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Amending constitution won't end our problems

By Leonard Khafafa | September 4th 2019
Former President Mwai Kibaki during the promulgation of the new constitution. [File, Standard]

That ordinary Kenyans are experiencing financial straits cannot be gainsaid. Anecdotal evidence points to a constrained business environment that has seen many companies downsize or close altogether. This deplorable atmosphere threatens to upend Kenya’s status as the regional economic heavyweight.

No one wants to take responsibility and the buck is passed as excuses are sought to explain an economy that is foundering. From near double-digit growth, there has been a climb down in aspiration to a modest six per cent growth. Even then, the figures bandied by authorities do not reflect reality. There are few new jobs created. Inflation is high and retrenchments are now the order of the day. The local dailies are full of advertisements of loan defaulters’ properties up for auction.

The Constitution has been blamed for Kenya’s current circumstances. The country’s leadership suggests that amendments are the magic elixir that should cure all ills once for all. Changes to structures that would expand the Executive are being mulled. These are intended to create greater inclusion from the disparate strands of the ethnic fabric that comprise the nation. But will they be the silver bullet needed for double-digit growth?

History is replete with examples of countries that flourished, having overcome seemingly intractable challenges. A common denominator shows them to have been led by visionaries. Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso took over a country that was aid-dependent and transformed it into a self-food sufficient economy. He led by example, eschewing the trappings of power, riding a bicycle to work instead of ostentatious motorcades beloved by African presidents.

Paul Kagame of Rwanda took over a country ravaged by genocide and has presided over rapid growth. Rwanda is now the “go to” place, leading the region as a conference and tourism destination. According to Ernst & Young’s Africa Attractiveness report, Rwanda “ranks as one of Africa’s most business-friendly destinations receiving 1.5 Foreign Direct Investment projects for every $1 billion of Gross Domestic Product.”

But Kenya has not been without inspirational leadership. Many remember the early days of the Kibaki administration with fondness. At that time, straight from an election that was billed free, fair and credible, tolerance for corruption was low. Citizens routinely arrested and handed over to authorities those attempting to bribe police officers. Minister John Michuki’s reforms brought sanity to a chaotic public transport system. “Hurricane" Karisa Maitha single-handedly brought order to Nairobi’s notorious City Hall, sacking corrupt officers on the spot, much to the delight of citizens previously denied crucial services.

There are some observations that obtain from this discourse. The first is that no amount of constitutional amendment can make up for Executive incompetence. The examples of leaders mentioned here have thrived despite the constitutions they operated under and not because of them. The sheer force of their personalities and their commitment to their causes was enough to engender the requisite goodwill from citizens.

Second, a constitution is only as good as the willingness of those in leadership to uphold it. Kenya has recently been cited as one of those countries with disdain for the rule of law. The Jubilee administration has achieved notoriety in the willful disregard of court orders. An unseemly fight over the Division of Revenue Bill threatens to bring county governments to a halt, an affront to the constitution that provides for devolved governments.

Third, citizen goodwill can only accrue from an electoral process that is deemed free, fair and credible. Kenya’s past elections, save for 2002, have been seen as anything but that. Currently, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the body charged which managing elections in Kenya stands discredited. In fact, it is still yet to comply with a court order over the contentious presidential election of 2017.

The Jubilee administration has not been very effective in facilitating positive change. Corruption runs on unchecked even as the economy runs like a listing ship. Which is why it is impossible to stop succession politics; because all hope is lost, and everyone is already looking to the next government. But President Kenyatta can still ensure that the next election is a credible one. Instead of constitutional amendments which will only increase the number of greedy mouths at the feeding trough, he should consider UN supervised polls come 2022. Kenya needs help. Excuses of sovereignty don’t hold where even the articles of clothing worn are made by foreign firms and the nation’s official language is a borrowed one. But that is the president’s call. As former US president Harry Truman once said, the buck stops with him!


Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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