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Kenya is part of everyone’s long economic game

By XN Iraki | Feb 3rd 2019 | 7 min read
By XN Iraki | February 3rd 2019
Great Wall of China.

The designers of the Kenyan nation must have been genius. If you look at the borders, they are not really random. The crafters in their wisdom ensured that different tribes were divided between two or more countries.

Think of the Maasai, Oromo, Somali, Kuria and many others. Could that have been part of the long game to ensure that future governments would be kept busy? Homogeneity was dispensed with. Quite curious, considering that populations of most European countries are very homogeneous.

It gets more interesting. Why did Britons import Indians to build the railway line? Why didn’t they build it themselves? Was there full employment in Britain then? Were Indians more physically stronger than Britons to lift the heavy rail pieces? Was that part of the long game so that after independence, Indians would serve as a buffer to the westerners?

You wonder why Africa was colonised so late, yet it’s potential had been known since Roman times. Africa is nearer to Europe than, say, Australia or Canada. While other regions like South America and Australia were colonised to the extent of changing the genetic structure, Africa remained the same despite colonialism. Except in South Africa, genetic mixture was left intact even in places like Angola where Portuguese remained for about 500 years.

Even in South Africa, “colouring” the nation had to be outsourced. And why is oil being discovered so late in some African countries, just when electric cars are taking over the market? Can you see the long game?

The older I grow the more patterns I see in the economic history of our nation; the more patterns I see in what appears random. Why did Britons with all their superior weapons take seven years to subdue the Mau Mau? How could a nation that had won World War II only seven years earlier find it hard to fight Africans armed with only determination? Was it our home advantage?  Was it national exhaustion in UK?

Was it part of the long game, to give Britons time to plan for the aftermath of independence? Remember British colonialism in Kenya was  one of the shortest - only 68 years compared with India’s 300 years. That is probably why there was little racial mixing, though I know one Boer who married two Kikuyu women near Nyahururu. Interesting that racial mixing is now taking place with browning of our nation; I am told it is now a status symbol.

Can you see the long game? Once Mau Mau had ran its course the Britons, in a single day’s ceremony, gave Kenya and many other former colonies political power. Ever wondered why the independence negotiations were in Lancaster, UK? Why not here at home? Why are dowry negotiations held at a potential wife’s home?

Political power seems to have been part of the short game, economic power was the long game. Britons prepared well on their future roles in former colonies’ economies. Their economic long game was just but a stroke of genius starting with financial systems. Its success is easy to explain. For 68 years, Britons and Boers, to a lesser extent, played the economic game which was easy to carry on after independence.

How do you reconcile the political bitterness during the Mau Mau and the colonial period and our humble acceptance of foreign aid and sending our children to study in UK after independence and even today? How did we end up believing that a mzungu is more reliable, less corrupt and more likely to help? Check how beggars follow cars driven by a mzungu. They will follow a mzungu driving a Vitz and leave an African driving a V8.

How did the British leave a lasting influence on us despite having the shortest encounter with us? How did we fail to get influenced by Eastern religions and cultures despite our encounter with them much earlier than Christianity and British culture? How many Kenyans have ever been converted to Hinduism or  Shintoism?

The Arabs and Chinese came before Britons to Kenya, for Arabs about 1000 years earlier. The Chinese and Portuguese about 500 years earlier. Yet, their cultural effect was minimal. Portuguese were Christians but they converted few if any for their 200 years along the East Coast.

Achieved much

Though we all look at colonialism with disdain, it was amazingly successful; an economist would say ‘efficient’. It achieved so much within a short term and its effects will outlive us. We still love to be called John instead of Kamau, Pamela instead of Anyango or Truphosa instead of Kemunto.

Beyond our names, we love the West as our benchmark on social and economic progress. Your table manners are judged against those of the West, including using cutlery from “outside” in high end hotels. It is not judged against chopsticks despite our long encounter with the East. In academia, we must quote Western scholars including the dead ones to prove we are learned. Despite the rise of China, we rarely quote Chinese scholars unless they live in the West.

In economics, the western model - read capitalism - is the benchmark. While traditionally we were our brother’s keeper, we now prefer the model that leaves everyone for himself. The truth is however that we have never understood the western model. In the west, even the poorest is taken care of. You can’t go hungry or live in the open.

They have developed well structured social welfare systems including subsidised housing and food stamps. They have given capitalism the human face. We swallowed the capitalism as we wanted, to serve a few, more like feudalism or our traditional societies with kings and queens.

It’s on the economic front where the long game worked perfectly. Using soft power such as media, movies and just word of mouth from those who had travelled abroad, we came to believe that goods, services and ideas from the West are superior. We now prefer imported goods and services including medical. The availability of Internet has made us more deeply hooked to Western ideas.

The long game has ensured that we are only concerned with soft issues like  music, attire and outward form of technology. Our students in high school can recite music by Western music stars but fail poetry in exams. We love the latest phones and cars but are least interested in how they are made. The rich and affluent or leisured class use them as status symbols, not means to make our lives easier.

To ensure that the long game works, the designers have focused on soft issues, they know we love them. How many NGOs are focused on human rights, gender violence, democracy, governance, FGM and other highly emotional issues ? Why has innovation espoused by a low number of patents never aroused such emotions in Kenya and Africa in general? Why has the low number of students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics never annoyed us?  Yet most long games are based on science and technology.

While tied to emotions catalysed by politics, the economic long game goes on. American fast food brands like KFC, Burger King, Subway and hotel chains including Sheraton and Crowne Plaza invested in Kenya as Nasa and Jubilee were fighting. We can always keep blaming corruption for our failures but graft itself is a short game. The long game is investment and wealth creation.

What’s the end of the long game? I think it has no end, it keeps adjusting to suit the faceless designers. The rest of us are cheerleaders. A few countries have disrupted the long game and started their own game. The Japanese and South Koreans did that, riding on technology and less on culture or religion. How many Kenyans can name Japanese or South Korean religions?

China was quick to follow their example. When the Cold War came to an end in early 1990s, China decided to play the long game.

Other countries played the short game and paid the price. By the end of the Cold war, China had already mastered the basics of capitalism after opening up to the West in 1978. Other former communist countries were starting from zero. China had first-mover advantage.

Chinese culture

Interestingly, the current Chinese model mimics the Western long game with an injection of Chinese culture through Confucius Institutes akin to Christianity.

In Africa, we are forever playing the short game, living for today, waiting for things to change without ever contributing to that change. A good example: to most of us, SGR takes us to Mombasa in four hours. To the Chinese, it’s part of the long game, One Belt One Road initiative.

Interestingly, we have moved from one long game to another. After the Western long game, we have become part of Eastern - Chinese - long game. We are now in the middle of pincers squeezed between the two long games.

What is the exit strategy? We discuss that next week.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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