The good, the bad and ugly in Uhuru’s demonetisation

In the demonetisation venture, President Uhuru Kenyatta has proved terribly shameless, but surprisingly shrewd and unusually daring.

The shamelessness is in the inclusion of the Kenyatta patriarch on the new bank notes. On the flip side, can he be blamed? The way I see it, Kenyans supporting the removal of Jomo Kenyatta’s ‘likeness’ on the new notes are being dishonest. Given the chance, they themselves would use the opportunity to put their own likeness, let alone their dad’s, on every single denomination.

Personally, if I were President, I would issue a commemorative 40 bob coin like Kibaki did. But this time with a portrait of both my parents on their wedding day. Iko nini? But there is a response to this classic Kenyan rhetorical question. The answer is: Iko Constitution. Unfortunately, it dictates that ‘Kenyan currency bank notes shall not bear the portrait of any individual’.

I say ‘unfortunately’ because this particular provision is nonsensical. It was included out of bitterness, instead of logic. It was an emotional protest against the exclusion of personalities from other ethnic groups. The communities who would ‘never get to be President’ and so would never have their faces on bank notes.

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But currency is an opportunity to honour the national heroes of a country. Who said that that honour should be exclusive to presidents? This was a narrow interpretation.

By now we should have had Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and Mekatilili Menza on money. Now we will never have Wangari Maathai celebrated on a note. Even Eliud Kipchoge should be on a coin one day. Iko nini? Images of heroes from athletics to academia ought to be immortalised.

Anyway, that is that.

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The shrewdness of Uhuru in this demonetisationproject is in the unnecessary invocation of a constitutional provision. He took a vague idea and used it for his own end: fighting corruption. Like a consummate politician, he is effortlessly demonstrating commitment and inventiveness.

Even more shrewdly, he is laying traps. The Madaraka Day surprise is perhaps not targeted to corruption as a whole, but also to individuals in particular. Those that Mutahi Ngunyi said would have to spend 33 million a day for the next four months to get rid of their ‘badmoney’.

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The ‘daringness’ of Uhuru is in the big risk he has taken in this demonetisation operation. He did not have to do this. He could have made it another President’s problem. He did not have to impose the October 1 timeline to render the Sh1,000 note invalid.

And in the process create a potential logistical nightmare. The Constitution does not require that money with portraits be phased out. There is no statutory requirement for an overhaul. The law, anyway cannot be applied retrospectively.

Huge macro-economic undertakings like these are where Murphy’s Law always applies: Everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Whichever way you look at it, the decision to demonetise the Sh1,000 note is bold.

Especially when you consider that the Sh1,000 note constitutes 83 per cent of the total currency in circulation. How many African countries have overhauled their currencies successfully? This could also be reckless.

Operationally, it is a massive undertaking; a sensitive operation that has the potential of thrusting the Kenyan economy into turbulence if not carefully executed. Uhuru is actually taking a step of faith.

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He assumes that the Central Bank of Kenya has the capability. He assumes that the people executing it are with him, not against him. He also assumes that he can outwit the ‘dark economic forces of the underground’, whose world he seeks to disrupt.

In the end it is Uhuru’s kind of shamelessness, shrewdness and boldness that move countries forward. Not the opposite: modesty, foolishness and timidity.  

- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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