Forget ‘vanity’ projects and go for what matters

My course is set for an unchartered sea.” — Dante Alighieri.

Kenyans of the 1990s may recall Mayor Steve “Magic” Mwangi of the defunct Nairobi City Council. The former mayor took over a city wallowing in physical and moral rot and restored it to its default settings; “the green city in the sun.” The blue-print he used to successfully navigate unchartered territory was borne of views gathered from city residents and collated into a document dubbed “The Nairobi We Want.”

In a season of proposals intended to plug the holes in an economy that is listing badly, it is imperative that Kenyans determine the course of their collective destinies.

Amendments to the relatively new constitution promulgated in 2010 are being mulled. Even so, it is feared that these are  self-serving quick fixes that may not outlive their proponents.  But what should Kenyans look out for? What should they demand that will put an end to the perfidy of the legislature? How will they cure the insouciance of the Executive?

Because everything rises and falls on leadership, removal of leaders that Kenyans don’t want should be made easier. Currently, the provision of recall of Members of Parliament (MPs) is operationalised by the Elections Act and instituted by the very people it targets. Thus, it becomes a source of frustration for Kenyans, who would in a moment send legislators who have failed to live up to their social contracts with constituents, home . The challenge is in how to institute the provision without calling on MPs.

There must also be an appreciation of the fact that government exists in a continuum and that pacts and commitments entered by one administration are binding upon the next. For instance, loans negotiated by the Moi and Kibaki regimes must be honoured by President Kenyatta if repayments fall due in his tenure.

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Defaulting on a promissory note is not an option since it has grave financial consequences, including the lowering of a country’s credit score. It therefore behoves Kenyans to take greater interest in the fiscal management of the country. Of concern should be the level of public debt. Kenya has been operating at a debt level of between 48 to 56 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At these levels, there’s danger of a debt crisis; a situation where government cannot repay what it owes. Further, funds are committed to settling debt to the detriment of investment in the economy, leading to hard times for citizens. But there are solutions.

First, Kenyans should demand that vanity projects incapable of lifting households out of poverty should cease forthwith. The Standard Gauge Railway from Mombasa to Naivasha is one such project. Billions of shillings have gone into it without visible benefits to households.

Second, focus should shift to areas where human beings are involved in economic activity and expand them. The boda boda revolution, motorcycle riders for hire, is one such area. It is a bottom-up approach that has provided a million households with a way out of poverty with little or no input from government.

A top-down approach that has worked with limited state investment is in the telecoms sector. This is because the Government has had the right attitude towards telecoms.  M-Pesa, the unique Kenyan money transfer system has had the same effect as boda bodas. It has created income for millions, fostered financial inclusion and mobilised savings at an unprecedented level.

Already harnessed

Other areas of focus include agriculture where building dams countrywide would eliminate dependence on rain-fed agriculture and ensure food security. These are low-hanging fruits with instant returns to households in just one season.

Third, Kenya needs markets for its urban residents. Sixty per cent of Nairobians live in informal settlements. Most of them are engaged in economic activities like frying fish or peddling wares. But they are constantly on the run from county askaris. Whilst progressive governors like those in Makueni and Kitui are creating opportunities for their people, Nairobi is chasing those who have already harnessed those opportunities. Kenyans should demand a return of properly and purposely built markets as happened in the 1970s and 1980s. The resultant revenues from licences and those brought into the tax bracket would result in enough to even service  external debt.

Finally, any proposed amendment to the leadership structure of the country without a paradigm shift in moral and ethical probity is meaningless. Prosecution and jailing of thieving public servants, without the fanfare and grandstanding of current efforts, is needful. It should be done continuously until the vice is completely eradicated in public offices. That’s the Kenya we want.

Mr Khafafa is Vice Chairman, Kenya-Turkey Business Council

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Nairobi City CouncilPresident KenyattaStandard Gauge RailwayM-Pesa