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Uhuru Kenyatta leaves behind a country that is a mixed bag of sorts: Did he make so little of so much?

 

A beneficiary of the Presidential Digital Talent Programme (PDTP) showcases skills to President Uhuru Kenyatta during the signing of the National Digital Masterplan at State House, Nairobi.

 

“We judge our presidents by what they get accomplished,” said Jim Baker, former White House Chief of Staff, Foreign Secretary and Secretary of Finance.

President Ronald Reagan used to say, Mr Baker adds: “Jim, I would rather get 80 per cent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.”

President Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War is encapsulated in his June 1987 speech across the Berlin Wall. “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” is his famous quote from that speech.

How could we define President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kenya?

No question about it, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s weak point is the economy. Under his watch, there is a broad consensus that the economy has woefully underperformed. Despite numerous low points, his predecessor President Mwai Kibaki’s sunnier side was an impressive economic miracle that followed soon after the miserable days of Kanu in 2002.

In 2003, the economy expanded from -2 to 3 per cent, a record of sorts. In 2013, the economy remained stagnant despite the bonus that comes from a transition.

Official government figures indicate that the economy has grown. But not big enough growth to create more jobs and absorb the legions of jobless Kenyans, or to be felt. Why?

The answer is that since President Kenyatta overpromised, there was always the risk of not delivering.

Mr Kenyatta exuded a sense of purpose and a burning desire to make a difference. So why does it seem that he made so little of so much? We will start with the positives and then the negatives.

There have been enduring achievements in the last 10 years; 11,000 kilometres of road network built, 600 kilometres of rail network, airports and ports including Lamu and Kisumu, the regeneration of the Mombasa Port, plus eight million connected to the national grid are significant milestones.

Sweeping reforms

President Kenyatta has steered Kenya through difficult years. He leaves the country better than he found it in many respects. He midwifed the rollout of devolution–what is considered the jewel of the 2010 Constitution. Moreover, sweeping reforms in education like adopting the Competency-Based Curriculum and healthcare (though threadbare) surely stand out. And the proliferation of technical and vocational education and training colleges is commendable.

The roll out of robust investments in ICT have transformed Kenya into the cyber hub of the region and the continent. Internet across Kenya is faster and cheaper than in some of the advanced capitals of the world.

Kenya ranks high in the indices of the ease of doing business. Nowadays, it is quite easy to do things as long as you have a phone. Today, you can renew your driver’s licence, or renew a business permit anywhere at a minimum cost (Sh50). The concept of e-government has made life so easy for so many.

Previously, one had to grease someone’s palm to access these services. Not any longer.

Huduma Centres have revolutionised service delivery. The one-stop centres are the symbols of decentralised service delivery–accessible, efficient, prompt and cheap. The typical government office would be empty, or cluttered, dirty, noisy and darkly manned by half-willing personnel.

In contrast, at Huduma Centres, the amiable officials spring up ready to help. The service bests what you receive in some corporates. 

When he took over office in 2013, President Kenyatta sought to redefine Kenya’s place in the region and in the world. For far too long, Kenya had punched below its weight despite being one of the continent’s foremost countries.

President Kenyatta has projected Kenya as a country that is ready to do business with the world. The Uhuru doctrine of restoring pride in Kenya could explain his decision to pivot Kenya as a country of consequence in the region. He reinforced existing and established new alliances across the region. That has made it easy to deal with such issues as security, immigration, trade and climate change–through the continental trade pact–the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the East Africa Community.

His administration did not deviate from the liberal market economies and for that reason, many investors find Kenya attractive to put their money in. Foreign Direct Investment reached $1.4 billion (Sh166 billion) in 2017 before dropping by half last year perhaps due to the Covid pandemic and a shrinking world economy.

Though inflation has remained low and the monetary policy the same, economic consolidation and recovery has largely remained slow and static, never enough to cause significant impact on the bottom millions. The reforms in the education sector are some of the boldest, especially doing away with the much discredited 40-year-old 8-4-4 curriculum just like his administration’s unprecedented decision to ban plastic to keep the environment clean. 

Twice he addressed the G-7 summit–a club of the world’s seven most industrialised countries– making him the only Kenyan leader to do so and one of the only few from the continent to hobnob with the who-is-who in the world stage.

Though he has demonstrated that he has a spine to tackle corruption, bad governance, corruption and wastage remain a drag on the growth agenda.

“Corruption robs us of our security, our prosperity and health. Corruption turns us against one another, it robs us of hope, it kills,” said President Kenyatta in 2015. Why the deep sense of lack of accomplishment, you may ask? That some things didn’t work is not unique or peculiar to the Jubilee administration. Plans go wrong, timelines are breached and promises are broken all the time. But why the tendency to see the glass as half empty?

Quick fixes

Dwight Eisenhower (the 34th US President from 1953-61) became president as the US fell under the grip of the 1953 recession.

Delivering one of his remarkable speeches at the time, he warned America against belief in quick fixes. “Americans,” he said “should never believe that some spectacular and overtly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”

It seemed President Kenyatta’s administration fell for a “belief in quick fixes”.

A lot of the social and infrastructural projects that have taken off the ground have had great impact on the country, albeit at exorbitant cost thanks to tenderpreneurs. Many others haven’t because the political fulcrum and social capital (acceptance, feasibility) on which these critical programmes would be hinged on was lacking.

The construction of Green Park Terminal best exemplifies this. Touted as a solution to the perennial gridlock in the CBD, the bus station illustrates the folly of doing projects on quick impulse rather than careful consideration through a needs’ assessment and feasibility studies.

It has been tested and tested, but not commissioned for the last one year. Evidence that it suffers from design faults that the sponsors of the project seemed to have overlooked; the main one being that public transport is private and therefore the model of dropping and picking on the move (as happens in most world cities) would flop. Here each shilling must be accounted for as the matatu operators maximise on profits. That will explain the perpetual gridlock.

An unaffordable, misdirected public spending coupled with unsound policymaking bloated the budget and thereby stoked inflation.

Rising inflation, falling incomes, unemployment, and unpredictable weather need good political capital to resolve. Without which many are doomed to a life of penury as they sink into informal work or move back to tilling the land for subsistence farming.

It is not that his administration lacked the cash to spend on socially transforming projects– roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, railway, name them. The banks (mostly Chinese) were there to provide for the shortfall in the budget.

But it is that the cash was squandered, stolen or misused on projects that are yet to break even. Projects that were meant to provide the bulwark against food insecurity like the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme in Tana River/Kilifi counties now lie in ruins because the funds were stolen and thus unaccounted for. Because of a borrowing binge, the country is highly indebted (Sh8 trillion debt) and the strain of that on budget spending and priority is beginning to show. Government expenditure as a share of output has risen since 2015, best exemplified by the debt-to-GDP ratio.

In 2013, President Kenyatta was flush with political capital. Did he squander all that? Did he fall under the spell of the hardliners in his administration? Did he ignore the silent rule that “the higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits.”

To observers (and his detractors and loyalists) he stood back and let others run the show. It was as if he was content to be there occupying the high office.

He failed (or did not attempt) to cure the politics and eliminate the stakes that come with the winner-take-all model. Our politics is still the Darwinian struggle of the fittest. More poignantly, he left Mt Kenya region groping in the dark without a heir apparent. The solid Mt Kenya vote (four million) that he inherited from President Kibaki is adrift, unsure of itself.

President Kenyatta tried so much to go against convention and failed. In a properly working democracy (with checks and balance), the balance of power between the branches often shift away from the Executive. In fact, in President Kenyatta’s presidency and especially in the handshake era, we saw the return of the Big Man syndrome–the leader couldn’t do wrong. And when they did, there were ways to rationalise it often, as part of his role as the Lion King.

The fault in BBI was that it did not transport our thoughts and imaginations beyond President Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and William Ruto, or the feeling that it was nothing more than an act of self-preservation.

It did not address the ogre; how to minimise violent electoral constestations and thereby mute the unhelpful notion that to be in government offers one an advantage; that it is their turn to eat.

Ultimately, the question is has President Kenyatta left behind strong institutions? Institutions that can ‘bend without breaking’ under political pressure no matter who becomes president after him.

If nothing, those will strengthen our democracy and improve the government’s ability to get things done and reverse the bad policies of his administration.

After co-opting the hapless, acquiescent Legislature in 2013, the Jubilee administration rode roughshod and sought to delegitimise other institutions.

The Government Advertising Agency–set up while Fred Matiang’i was at the ICT Ministry–has done more harm to the media than even the infamous Standard raid of 2006.

The wanton disobedience of court orders bespeaks another sad story.

In most of his presidency, we saw attempts to take and store power in the Executive. That caused not only unnecessary friction, it also caused needless embarrassment from countless climb-downs.

Big Man syndrome

When the political independence that covers civil servants is undermined, it becomes hard for them to offer sound advice and, most importantly, say; “No sir, I am sorry, but I won’t do this” as happened in the controversy over the Kenyatta University land recently and the numerous poor policy formulation and project execution. Worse still, the Big Man syndrome made our governance worse, not better, because these constraints undermine governance.

This was a classic case of the Uhuru years.

Though Kenya rests on solid economic and social foundations, its politics remains toxic–a winner-takes-it-all endeavour leaves our democracy shaky, worse off and fragmented as ever.

The stalemate that was struck with the March 2018 handshake has not diluted the premium attached to the ultimate prize and, consequently, did not stabilise the politics. The grouse was that the handshake was more of transactional deal-making than a quest to stop violence from defining all our electoral contests.

For good measure, the dividend expected from his rapprochement with his fiercest political rival, Raila Odinga, has enabled him push ahead with some of the development agenda. Though it was meant to foster peace and unity for the common good, the rancorous acrimony it has generated speaks of a different story.

MPs capitulated to President Kenyatta’s and Raila Odinga’s entreaties to vote for the 2018 Finance Bill memorandum. The reintroduction of value added tax on fuel dealt a significant blow to the efforts to turn around the economy because of its ripple effect on the cost of essential commodities.

The war on corruption turned out to be as half-hearted and fickle; a case of fighting shadows just as it was before. It was widely considered that the handshake gave his chums the cover to steal and loot. Five years later, the prosecutor and the investigator don’t see eye to eye thus undermining efforts to uproot the menace. The estrangement of the two parties that came together to form Jubilee makes a grim epilogue of a union that some said was made in Heaven.

In the second term, so much time was spent shadow-boxing and so little on governing.

And casting off his deputy could be Mr Kenyatta’s abiding legacy than anything else.

The abiding memory of President Kenyatta is how he threw his deputy under the bus. This left allies in great anguish and foes in much glee. The initial, illusory sense of unity, invincibility and nation building faded as the first term wound down.

There seems to have been mutual suspicion in the Jubilee ranks that soon spread the toxic poison to the whole bureaucracy.

Many feel that the mission to fix Kenya was abandoned, buried under the morass of bloody infighting.

The public has been struck down by fatigue that comes from such constant sniping. It has sapped the energy to work and offered needless distraction from what they ought to be doing.

The resultant mess was that the mandate was squandered and with it public cynicism grew.

President Kenyatta failed to impress on such mundane but critical issues that governments get elected to fix like social justice, structural reforms, the restoration of the economy to sustain job-creation. Alas, that hasn’t happened quite as planned.

Was there a better way to handle this?

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered some wisdom from his experience with a troublesome deputy Gordon Brown. In his biography, A Journey, he writes with great candour about his frosty relationship with Mr Brown.

“When Prime Minister and in the darker days when I was under fairly much routine attack by Gordon’s people, my close supporters would sometimes complain that his supporters were disloyal. I would always respond that they were perfectly entitled to challenge me; to put forward an alternative and to say I should go. What they shouldn’t do is undermine me.”

He wasn’t an exceptionally gifted politician and certainly, not the most natural persuader. The country must digest a catalogue of failures from the Uhuru presidency; the most profound being how he tried (and failed) to change the Constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative.

The Judiciary dealt it a blow in a series of mishaps (from High Court, Appeal and Supreme Court). It is these mishaps that define the Uhuru presidency more than anything else.

In making his case to change the Constitution, the country encountered a philosophical President Kenyatta.

“Our Founding Fathers cautioned us that,” he said in his 2020 Jamhuri Day address “what was put on paper was the letter of the Constitution. It must never become more important than the spirit behind the Constitution ... the spirit of the Constitution was justice ... and justice was also the Spirit of God.

“When the spirit of justice behind our Constitution disagrees with the letter used to write it, the letter must be changed.

“If we become prisoners to the unbending and time-bound letter of the Constitution, we will invite discord and chaos in the midst of our nation ... Kenyans are not made to serve the Constitution; the Constitution is made to serve Kenyans.”

President Kenyatta added in his 2021 New Year address: “You all know that in a constitutional moment, the soul of the nation is constantly in turmoil over elections and the perpetual quest for regime change.”

History might be a lot kinder to President Kenyatta than the image Kenyans have of him. Mr Kenyatta didn’t lack the wider horizon. He did so much that when considered fairly, smacked of a progressive mindset at work.

Whatever he decides after this week, President Kenyatta (and all of us) had better take to heart the message in this anonymous writing:

“Take a bucket, fill it with water, put your hand in–clear up to the wrist. Now pull it out; the hole that remains is a measure of how much you will be missed.”

Mr Kipkemboi is the Partnerships and Special Projects Editor