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President Uhuru’s view of country out of touch with the people's realities

NATIONAL
By Denis Kabaara | December 7th 2021

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

Article 132 of the Constitution requires the president to report annually, in an address to the nation, on measures taken and progress made in realising national values and principles, as well as fulfilling international obligations. 

Article 240 obliges the National Security Council to report annually to Parliament on the state of security “of Kenya”. The president chairs this council.

Combined, these provisions reflect the core content of the State of the Nation Address (SONA) expected of the president every year. But SONA is not simply a progress report; it is an accountability statement to the people of Kenya and their elected representatives.

It is a status assessment that is, by implication, far more about “who and where we are” than “what we did or have done”. In the context of Kenya’s presidential transition, it is effectively a baseline for 2022 and beyond that is anchored in the Constitution. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered his eighth SONA last week, affording citizens an opportunity to interrogate state of the nation one year ahead of his exit.

Section 27 of the Public Finance Management Act provides a further anchor for this transition. The National Treasury is required to publish pre and post-election economic and fiscal reports, respectively, not earlier than four months before and after the polling day for the General Election. 

While these reports focus on direct (IEBC) and indirect (eg security, telecommunications) election-related spending, they must be accompanied by signed statements confirming that all policy decisions or other circumstances with material economic or fiscal implications are reflected in the reports based on the best professional judgement and information available.

In the context of the forthcoming transition, the short interpretation here is that the law requires a proper “handover note” of the economy and the fiscus from one national leader to another.

According to the Treasury Budget timetable for 2022/23, the outgoing administration is expected to publish its pre-election report on March 31, 2022, the same day on which the 2022/23 budget will be appropriated, and the 2022 Finance Bill will be passed by Parliament.

The legal timelines further imply that the incoming political administration will pick up the pieces through the post-election report it publishes in December 2022 in the case of a single-round presidential election, or in early 2023 if a run-off vote is required.

Simply, Kenya’s next administration has economic and fiscal context from which to build. This context is particularly germane to the proper framing of the plethora of promises and whirlwind of wish-lists being bandied and candied to bulging public crowds who might not all turn up to actually vote.

The core argument made in the previous column was that the proper way to read President Kenyatta’s Tuesday address is not a binary “yes I liked it/no I did not like it” one, in terms of the totality of the speech or its individual components. 

Rather, the smart idea is to set it out as a baseline for 2022 and beyond. The proposed baseline is based on three inter-related notions – what Uhuru actually said, what he was expected to say and didn’t, and what the Constitution commands him to speak to. 

Trust, but verify

To begin with, here are three overarching points of principle. First, trust, but verify. Roads and railways actually built cannot be deleted, but records can. Secondly, establish a citizen-centric lens. What does the baseline really mean for the people? Third, confront hard truths. What looks good for the elite goose may not seem so nice, relevant or appropriate for the everyday gander. Choices always matter.

Infrastructure (roads, rail, ports, energy) and devolution were the signature achievements that SONA highlighted on the economic front. On infrastructure, it makes sense to establish, by whatever means, the actual inventory that will be the subject of handover, including operations and maintenance plans. Usage and traffic data might help; a road built whose key utility is drying maize is dead capital, to use SONA phraseology. The infrastructure baseline should provide a physical and spatial sense of these assets.

Devolution is a little more complex. The subliminal messaging from the national government since its onset has been mixed, as the Council of Governors will attest. There are four parts to this baseline. How have funds actually flowed? To what use have these funds been put? To what extent does this usage align with the national economic development agenda? How can national-county duplication be reduced?

Improvements in water, health, housing, food security and education were the key SONA highlights on the social front. The daily lived experiences of Kenyans suggest that there are “trust, but verify” questions to be addressed in establishing a true baseline. Apart from education, the other areas are also part of the devolution baseline. In one sense, therefore, these social sector efforts to improve the dignity of the people must be located in a national agenda that better and more proactively respects devolution.

SONA made a strong and powerful reference to the role that the military has played in executing civilian tasks.  Ethics, integrity, efficiency and value for money were cited as reasons for this usage preference. The obvious baseline question for 2022 and beyond is to what extent these working arrangements are, first, preferable, and second, sustainable as a long-term enterprise. Simply, what happens after 2022?

The less obvious, but probably more important, baseline question to ask is about the state of public and civil service that during the term of this regime has been shunted aside for external consultants and advisors, and failing that, in favour of soldiers. Without this baseline, there is no plausible agenda for a refreshed or renewed public service, even before one gets to the higher ambition of actual transformation.

Debt and corruption were the two significant areas that SONA glossed over. Debt is a worry because it clearly impinges on any sort of progressive agenda moving forward. Between operating and maintaining high-cost infrastructure, managing debt service and creating fiscal space for new initiatives, the next administration will likely find itself hamstrung in its efforts to deliver radical economic improvements, even with optimistic notions around the idea to grow the economy out of debt.

Article 214 of the Constitution offers a definition of public debt that includes “all financial obligations attendant to loans raised or guaranteed and securities issued or guaranteed by the national government”. A broad interpretation of this definition would seem to suggest that Kenya has already surpassed its debt ceiling, notwithstanding recent warnings by the National Treasury amidst IMF and World Bank pressure. 

The baseline thinking here must begin by ascertaining the true level of public debt, before dealing with its inevitable consequences. This baseline will also need to recognise that Kenya is on an IMF support programme that specifically demands fiscal consolidation, which means higher taxes or spending cuts.

It is difficult to envisage what the corruption baseline would look like. It probably needs to be untidily qualitative around the four elements this column has previously highlighted – corruption in the economy, the budget, government service and overarching policy and State capture. A more specific baseline along the criminal justice chain (investigation-detection-prosecution-conviction-incarceration) might also help. 

The people’s baseline

As noted earlier, SONA offers prospective leaders the opportunity to create a baseline that is citizen-centric. Technical veracity of numbers notwithstanding, the notion that the national economic output, which is not the same thing as wealth, has doubled in eight years holds no water with everyday Kenyans. 

To repeat from earlier, what is the state of the nation “kwa ground” on the five things that bother Kenyans – unemployment, high costs of living, general insecurity, police brutality and daily bribery for “madharau” government service? 

Taking this to the household level, what is the state of the nation around the five basics each household demands – food, basic rights (education, health, shelter, water, sanitation), jobs and livelihood opportunities, civic participation and safety and security? This may sound repetitive, but these are the true parameters for any state of the nation baseline across Kenya’s 12 million households.

This brings us back to the beginning. SONA is a specific accountability statement to the people.

If SONA is the people’s baseline then what does this mean for, to repeat, every Kenyan’s values and principles in strengthening our democracy, fortifying our humanity, our ethics and our virtues, and meeting our present needs without compromising those of future generations? More to the point, what do we really look like now as a nation, not a multi-national (tribal/ethnic) State?

To what international norms and standards are we obliged as individuals and communities in Kenya? And what really might a progressive human security construct around freedom from fear and freedom from want that balances top-down protection with bottom-up resilience mean for every single Kenyan?

If we find these answers, directly or indirectly, from SONA, we have our baseline for the people.

So, my dear prospective future leader, before the goodies, please spend a little time contemplating the baseline you are working from, and the wider economic and fiscal context that you will work within.

That is how we begin to build our future together, from a simple official State of the Nation address. For all 50 million of us in 12 million homes and dwellings across this beautiful place we call Kenya.

The writer is a public policy expert and management consultant.  

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