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It is possible to build a more equal society

By Mohamed Guleid | November 5th 2020
A roasted maize vendor in Nyeri town. She has to divide the maize into small pieces and sell at Sh5 and Sh10 for customers who cannot afford the whole cob. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

History is full of lessons for the contemporary world. The struggle between good and bad is as old as mankind. An American political joke goes: “The reason the Roman Prefect of Judea wanted to crucify Jesus is because the Messiah had advocated for end to corruption and wanted a smaller government and lower taxes.”

This joke has so much significance for us today as it does to the American electorate. Indeed, there is a correlation between social justice and ending corruption. The bigger a country is, the more the gap between the rich and poor, and the wider and heavier the toll of corruption on the people.

In high school history classes, we studied about Urukagina the king of the City States of Lagash and Girsu in ancient Mesopotamia. Those lessons made little sense to me – and perhaps to a lot of my compatriots – then. The debate on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report brought back memories from that classroom nearly four decades ago.

King Urukagina initiated one of the first social protection systems in the world for his people. But considering that he reigned about two millennia before Christ, he could be one of the earliest rulers to consider such a governance system. He edified codes that required the rich to mind the welfare of the poor. He exempted widows and orphans from paying taxes and compelled the state to cater for the funeral expenses of the poor.


The ideal leader?

The king was also known as a crusader against corruption. His subjects were among the happiest and the most industrious. They went out of the way to protect the kingdom because of what they got back from it. If Urukagina was alive today, he would be the ideal leader every society is yearning for.

I agree with those who feel that most of the BBI recommendations are nothing more than suggestions for political expediency. These recommendations have focused on administrative issues and those on social justice and job-creation are woolly, tried-and-tested strategies.

I second those who have been quick to dismiss the excitement over the 35 per cent devolved funds as no more than chaff thrown in the air to confuse the public. The rumblings across the country go like this; what use to have a prime minister and more MPs if I can’t put food on the table?

More and more Kenyans today worry about jobs and food, education, shelter and political representation than at any time ever. I am afraid the measures proposed in the BBI seem half-hearted and geared more to preserve the status quo than for addressing mwananchi’s pressing issues. BBI clouds over the issues and postpones the problems. Increasingly, the desire is for a country where the government protects the poor and ensures equity.


Nyerere's prophesy

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Tanzania’s leader Julius Nyerere – he of the Ujamaa Villages – caused an uproar when he referred to Kenya as a man-eat-man society. Years later, many believe that he had a point then. One need look no further than the widening class divide and the sense of uncare for country and man and how the State tries so much not to work for its citizens.

In a man-eat-man society, the end justifies the means.

There is no doubt Kenya has made significant progress in the last few years in terms of GDP growth and an increase in the number of people who joined the middle class. Judging from the types of cars plying our highways, the shopping malls, the roads and the number of modern housing projects, there is evidence that an increasing number of people are making some real wealth.

The sad truth though is that an overwhelming majority have fallen through the cracks into the pits of poverty – basically those described by the United Nations as living below the poverty line. Why is that?

Sometime back, I visited a village in Isiolo. The plight of the locals humbled me. I met people who had not had a meal for up to three days. Most of their children had dropped out of school and their medical needs are out-of-pocket expense. I was talking to about 100 people and many more were holed up in their dwellings in poverty and misery and destitution. This is the reality many Kenyans live though each day.

The crisis is not that they will go without a meal tonight; it is that many of them feel left out of the daily political conversation, least of all, BBI.


Mr Guleid is the CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council [email protected]

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