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Kenya must think into the future to win the long game

By XN Iraki | Feb 17th 2019 | 6 min read
By XN Iraki | February 17th 2019
The statue of Otto von Bismarck in Hamburg, Germany. Long game players have national cultures and leverage on science and technology. (Xn Iraki)

We continue from last week our discussion on some escape strategies from the grips of the long game. We stopped at number five.

Six.  We can’t play the long game without science and technology. Long economic game demands that you control information and means of production. Why does America control export of some products? Technology and science create barriers to entry and allow you to make your money and lots of it. A Boeing 777-9 goes for 425 million US dollars. That is 42.5 billion Kenya shillings.

Car makers outsource other parts except transmission (gearbox) and engines to keep technology to themselves. We can’t play the long game through growing potatoes and bringing tourists to see our Big 5. We can design new cars or planes, but the Big 5 remains the same even if you factor in evolution.

Why do you think Donald Trump is advocating for more manufacturing in the US? Why did China focus on manufacturing? The dominance of South Africa is based on manufacturing. Our Big 4 has manufacturing which should go beyond assembly into steel making and then move up the supply chain to design. 

Seven. We can’t play the long game without investing in intelligence. Have you ever visited the website of America’s CIA? How can you play the long game without knowing what happens beyond the borders - how others perceive us, our weak points and their next game?  Our global focus is narrow. Others knows a lot about us, we know little about them. What do we really know about China or USA beyond what’s reported in the media?

While intelligence is never public, I doubt if we have enough about other nations including our neighbours. If I want to start a business, say in Mauritania, who can give me intel on that country? Long gamers have invested in intelligence gathering. How much of resources in NSIS goes to gathering business and economic intelligence beyond terrorism and crime? 

Eight. We can’t play the long game without leadership. No country has ever grown to global leadership without determined leaders, from Julius Caesar for the Roman Empire to Deng Xiaoping in China, George Washington in USA or Queen Victoria.

Such leaders inspired their country to greatness and are immortalised on national currencies. We prefer to put lions, buffaloes and giraffes on our currency notes. What did these animals do so great to deserve such honour? I would rather put the mosquito, it kept colonisers at bay for so long.

Nine. Long game means we must think inter-generational. Why do children escort players to the field in the English Premier League? It is often the children who reap the benefits of the long game. The starters of the game might even be dead when the fruits flower. Focus on the next generation is the easiest way to play the long game. They are open minded and have time on their side. But do we really see our children as the purveyors of the long game? Why are universities better built than primary schools? Should it not be the other way round? 

Children go with strong families, the purveyors of the long game. Economics is about people, their consumption and investment, never about money! The rise of the US and China has a lot to do with strong families. Despite high levels of divorce, Americans take families seriously. With strong families you can explore the world, you have a home to return to.

Incidentally the stagnation of the black community in America’s Deep South has a lot to do with dysfunctional families, with over 75 per cent of the children born to unmarried mothers. Yet the family in Kenya is under siege; the latest volley is having women inherit land from their parents. The economically vibrant central Kenya will lose its competitiveness through the disintegration of the family espoused by children taking their mothers’ name as surname. It does not matter if the region has given us three presidents.

Ten. We can’t play the long game without deconstructing the class system. We must build a meritocracy and allow mobility within classes and across generations. Class systems protect mediocrity and kill innovation. The openness of the American system has made her a long game player.Immigrants increase diversity and spur innovation. Think of how Obama became the president. Can we allow that in Kenya?

Water tight classes benefit a few but in the long run, the whole country loses. Remember the golden past when barefooted village boys reported to national schools with shoes in their box because the instructions were “bring a pair of black shoes.” Such boys are now the captains of industry. My hunch tells me we now love exclusion from birth to death. From members-only club to exclusive schools, classes rarely leak nowadays.

Even China, despite her communist system, allows diversity in leadership and has a muted class system. Recently it introduced something close to the American green card. Curiously, I feel more at home in China than the West on my recent visits there. 

Eleven. Long game should be anchored on traditions which give you a sense of belonging and purposefulness. Have you noted how the economically successful Indians keep their traditions including temples wherever they go? Chinese carry dragons and respect for families along while Americans carry their Protestant work ethic and pragmatism with them. Such traditions act like anchors in the turbulent social economic world. The traditions are dynamic, absorbing new ideas such as Internet or Facebook.

We think abandoning traditions is a sign of modernism. Instead we create culture vacuums that have left the younger generation adrift, weak players in the long game. 

Twelve. Long gamers have superordinate goals that are constantly renewed. Such goals inspire the nation. America had landing on the moon or the big society focused on eradicating poverty. China had the goal of becoming an economic power and has also taken into space, landing on the the moon. Long games plot beyond the budget cycle. How will the world be by 2050? Such goals should not be tied to individuals but across generations.  Kenya’s economy enjoyed its golden age when we got such superordinate goals espoused by Vision 2030. What is coming after Big 4? 

Thirteen. We must learn how to deal with competitors in the long game. Either by cooperating through negotiations or head on. Rarely shall you be the only long gamer. Failure to deal with competitors in the past lead to wars and more lately trade war. That is why China and US are talking about tariffs. Long gamers also learn to deal with contingencies like weather and unpredictable world like the rise of Islamic fundamentalists from Al Qaeda to ISIS and end of the Cold War. Have you noted how big firms buy small ones that might one day threaten their dominance? Who owns YouTube, Whatsapp or Red hut?

Fourteen. Instead of being pawns in the east-west long game, we can play our own long game starting with strong families, strong communities, and synergies within counties then reaching out to our neighbours and expanding to the rest of Africa. That was the dream of pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. Starting our own long game has one big advantage; we can control it.  

But we prefer playing the short game fighting each other within families, communities and countries.  Why do families fight over inheritance instead of building the wealth for posterity, playing the long game? How comes Kenyans find themselves more at home in USA than Tanzania across the borders? Ever heard of a Kenyan who disappeared in TZ the way they disappear in UK or USA? Why is there fighting in South Sudan and Somalia which has one tribe? 

Fifteen. To escape the grips of the two games, we need to transform our institutions and our thinking just like other countries from South Korea to Singapore who now play their own economic long game. Brands like Samsung, Hyundai, LG and Kia are now common in Kenya. Should we come up with our own version of capitalism, the way China fused communism with market economy? Can we fuse our African socialism with western capitalism?

Finally, by accepting our own mortality, we see the urgency of playing the long game which will advantage the next generation, long after our feeble bodies have crumbled into dust. If Kenyans come to terms with the simple fact that one day we shall leave this planet to others, we might be more willing to play the long game.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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