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Pandemic gloom and the trouble with Kenya

By Leonard Khafafa | September 30th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Kenyans sanitise using Atomizer hand sanitizer spray to help fight coronavirus. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

A summary of Chinua Achebe’s ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ says: “The eminent African novelist and critic, here addresses Nigeria’s problems, aiming to challenge the resignation of Nigerians and inspire them to reject old habits which inhibit Nigeria from becoming a modern and attractive country”. This summary might as well have been about the trouble with Kenya!

As in Achebe’s Nigeria, the hallmarks of detrimental practices present themselves in Kenya today; nepotism, cronyism, capitalism, negative ethnicity and other forms of corruption continue to define the business and political landscape. Where Kenya has one up over Nigeria is in the fact that it excels in great soundbites without any corresponding action. In other words, its leaders are big on talk but abysmally slow on delivery.

Take for instance the recently refurbished Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi. The Jubilee administration promised world-class stadia across the country so as to put Kenya on the global sporting map. What was seen at the reopening of the stadium was overly underwhelming. The tartan track has not been re-laid afresh. The swimming pool, basketball gymnasium, handball and volleyball training courts are unfinished. The promised canopy around the stadium to shelter fans does not appear to be in the works any time soon. In short, this national asset could pass for a provincial facility in a backwater town anywhere else in the world!

Perhaps there is a disconnect between policy framers and reality on the ground. The Jubilee administration’s policies were touted to spur growth through lavish spending on big-ticket infrastructural projects. They were meant to create half a million jobs annually and improve the quality of life for all. The government has not met its own ambitious target to provide universal health coverage for all or food or even piped water for that matter. And the depredations of coronavirus have only served to expose the country’s soft underbelly where the rich, like those who have looted Kemsa, get richer from proceeds of graft while the poor are worse off than they ever were. These are the questions that ordinary citizens ask of policy framers: How does the 1 per cent turn-over tax help traders whose businesses have collapsed on account of Covid-19 lockdowns?

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How do traders from Gikomba market access credit from financial institutions to restock their supplies of mitumba when the six-month ban on their importation has wiped out whatever collateral they had? Why does the political class pretend to empathise with jua kali artisans when year after year, these artisans produce their wares using anachronistic tools and methods? They have never been helped to grow organically so that in the place of chisels and crude hammers, they have modern workshops and tools to produce goods that meet international standards.

And yet there is the vastly different reality of a class that has not suffered any hardship these past six months. This is the class that bought more luxury cars from the country’s leading dealerships than over the same period last year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Covid-19 created time for the nouveau riche to go through the arduous motions of choosing a favourite car colour! It would appear that this narrow band of a select few stands to benefit more from the raft of coronavirus mitigating policy measures than the majority.

Pundits have issued grim warnings to the effect that the scale of government borrowing, and the graft that attends to this, has brought the country perilously close to debt distress. It is now clear that the Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding the country with no end in sight. It is obvious that the Kenya Power Company is making losses on the backbone of a disastrous electrification policy. The health sector is in the thrall of ruthless cartels who have supplied equipment worth billions of shillings at grossly inflated prices. Meanwhile, jobs are falling away. Kenya Bureau of Statistics says 1.7 million jobs have been lost in the past six months. The Federation of Kenya Employers says many listed companies have retrenchment programmes planned for the next six months.

The president is sanguine about the prospects of the country even as he eases restrictions. He is upbeat about the measures put in place to jumpstart an economy that was listless even before Covid-19. But is his optimism supported by fundamentals or, typical of the trouble with Kenya, is this just another clever spin to tide the country along until the problem somehow resolves itself?

- Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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