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No, the handshake and BBI will not fix Kenya

By Ken Opalo | October 12th 2019

Ghana’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah is credied to have said that all Africans needed was reach the political kingdom (independence), and then all else would follow (economic development and improved living conditions). Nkrumah was right, but only to a point.

It is true that, throughout Africa, life after independence was infinitely better than life under racist colonial domination. And to the extent that colonialists looked like they were running more efficient systems, it is because of the inherently autocratic nature of colonial administrations. Any idiot can look like a genius if all they had to do was milk the labor of millions for the benefit of less than 100,000 people. While European sections of places like Nairobi, Harare, or Lusaka looked prim and proper, Africans were forced to live in squalor in estates, compounds, and “native reserves”.

So why was Nkrumah only partially right? The answer is that he failed to recognise how much work needed to be done in terms of painstaking state-building in order to be able to achieve all that was promised to come after independence.

Colonialism scarcely created any functional states. Designed to provide public goods and services to Europeans and “administer” Africans, the “think white line” that constituted the colonial architecture of government was ill-suited for catering to the needs of Africans after independence.

Yet many African leaders, including our own Jomo Kenyatta, inherited the anti-African colonial state structures intact.

The failure to thoughtfully restructure colonial states after independence – and re-orient them away from autocratic administration and towards responsive service delivery – explains the last 60 years of African history.

This important lesson is germane to our current political reality. Since March 9, 2018, we have repeatedly been promised that the “handshake” and the resultant Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) will yield a set of political reforms that will fix our socio-economic problems once and for all.

The claim is that all we need is to fix our politics, and then other good things will follow – including social cohesion and economic prosperity.

But is that true? The simple answer is no. First of all, BBI is not about addressing the fundamental economic and social problems facing our people.

At its core, it is meant to yield an elite pact that will allow our self-appointed ethnic chiefs to share power and to further solidify their misrule of the country.

Second, the biggest problem with our politics is the complete inability of our political elites to adhere to the constitution. Rewriting the document will not change this fact.

Our leaders are not about to start respecting the stipulates of Chapter Six of the constitution due to BBI. Simply stated, we cannot legislate our way to good governance.

Our political elites must first be able to internalise what it is that they want for themselves and for Kenya, and to fully understand their place in history.

Anything short of this will leave us running around in circles as a country. That is, until or unless Kenyans rise up and reorganize the deck to infuse our political leadership with new blood and thinking. What can “average” Kenyans do under the circumstances?

The most important thing is for us all to learn the right lessons from the last decade: that Kenyans can successfully engage in self-government. The counties are showing, albeit in a meandering way, that Kenyans at the grassroots and capable of reasonably managing their own affairs. Tired of being administered, Kenyans are demanding for more service-oriented self-government.

It follows that Kenyans should reject any proposed constitutional amendments that seek to weaken devolution. In the same vein, Kenyans should jealously protect devolution.

They should demand for more funds to flow to the counties and for investments to strengthen our county bureaucracies. These are the important reforms we need and that will improve our people’s standard of living.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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