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What did President Uhuru really say in his 8th State of the Nation address?

NATIONAL
By Patrick Muinde | December 3rd 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta during the State of the Nation address at Parliament, Nairobi. November 30, 2021. [David Njaaga, Standard]

In another life, time and place, I would have loved not to be the one writing this article today. But three things leave me with no option other than sharing a few thoughts on the 8th State of the Nation Address by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

One, the primary objective of this column was to translate economic, academic and developmental technical jargon into simple and palatable language that any ordinary citizen can understand.

Two, the historical significance of the address is too great to ignore as a self-confessed patriotic citizen. Finally, I have a civic and moral obligation as an expert in the field to synthesize both the letter and the spirit of the address to advance the developmental trajectory of the nation.

Years ago, as a young student at the University of Nairobi, a certain preacher-cum-community development expert said something that was permanent inscribed into my soul and being.

She said that if we cannot translate our degrees into a language that our grandmas in the village can understand, then we shall be functionally illiterate. It was the same spirit implied by the vice-chancellor, Prof Gichaga, in his orientation speech in my first year. He said the academic hood worn by professors is meant to receive donations from the community as a ‘thank you’ for solutions provided to societal problems.

It is in fulfillment of this eternal obligation that I seek to render an objective critique of the president’s assertions for the benefit of posterity. In truth, national building is a long and arduous journey. Those who have been called to serve, especially at the top echelons of power, shoulder the burden of explaining to us what they have done or not done to advance our socio-economic welfare. Equally, they must have the magnanimity to listen to our contra views and appreciate that we ask simply because we deeply care about this nation as our shared inheritance.

Dissecting the speech

In terms of politics and public relations, the president scored highly. His address skirts away from the real and perceived failures of his administration. If somebody had landed in the country for the first time minutes before the speech, they would have been persuaded the nation has made giant leaps into the future.

That said, it requires no special analytical talents to notice fundamental flaws in the structure, content and texture of his address for those who have been following or analysing his speeches. His handlers and/or speech writers must be among the laziest and undeserving of that honour. Delivered in almost two-and-a-half hours, a word count of the speech posted online shows it was 16,564 words long. That signals a lack of concise, tangible and believable evidence!

President Uhuru Kenyatta's address skirted away from the real and perceived failures of his administration. [PSCU]

If I am not wrong, the president quipped he was tired somewhere along the way. The natural question is: Had he been briefed of the contents of his speech or had he seen it in advance? While designed to be a score-card report submitted to MPs, it is reasonable to overlook the fact that it was a live broadcast to the nation. One then wonders who ought to be the target audience of such an address.

Depending on one’s interpretation, analysis of the quality and character of the speech could vary diametrically. But from where I sit, the intent and spirit of the Constitution is that the president speaks to the nation in the occasion of this presidential responsibility. The choice of Parliament as the venue for such an address is symbolic of the sovereign power of the people. Any good communication expert and political strategist should understand that.

A presidential address of such magnitude can never be confused with a budget speech. To the best of my knowledge, a state of the nation address must singularly focus on the outcomes and impact of his administrations’ policies and development agenda. At the same time, it must cast the vision he has for the nation and inspire the people to hope for this future he desires for us and future generations.

Equally, coming at the tail-end of his administration, a candid reflection on missed opportunities and policy gaffes are a welcome gesture of a truthful and authentic leadership on his part. This could have averted the criticism on social media. Assessed against these thresholds, the speech collapses as a chronology of a list of projects, activities and unverifiable outputs.

A keen observer wouldn’t notice any difference in Tuesday’s address and the Madaraka Day speech where he talked of the ‘big push’ projects. While some have lauded the involvement of data and statistics in the speech, this can only pass as purely political rhetoric that he is entitled to. For those of us who have been scouring through official statistics and reports, we know majority of the propositions are not matched by official evidence. At best, they represent unverified collation of data from individual state departments and agencies.

Devil in the unsaid

In geo-economic politics, long speeches and names for institutions or titles for policies simply mean we cannot avoid it, but we are not for or serious about it. In the maze of the many words, thousands of his audience and even analysts have missed the fact that the address mentions nothing on the economic realities of ordinary folks. For instance, has the doubled gross domestic product (GDP) translated into improvement of the economic and social welfare of households? Is the tripled GDP per capita felt in people’s pockets?

As I have advocated here, it is not possible to have balanced growth that does not trickle down to the household level. All of us are witnesses to the widespread beneficial impact of Kibaki’s economic recovery strategy for wealth and employment creation in 2003-2007.

President Uhuru Kenyatta hands three reports to National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi. [PSCU]

Second, while the administration’s performance score card boasts of doubling the GDP, it completely ignores to explain at what cost. As at June 2021, Central Bank data lists the public debt at Sh7.71 trillion compared to Sh1.79 trillion in March 2013. This implies the public debt grew by 4.3 times over the period reported. This excludes major infrastructural debt obligations held in the books of state corporations or obligations hidden under public-private partnership agreements.

The relevant question would be: has the nation’s net worth improved or declined? We have to subtract the debts to correctly answer that. Finally, while the speech flaunts the big push projects, it fails to speak on return on investments and value for money for taxpayers. For instance, the much glorified Standard Gauge Railway has not ‘broken even’ many years later. Recent reports have projected the operators of the line have billed taxpayers over Sh40 billion in working capital claims outside the initial debt obligations.

As expected, the speech fails to speak of the failed Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme, the laptop project, the fate of stadia and dams, the NYS I & II heists, the Managed Equipment Services scandal, Covid-millionaires, and the famine ravaging folks in over 10 counties. It fails to give hope to farmers or assure micro, small and medium enterprises of a better tomorrow through a post-Covid recovery boom. Or doesn’t a performance report card include both the good and the misses?

Finally, how did the non-existent constitutional moment christened BBI sneak into the speech? Again I ask, who is the target audience of such an address and do ordinary folk share the same sentiments with their president on that matter?

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