Too much noise and vagueness in Kenya Kwanza's 'The Plan' idea

A customer at Khetia Supermaket in Nyeri on June 6, 2023. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

It bears no repeating that we are now in the final weeks of the 2023/24 season that will give us Kenya Kwanza administration's maiden budget, and President William Ruto's first coherent statement of intent to Kenyans on his transformation agenda. But, we will repeat it anyway, after enduring nine months of promises upon promises made by the president and his administration, even as recently as the Madaraka Day address. No wonder we have a growing number of citizen-led tracking initiatives trying to keep up, since neither the Azimio minority nor our media can!

This is not a vague and idle sentiment. When the country's active and vibrant social media creates the term "Mtukufu Lies", this is not just a play on words (from Mtukufu Rais), it is the reflection of a growing view of the president and his administration as what the Americans call "all hat, no cattle", or more pejoratively, "snake oil salesmen". After President Ruto's recent Sunday media interview, I asked a colleague if he followed the discussion. His terse response in the negative - "Following the president is like following the Nairobi Stock Exchange. There's a new position every day".

But let's start at the beginning. In running for election last year, Kenya Kwanza offered Kenyans a manifesto titled "The Plan". There was an earlier, wild-eyed "Kazi ni Kazi" version - subsequently disowned - that spoke to the Marxist reorganisation of society, empowering the poor to "get" money and land from the rich, opening up access to "eating" opportunities enjoyed by dynasties and finding new "opportunities for hustlers". But let's stick with the civility and modernity of the "The Plan". Wheelbarrows are yesterday's, not today's, news, right?

Let's skim the keys in "The Plan". For context, it identifies a "perfect storm" of three economic challenges - a difficult external (global) environment, local fiscal (and implicitly debt) stress and long-term structural economic imbalance. With nine months gone, Kenyans are looking for Kenya Kwanza's complete answers to these challenges, not scattered promises and endless lamentation.

"The Plan" tells us what the "Bottom-Up" economic model might look like. "An inclusive, job creating model...focused on investing limited capital where it will create the most jobs...(while ending) exclusion and criminalisation of livelihoods...(in a way that) makes Kenya not just a middle income economy (of) GDP averages, but a middle class society in every sense of the word". Looking for inclusive, job creating and middle class in the 2023 Finance Bill? You and me too!

Let's continue with "The Plan". Recall that Kenya Kwanza builds this around five pillars - agriculture, MSMEs, universal health care, affordable housing and the digital superhighway and creative economy. In one sense, this is Jubilee's "Big Four" agenda pls digital/creative. What's missing is the sense of different thinking going into this agenda, beyond funds left, right and centre.

This brings us to the targets that Kenya Kwanza set for itself. Bringing down the cost of living. Eradicating hunger. Creating jobs. Expanding the tax revenue base. Improving our foreign exchange balance. Inclusive growth. On paper, these are excellent performance metrics. They represent progressive outcomes that will require immediate, short, medium and long-term action.

Here is where it goes pear-shaped. We are still yet to see a formal alignment of "The Plan" as a campaign document with our long-term Vision 2030 development framework, also known as the 2023-2027 Fourth Medium-Term Plan (MTP IV). Yes, there is mention of something called BETA (Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda) as the core of MTP IV, but it's all shrouded in secrecy, in typical Kenya Kwanza style. For the avoidance of doubt, Jubilee's "Big Four" agenda was a key, visible element of the 2017-2022 Third Medium-Term Plan (MTP III).

Why am I spending so much time on "The Plan", or its apparent translation into MTP IV/BETA? Because this is where a confident ruling regime begins. Do we really know Kenya Kwanza's medium-term agenda? Where are we at the peak of this administration's first full budget season? We have reduced the medium-term agenda to the 2023/4 budget. We have then reduced the budget to the 2023 Finance Bill. And we have reduced the Finance Bill debate to the Housing Fund levy.

This is what happens when the winning side of the political divide obsessively celebrates the 2022 General Election outcome at national days and in prayer meetings almost a year after it happened. It is almost as if Kenya Kwanza is unable to practically transition from campaigning to governing.

And this is the really interesting part. The Azimio coalition has pretty much nothing to lose in our political zero-sum game defined by "first past the post, winner takes it all" elections. They can respond to Kenya Kwanza's policy ambiguity through "maandamano" (peaceful demonstrations) or formal dialogue as an alternative voice. Remember, "The Plan" targeted the "hot button" issues which the public are now particularly anxious and concerned about - from cost of living to jobs.

We still have a full week to explore and interrogate the detailed content that is emerging during this budget season, but let's bring this brief reflection together with a couple of process thoughts.

As said, we haven't really discussed the Kenya Kwanza agenda (MTP IV/BETA) because we have not seen it, and there has been little debate on the actual 2023/24 budget estimates given the extensive attention paid to the Finance bill in general, and the Housing fund in particular.

Despite the ruling regime's determination to force through the Finance Bill by any means possible, the huge silver lining in the past few weeks has been the amazing level of public and stakeholder participation and citizen engagement in the debate. Media summaries told us 95 per cent of written submissions and 90 per cent of oral presentations called for the rejection of the bill. A better nuancing is that these percentages capture submissions and presentations where there was disagreement with some, not all, proposals in the bill, rather than outright rejection of everything.

Mostly, the debate offered a reminder that we need to elevate our national dialogue from "us and them" to "all of us". This will require a step change in the maturity offered by both sides of our political divide, way beyond the shadow-boxing that currently characterises the ongoing parliamentary talks to nowhere. Is it time not for "out of the box" but to throw out the box?

At the broader national level (political, economic, social), where is the multi-stakeholder, whole of society forum that offers a "bottom-up" State of the Nation dialogue space for citizens that eventually feeds into Government and Parliament? At political level, shouldn't we pay a little more attention to this "Office of the Opposition Leader" idea? Yes, it doesn't fit neatly with our Presidential-style system, and there are many who have called for a Parliamentary-style system.

But let's really throw the box away. The first step is to understand that the opposition in our "all of us" context should mean the "alternative" not the "naysayers" that reflect "us versus them".

Shadow government might sound nefarious, but there is logic to a publicly-funded Opposition Leader and Shadow Cabinet as a political and technocratic counterpoint to Executive fiat, especially where, as today, Kenya Kwanza is engaging in unpopular policy experimentation.

Actually, if we got this to work, we might even elevate parliamentary behaviour beyond herding sheep to the sort of substantive debate that was a feature of Bunge in the 1990s and early 2000s. The advancement proposed here a shadow government check on a struggling executive, which gets us to better appreciate what an independent legislature of conscience really looks like. At the deeper end, this shadow check acts as our first firewall against a rogue or overbearing executive.

This may sound like idle thinking right now, but I have a feeling that we are soon going to need a forum that offers constructive and viable alternatives to a Kenya Kwanza agenda that simply can't seem to get going for whatever reason. The alternative is we continue to travel this path of policy vagueness even as we engage in zero-sum cacophony despite our citizen-led tracking initiatives!