“I bet you will be back soon, you like it so much here,” a Kenyan friend told me with a laugh when I left the country over 25 years ago. I had spent a year in the country as part of my diplomatic training. My friend was right in the end, even though I had to wait for 25 years.
I came back to Kenya in August as Ambassador of Switzerland. The world is a completely different place today and Kenya has changed a lot. Nairobi in the early nineties had a quite peaceful, almost rural feel. Today’s Nairobi is visibly a metropolis and the centre of a dynamic economic area that encompasses the entire region.
The impression of a strong structural renewal of the city was confirmed in the first days when I got to know the many new roads, bypasses and other infrastructure improvements that not only facilitate traffic in Nairobi, but also make our lives simpler. Of course M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based financial innovation contributed a lot to this impression.
Although Switzerland has for generations been recognised as a global financial centre, we, the Swiss can only dream of such a modern and practical payment system. Kenya is quite ahead of us in this respect.
However, another change, which I noticed seems more important to me. At the beginning of the 1990s, the economy did not make much progress. Moreover, international donors had stopped their payments because the government was not doing enough to combat corruption.
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How different Kenya is today! Economic development is one of the most dynamic in the world. Of course, Kenya is facing great challenges and has difficult years ahead, not least because of the current Covid-19 crisis, which the country has managed so far, much better than many others.
Civil society is strong and vocal, the press is outspoken, young Kenyans are well-educated and dynamic. A lot seems possible today that did not seem possible in the nineties. As a Swiss, I am particularly interested in devolution.
It has the potential to change Kenya fundamentally, to bring the State closer to its citizens and to foster greater and faster economic development. There was a lot of talk about Majimboism back in the 1990s, but there were neither clear plans nor concrete steps taken for its implementation.
As a Swiss, I was not really surprised at the difficulties of “federalising” a country, from above. For my country, one of the oldest federal states in the world, it was relatively easy because it was founded from the bottom up: First there were the cantons (like the Kenyan counties), then came the central state.
Mind you, our federal system of cantons only came about after decades of civil strife and contention. It is never easy to change a political system, even if people recognise that the system they have is not delivering on their expectations and there is broad support for change.
Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I learned about the successful implementation of the devolution provisions of the 2010 Constitution and the several successes of devolution.
In Switzerland, we learned to appreciate federalism anew in the course of the Covid-19 crisis. In the beginning, the national government reacted with a comprehensive package of measures that were enacted throughout Switzerland.
However, it soon became clear that the situation in international cities like Geneva and Zurich was not the same as in remote corners of the Alps.
The federal government, therefore, decided that some important decisions would be deferred to the cantons. After all, the cantons know the local situation and the needs of their citizens far better than a government in the distant capital. Not surprisingly, therefore, the transfer of powers from the federal level back to the cantons has not been disputed to date.
This example clearly shows the advantages of a federal system. I look forward to getting to know the Kenyan system of devolution better and to exchanging views with governors and other representatives of the counties. I am particularly eager to see what the Swiss can learn from the Kenyan experience. I am sure that there will be plenty of material for fruitful exchanges
A more immediate project, though, is to find my Kenyan friend and to tell him that I have come back. If I am lucky, he may read this article and get in touch with me. I can only hope that he will not hold it against me that it took me so long to return than he predicted at the time. I would tell him that I share his regret wholeheartedly.
Dr Zellweger is the Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya