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12 ways Kenya is a one-way economy

By XN Iraki | Published Tue, March 7th 2017 at 00:00, Updated March 6th 2017 at 22:41 GMT +3

A diode is a small electrical device that allows current to flow in only one direction. It acts as a valve, like the one in your heart.

You are likely to be familiar with the light-emitting diode (LED) found in car headlamps, advertising screens, traffic signals, camera flashes and other devices. Most likely one of the gadgets you use at home has a diode.

The country’s economy and its activities closely mirror the diode. Things only go one way, rarely reversing. We seem to frown on rethinking and giving someone a second chance. This has been costly to individuals and nations.

Here are examples of the ‘diodeness’ of our economy and its consequences, both intended and unintended.

1. Our Constitution. It is almost impossible to change, yet a Constitution is a living document. The promise made to churches that the contentious issues would be sorted has not been kept, five years later. What I find interesting is that no one wants to attribute any of the national problems to the Constitution. It was seen as a silver bullet.

2. The idea that ‘goods once sold cannot be returned’. Once you buy something, there seems to be little recourse. What if the product is sub-standard? Telling buyers not to return what they have bought signals that you sell sub-standard goods.

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3. Police arrests and prison sentences. It is easier to be arrested than set free. You have to post bond, go to court and be tried. That could take years. Ever noted how police stop cars at roundabouts when the lights are green. They can hold you for hours, burning fuel and wasting time.

4. Politics. Once we think someone is bad, he becomes unelectable. We rarely give them a second chance, and end up missing out on very good leaders, and then we complain that our leaders are doing nothing. Once we think a leader is good, we stop seeing their weaknesses. No wonder impunity reigns and some leaders have never left the political stage.

5. Relationships. Men and women commit suicide over rejection. We frown upon failed marriages without bothering to find out the circumstances under which the marriage failed. In relationships, the diode effect is a liability. But traditionally, the diode worked and divorces were rare.

6. Institutional decay. Firms and institutions decay when old habits are allowed back – that is, diode failure. There was a time when jobs were given on merit, hard work was rewarded and nepotism was not our way of life.

7. Failure in school. Lots of successful Kenyans today repeated classes. Today, no child wants to repeat; they want to go one way and worry about reality later. Students are more interested in graduating than grades.

8. Receivership. Once firms are placed under receivership, it seems one way; they are rarely revived, like Chrysler or General Motors under former US President Obama. Why is our bankruptcy protection so weak?

9. Government employment. Once you are employed, sacking you is very hard. This has bred impunity and misuse of public resources. The same applies to elected officials. Once elected, you are under their mercy. No wonder everyone wants to run for office. It is easier to elect an MP, MCA or senator than to recall one.

10. Lending money. Noted how hard it is to get back your money after you lend it to someone? This also applies to banks – look at their non-performing loans.

11. Our attitude. This is like a diode – one way. That is why stereotypes are passed from one generation to the next. We still believe some Kenyan communities are thieves, others sexy, others flamboyant and others lazy. Does it surprise you that once we think someone is bad, he remains so? Ever attended a disciplinary case? The victim is usually guilty and we are determined to prove so. This is how lots of innocent people lose their jobs and dignity; we do not want to change our minds.

12. Donations. You are not supposed to miss a fundraiser, and organisers are now taking advantage of WhatsApp to mobilise groups of people. You are supposed to give and not ask lots of questions. Some churches have perfected this art.

The ultimate diode is death, and the possibility of reducing the diode effect has been the lifeblood of religions, both traditional and mainstream.

Surprisingly, the diode has remained a key input in the most advanced electronic technology. But it should not be the benchmark for our thinking in Kenya. Imagine a car without a reverse gear.

Continuous reflection and learning from others is a key ingredient in economic and social progress. We can’t be an exception.

-The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.

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