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How Mt Kenya MPs are both right and wrong

By Ken Opalo | January 30th 2021
President Uhuru Kenyatta interacts with Members of County Assemblies (MCA's) from Central Kenya region at Sagana State Lodge, Nyeri County. [PSCU]

President Uhuru Kenyatta is having major problems in his political “backyard.” On Thursday, legislators from the wider Mt Kenya region penned a letter in which they outlined grievances against the Jubilee administration. The most pressing of their grievances included concerns about the state of the economy, the public health crisis due to Covid-19, and the government’s apparent unwillingness to address these twin challenges with the seriousness they deserve.

The legislators are spot on. Their only mistake was to limit their grievances to one region. Throughout the country, businesses have closed due to unpaid bills by the government. Public services have ground to a halt because of mismanagement of cash flow by the Treasury. Poor services plague all critical sectors, including healthcare and education. And to add insult to injury, grand theft of public resources continues unabated. Kenyatta himself acknowledged that his administration loses Sh2 billion a day to corruption.

I applaud the legislators who signed the letter. I also urge them to take the next step and flex their institutional muscle as members of Parliament. A good place to start would be this year’s budget negotiations. The Treasury just published the Budget Policy Statement (BPS) for the fiscal year 2021/2022. According to the constitution and the Public Finance Management Act, the BPS has the power of a mere suggestion. Legislators can move funds around as they see fit. If they truly care about Kenyans, they should demonstrate their priorities through the Appropriation Bill. Parliament’s robust participation in the budget process has the promise of ensuring that public spending matches Kenyans’ real priorities. With that in mind, legislators should comb through the BPS and ensure money goes to public goods and services that meet Kenyans where they work and live.

How are we helping our farmers, from farm to storage to market? What are we doing about the livestock sector, which continues to be plagued by unimaginable violence in Kapedo and other areas? What are we doing about education, healthcare, water and sanitation, and housing (especially in urban areas)? How are we protecting small businesses?

And since the budget is where the grotesque stealing admitted to by Kenyatta begins, what can be done to limit wastage and theft?

In their letter, the legislators alleged during President Kibaki’s era they had contacts within the government through whom they would informally access the president for direct favours. This is the wrong way to approach the serious business of government, and is at the core of the persistence of ethnic favouritism in provision of public goods and services across Kenya. The obverse of their claim is that people in Taita Taveta or Mandera that lacked similar access remained neglected.

We need national thinking. And the budget process is a perfect opportunity for our representatives to engage in the business of government with a national outlook.

And after that, they need to follow up with specific officials in charge of specific departments and projects across the country. Legislators from Mt Kenya region should not forget that part of the reason why the Jubilee administration failed them and their constituents is that they bought into the folly of “mtu wetu” politics and ceded a lot of power to Kenyatta. It is time to take that power back, and help Parliament realise its full institutional potential.

Talk is cheap. If our legislators truly care about the plight of their voters, they should show that with their actions, not just with words. Otherwise, Kenyans may be persuaded to think that they are mere “hecklers” for hire in the service of the leading ethnic chiefs that dominate our politics.

-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University

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