We have the power to correct our course

This week, we celebrated 55 years of independence from colonial rule. As a country we are grateful to the men and women who made costly sacrifices resisting colonial occupation for more than 70 years. And even though so far in our history, we have not been willing to publicly and unapologetically celebrate their lives, I believe that in time this will change. There will come a time when Kenyan children will grow up knowing that they are the inheritors of a brave cast of men and women who stood for true uhuru (independence) and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

As we look forward to the next half century, it is important to take stock on the things we have done right, and also acknowledge our many failures. First, we have managed to keep together a country of multiple tribes and associated centrifugal forces. This is no mean feat. Running a young multi-ethnic society is hard. Second, we should also be willing to accept that political ethnicity has been our biggest undoing. Negative ethnicity has blinded us to the potential of different parts of the country. It has also reduced our leaders to little more than hawkers of votes and rent-seekers. Our politics works not to improve the life of the common woman, but to enrich the few.

The saving grace is that our problems are man-made, and therefore can be fixed through appropriate policy action. So what should we expect of the next 55 years?

First, the optimistic take. In this scenario, our elites will realise we cannot keep playing the same politics of ethnic vote hawking and rent seeking. They will then embark on a number of landmark policies designed to completely reorganise our political economy. To promote agricultural productivity and accelerate the process of organised urbanisation, they will come up with a rationalised land policy that will make our arable land more productive – including through land consolidation initiatives. At the same time, they will invest in mass job creation in our towns and cities. Such a policy will be anchored in the county system, with each county headquarter having a target population of 300,000. Jobs created will be in agricultural value addition as well as light manufacturing and artisanal jobs. We will have better trained carpenters, plumbers, and masons.

To complement the investments in jobs and physical planning, our elites will also invest in core social services. Education and healthcare will top the list. We will reform the 8-4-4 system through robust local consultation with academics and other education experts. Our education system will be redesigned to reflect the dual objectives of citizen formation and preparation for the job market. We will have appropriate tracking and teaching styles to ensure that all our children attend secondary school, and that those that do not attend university acquire useful skills through vocational training. Investments in healthcare will ensure that we reduce under five mortality rates to under 10 for every 1,000 live births. As part of this social services agenda, we will train and hire nurses, teachers, and social workers.

Second, the pessimistic take. In this scenario, our elites will continue to see no reason to invest in improving the lives of Kenyans. Instead, they will continue to invest in systems and infrastructure that make Kenya attractive to foreign investors willing to pay them bribes. The same foreign investors will not be obligated to create local jobs, just pay bribes. Our elites, on their part, will invest little in job-creating sectors – preferring to take bribes and stash their loot oversees. We will record 4-6 annual GDP growth, but with little to show for it in terms of poverty reduction. Which Kenya will we see over the next 55 years? It will be the Kenya that we choose to have. We have the power to decide.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University     

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