Why we need a social vision to guide our great country Kenya

Hassan Kulu a second hand shoes trader displays the shoes in Kisii town. [File, Standard]

When one thinks of “maandamano” next week, we imagine we have a political crisis. We do not. 

What we have is elite bargaining in a zero-sum game that is the outcome of our constitutional choice of a presidential system that we have not quite figured out how to make inclusive. Part of this means that we still think Parliament is designed to bend down to Executive will. The real issue is two-fold. Little respect for the separation of powers and the role of independent institutions.

There are easy manifestations of this problem. Take our post-election situation. Azimio had a National Assembly majority after we voted, then Kenya Kwanza shamelessly went hire-purchase on parties/MPs while shamefully writing to Parliament asking for an official opposition leader!

Look at a Judiciary that the Executive promises more money absent of the constitutional logic that the three arms of government are already the first horizontal sharing of resources. It’s not a favour, it’s a constitutional demand!  Look at independent institutions designed by our Constitution as the world-unique fourth arm of government scrambling around for cash in Treasury-enforced sector budget working groups full of paperwork, rather than being part of the first horizontal call on cash!

Look at the Treasury itself. Our US-style Constitution imagined a Treasury independent of our 48 governments. In other words, a Treasury that is not the same thing as the Ministry of Finance.

A Treasury that is not our “big brother” national government supervisor that starves county government. But, in Treasury minds, county governments are equal to MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies). Yet we live and work in counties not ministries!

Indeed, there was an early post-katiba moment, now discarded, when official Treasury circulars had created the pejorative term MCDAs to treat counties as equal to departments. If you don’t believe this, please take a look at the chart of accounts in our donor-supported Integrated Financial Management Information System (Ifmis). It was MCDAs, now it’s back to MDAs and counties.

By now we should be getting the point. We do not have a political crisis. We have a constitutional implementation crisis. Let’s not even get into why devolved agriculture in 47 counties gets a quarter of national budget allocation. Or why devolved health is just keeping up with national health. It is easy to get upset about our devolution-protecting Senate prostrating itself to Treasury demands. It is easier to wonder how we have a cash crisis and are still using our large motorcades and apparently re-equipping and refurnishing public offices, while doing multiple per-diem travel.

The truth is our poor politics and weak constitutional implementation are symptoms of a wider trauma – our society and our economy. And it’s a mindset thing. Since today is our day of prayer and reflection, let’s peek at society.  Today, on Labour Day, we shall look at our economy

What is the state of Kenyan society?  It’s a scramble – exacerbated by Covid-19 - to escape a Hobbesian life that is “harsh, brutish and short” to a life of materiality. This is not unusual. What’s troubling is the rewards society promises. Because this is Labour Day weekend, let’s look at pay.

Calculations from the 2022 Economic Survey tell us average monthly public sector pay is Sh68,632, against Sh69,102 in the private sector. The best average private sector pay (finance and insurance) is Sh173,505; less than the public sector peak (hotels/accommodation) at Sh206,375.

Let’s dive into public sector. Our national government monthly average pay is Sh61,933, but it’s higher in counties at Sh72,301. Our giant teacher cohort comes in Sh61,843 per month. A 100 per cent owned government institution averages Sh81,415, while a government controlled institution tops this up at Sh107,623. But that’s formal labour of three million people in a 2:1 ratio between private and public. There’s still 15 million others at work – hustlers, including the M in MSMEs – earning anything from Sh100 to Sh1,000 a day, translating to Sh3,000 to Sh30,000 a month.

And then there are the unemployed, which by personal observation from 30 million Kenyans in the 19-64 age group is 5-10 million. A big part of this is the betting crowd making serious money. 

Of course, we shouldn’t forget our self-serving legislators and executive chiefs on 10-plus multiples of average public sector pay, before multiple allowances and unconscionable per diems. When you hear the next minimum wage announcement on Monday, cry for Kenya, then laugh.

Why are earnings important? Because they connect human rights from food, education, health, shelter and community life to participation in public affairs in safe and secure spaces. Simply, income opportunities help us move forward, but they do not determine the state of our society.

What about wealth and properties dotting every part of this country? Well, look at every single news report of a public officer earning thousands and owning millions. From the reports, there’s an emerging formula for this: steal 100 times your monthly salary before you’re caught!

Indeed, opportunity is not our problem. If it was, we would not have all these religious cults promising heaven by all means. Our problem is we do not know who we are.

The macro view of this “unknowledge” is we are a country, not a nation, but we have a brutal state. 

Which is why I consistently argue for a societal vision for Kenya and Kenyans.  Katiba was supposed to sort out our politics. It hasn’t. Vision 2030? We’re not sure if the current regime believes in it. And we are too scared to do a mid-term review of where we are on progress.

Though I have no detail on what our societal vision looks like, here are some Sunday thoughts on its ingredients. Gandhi’s notes give us a baseline on seven ills humanity suffers. Wealth without work. That’s Kenya Inc defined. Pleasure without conscience. No satisfying words needed here. 

Knowledge without character. Think public sector appointments. Commerce without morality. We are there. Science without humanity. We’re not even in the science to start with. Religion without sacrifice. We have either over or under-thought what this means. Politics without principle. That’s our baseline behaviour. We are not a nation; we are a multi-ethnic state of eating.

Of course, we can also go to first century Pope Gregory’s seven sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. His proposed answers. Faith, hope and charity as spiritual virtues. Fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance as natural virtues. Society is designed around values but is expressed in virtues. Virtues are who we are, not what we want.

Katiba expressed our values in Article 10 in terribly complicated terms written by lawyers. But we haven’t thought enough about and embedded our virtues in the way great countries have.

This is not a formulaic process but when we step away from our interminable political cacophony and positional jousting and noisemaking, our Kenyan tragedy is we are thinking about 2027.

Yet the opportunity in the stop-start bipartisan discussions between Kenya Kwanza and Azimio is to get us to a “who are we”. I am embarrassed that US Ambassador Whitman always has better words than we have about us.

If there’s a national conversation we need – and there is - let’s get it going. It starts with understanding our virtues. Hopefully, it ends with a societal vision. I have written before about Kenya’s need for a “governance and rule of law” leader. This is the sort of leader who also understands the importance of inter-generational thinking, and our needs and wants therefrom.

This only happens with a leader who has a societal vision that speaks to our virtues. I am frustrated that we have not found a leader who knows how good we are, but the rest of the world does.

President Ruto occupies the current space to fix this. And he can enable a multi-stakeholder, probably church and civil society led forum that thinks about what Kenya means to us is important.

I have said this before. Dr Ruto has a game changing space to create a social vision that supports the economic, but effectively, social reform that underpins his agenda. Let’s debate who we are.