamed the unruly matatu sector. We praised him. He became a national hero. But the so called Michuki rules were merrily ignored as soon as the well-meaning minister was given another docket.

Today, the Matatus are as unruly as ever. Mr Michuki repeated the same feat in the environment and security dockets. The no-nonsense minister cleaned the Nairobi River so well that mud fish actually returned to the hitherto heavily polluted waters. In the security docket, he promised to eliminate gangs, especially the Mungiki, and largely succeeded. But visit the Nairobi River around globe cinema. The water is oily and has become a dump site.

What did we learn from the Michuki experience? For one, these reforms were personality driven, based as they were on the minister’s formidable character and charisma. He also had this uncanny ability to chest his way into the exchequer for funds.

Half-hearted reforms are often well calculated public relation gimmicks meant to be safety valves to ease off rising tension in the public.

True, Kibaki’s regime ushered in a good measure of a laissez faire culture in the government. Ministers were allowed a free hand.

But without institutionalisation of the policies and measures enacted by the ministers, there was little impact beyond the confusion and public excitement they brought.

Personalities alone do not influence behavioural change. Charismatic individuals should influence or build institutions so that when they leave the scene, the institutions will guide actors on what to do for generations.

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Western models of social-economic development upon which we have built ours have endured the test of time because they are anchored not on personalities but institutions. These institutions are not perfect of course.

The reason we keep on reforming things, amending the law or even voting is to keep on improving social-economic structures. Otherwise, without strong institutions, we are lost in the chaos of personal interests.

In a county of personal interest, the public seeks out transient personality cults. Do not wonder why we have so many religious sects. We don’t have strong, safety net institutions. Devoid of such, we look for persons with ability to lead something: a church, mosque or a gang. In such a situation, crowd swaying demagogues emerge and tell us what we want to hear. We feel secure in our traditional institutions because the national ones are weak and cannot be trusted. See how we are dedicated to ‘our culture’.

An interesting suggestion was made in a WhatsApp group recently. A colleague argued that Dr Matiang’i and Prof Magoha would be ideal to head the Ethics and Anti-Corruption docket.

I responded that they would only succeed there if they were the president and deputy president and rule us like benevolent dictator Lee Kuon Yew, the man who built and almost singly shaped modern Singapore. I say ‘almost’ because if you observe well, Yew built strong institutions that sustained his reforms beyond him. The island city-state did not collapse with his demise last year, like Michuki rules did.

Of course Professor Matiang’i is not working without the consent of the highest office in the land and his act must have been discussed in the Cabinet.

But that is not my main concern. Mr Michuki was under the blessing of the president too. It is a good thing that Dr Matiang’i is relentless in his work. But all reforms must be institutionalised.

ALSO READ: How exams cartels colluded over the years to cash in on high grades

I hope that the good Cabinet Secretary and the head of the Kenya National Examination Council are just the human faces of far deeper institutional reforms in the education sector.

I hope he is working in a team that understands what is at stake. Else we will be back to our original sinning ways as soon as the two exit the education ministry.


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