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Why the trouble with Kenya is not necessarily bad leadership


Kenyans are for argument’s sake, locked in an abusive marriage with their leaders. [Courtesy]

“If you elect corrupt people,” warned a top insurance executive recently, “you downgrade your net worth, the net of your country.” He deals in risk and should know better. As we gear up for elections, is the type of leaders a major consideration for most voters? Type of leader in this case means a leader whose singular mission is to transform people's lives.

The executive confessed his agony and heartbreak of having to turn away young, qualified people seeking jobs because he doesn’t “have the jobs to give them".

We all agree that bad leadership dooms the prospects of the country. It is the failure (mostly) by the masses to link cause-and-effect that is astonishing and which is the weak link in the equation. The lack of good sustainable jobs, good schools, good roads, good (staffed and equipped) hospitals is a pointer to a leadership that is incapable or has refused to respond to the needs of the people; or a people that refuse to demand better from their leadership.

And so, the trouble with Kenya is really not one of bad leadership, but rather the lack of accountability. Isn’t it futile to expect that a political class that has propped up a system that guarantees predictable outcomes and favours status quo would compromise and devise a better, responsive governance method?

So whereas politicians admit politics and electioneering have had adverse effects on the social fabric, they absolve themselves of blame and continue campaigning dangerously — and they gain from it.

Here is how that conundrum plays out; whereas you pay taxes, how it is used in never your business. Consider that government will run on a deficit for nearly a decade and no one dares to question the wisdom of carefree spending (using borrowed money) and the thinking underpinning the colossal policy failure.

Contrast that with what happens around the world. Tax and spend is the de rigueur of any sober economics. In more advanced democracies, the citizens see where their taxes go.

“The point of holding power is to get things done and accomplish things.” said James A who was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, and as Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under President George HW Bush.

Because the State is captured by a cabal, what ought to be done, doesn’t get done. It is a form of State capture where rather than complement public services, the private enterprise has supplanted government in the provision of public goods like health, housing, food, education, transport, water and sanitation and security.

Lower, middle class and working-class Kenyans spend on these essentials is disproportionately high compared to other countries. In Nairobi, transport, housing, water, food and healthcare costs take up a big proportion of their income. And because of these, the salaried and those in the MSMEs band lack the capacity to build up savings. That means comparatively, middle class Kenyans are disadvantaged compared to their peers elsewhere.

Kenyans are for argument’s sake, locked in an abusive marriage with their leaders. They are in an abusive embrace of giving in so much and getting a raw deal in return. Rather than ask where their taxes go, Kenyans have devised ways to compensate for failure by government to do its job.

Healthcare, for example, can be a source of anguish and heartbreak. In the unfortunate likelihood that an illness strikes, households are stripped of their savings and even life’s earnings. What took generations to make is wiped in weeks. Family and friends set up WhatsApp groups to raise money for relatives in hospitals because government has abdicated its role of underwriting healthcare costs.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in Why Nations Fail that “those who mounted the revolutions simply took over the reins from those they’d deposed and created a similar system.”

The two identified two systems of government; extractive and inclusive. The nature of things is such that all those from the inclusive almost always excel, while in the other, it is a case of survival for the fittest. Kenya leans mostly toward the second type.

Only sound leadership nudged on by a properly curious and conscious public can move the needle toward the former.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group

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