To win, let ‘Washenzi Movement’ be inclusive

It must be weird living in Mandera or Lokichogio and watching all the politicking about the “neglect” of Central Kenya by the Jubilee Administration. This is because “neglect” is the wrong framing of the problem of underdevelopment in Central Kenya. After all, every Kenyan with eyes has seen all the attention the region has received from the Jubilee Administration – from government jobs, to promises of infrastructure investments, to loan forgiveness, to Harambee contributions.

The real problem that those in the so-called “Washenzi Movement” (led by a section of Central Kenya politicians) should focus on is not the “neglect” of the region, but government incompetence.

For five years, the Jubilee Administration has devised many grand projects focused not on how wananchi will benefit, but on the possible opportunities for theft of public funds. This is why despite getting the overwhelming majority of promises from the administration, Jubilee strongholds (including Central Kenya) feel shortchanged. Every major Jubilee project – from healthcare, to irrigation, to fertilisers, to the National Youth Service – has been hit by corruption scandal.

Under the circumstances, the newfound realisation of the disutility of “Watu Wetu Politics” (Our people) by Jubilee’s strongest supporters is most welcome. As the wealthiest and most educated part of Kenya, the wider Nairobi region (including central Kenya) is a natural starting point for the politics of accountability. Unlike the rest of the country, most people in the region do not directly depend on agriculture for their living. As such, they are the country’s proverbial canary in the coal mine on the state of the economy. And right now, the Kenyan economy is in the ICU. In many ways, the so-called “Washenzi Movement” is a reminder of the difficult conversations we should be having about our economy.

The debt binge of the last five years has yielded nothing but the crassest forms of grand corruption. The country is saddled with foreign debt whose management – by the Treasury and the Central Bank – will make things worse in the short term. The Treasury needs more taxes, has cut back on domestic spending (including the payment of contractors), and wants to keep interest rates low (in order to reduce the cost of borrowing). The Central Bank wants to keep the shilling at a favorable exchange rate to the dollar in order to not increase the cost of servicing our foreign debt. Both moves will mean less private sector activity in the economy. Low interest rates (and the rate cap) will continue to negatively impact private sector borrowing. The “over-valued” shilling will hurt exports.

These high-level macroeconomic dynamics trickle down to the streets – from Gikomba, to Karatina, to Grogon. The private sector is hurting. People are losing jobs. And the government’s infrastructure splurges – including the SGR and electricity generation and connectivity – are yet to yield any tangible benefits for Kenyan businesses. The bigger lesson here is that we must shift gears and start making policies with our people in mind. Not foreign investors. Not the tenderpreneur thieves in government. Not 2022.

Which brings me back to the “Washenzi Movement.” The realisation that “Watu Wetu” tribal politics does not work formwananchi is certainly welcome. But if the movement is to succeed, it has to be more inclusive (beyond Mt Kenya) and focus on improving government effectiveness throughout the country. Otherwise, those arguing that Central Kenya is neglected by the government will risk sounding like spoilt children in the eyes of other Kenyans who are actually neglected by Jubilee – from West Pokot, to Kakamega, to Kwale.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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Jubilee AdministrationCentral KenyaWashenzi MovementPresident Uhuru Kenyatta