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Warning Indicators on the stability of Kenya’s Economy

Simon Owiti trading White's ginger (Mondia white ) commonly known as Mukombero in Kakamega town on January 12, 2022. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Placed on the continuum between pessimism and optimism, I will almost always oscillate towards optimism. This country is a special gift to each one of us individually and collectively from the creator. When times and seasons demanded, our founding fathers purchased our inalienable rights to its beauty and splendor with blood, limb and some ultimately with their lives. Our constitution guarantees our liberties and the freedom to be fruitful and prosper in the land.

However, the real world of economics is a complex navigation among the sciences, art, socio-cultural and the spiritual. Previously, I have clearly argued that economic systems cannot operate outside the political institutions of the country. That is why economists dedicate a lot of time into the study of politics, revolutions and conflicts in society. These constitute the environment in which our bread is buttered. 

In a confessed democracy like ours, the choices of political leaders have far reaching consequences in the economy. Juan Linz, an eminent political scientist of the 20th century shares profound thoughts on the role of politicians in killing democracies and setting up nations for deadly autocratic regimes. In his seminal book “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes” published in 1978, he demonstrates behavioral traits of politicians that can either reinforce democracy or put it at risk.

Making of a dictator

Building on Linz studies, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt designed a behavioural litmus test that can warn a society in advance of a potential autocratic political leader. According to them, the four primary behaviour traits of authoritarian political leaders are: One, rejects (in words or actions) the democratic rules of the game; two, denies the legitimacy of opponents; three, tolerates or encourages violence; or four, indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

These four traits can easily be identified by the average informed voter. However, the problem is that often despots are able to hide their true colours through party politics and power games until they assume the instruments of power. History is replete with men and women who were either aided by government insiders (Deep State) or underestimated by established politicians only to turn the tables against them. Good examples include Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

The danger of such autocrats is that once they assume the instruments of power, they destroy economic institutions and institutionalise extremely extractive political systems to consolidate power. Thus, as the August 2022 polls shape up, two important questions must be addressed head on. First, what is the state of our socio-economic and political welfare and how did we get to where we are? Second, is there any discernible evidence on the possibility of the rise a political autocrat who could further worsen our already precarious economic welfare?

Warning indicators

From a casual review of revolutions, they look like scripts cut from the same piece of cloth. Good examples include the French Revolution in 1789, the Italian Resistance in 1943, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Arab Spring in 2010 and most recently the Sudanese revolution in December 2018.

Simply put, society’s demands for political, social and economic reforms are rarely sponteneous events but curricultures of systemic blunders and/or ignorance of those bestowed with official power. The warnings signs are always there long enough to allow for remedial actions to be taken. From this desk and in line with Linz, Levitsky and  Ziblatt propositions, the following indicators must worry us who care for a better tomorrow.

One, sustained efforts to change the rules of the game – since the advent of multi-partism, every election cycle has been preceded by sustained attempts to change the rules of the game or the referees. For avoidance of doubt, there is absolutely nothing wrong with improving our electoral systems for better outcomes. What must worry us most is the fact that the actors pushing for these changes have remained the same.

They have switched positions at will depending on what side of the divide they are in on each election. Notable attempts in the recent past have been bulldozing the unpopular BBI debacle and amendments to the election laws to create room for pre-determined electoral formations. In economic evidence analysis, trends and patterns matter a lot in understanding and finding meaning in relationships of interest.

In this instance, what informs the positions that the political leaders have taken in each election cycle? Is it the love for the nation and the poor masses they purport to represent?

Two, sustained efforts to blackmail opponents –it behooves any basic common sense and rationality for those bestowed with legitimate state power to publicly claim their opponents stole public resources and destroyed livelihoods. Such statements can never be construed to be reckless political utterances when they come from the highest office in the land and close allies.

Given, these are men and women with access to privileged information from daily intelligence briefs. The question is: why have they not taken action against these so called thieves yet they have control of all the instruments of power? What more are we not told?

Three, attempts to delegitimise genuine demands by citizens – it is the height of insensitivity for senior leaders to claim folks are ‘barking’ for demanding lower cost of food. It is irrelevant who originated the social media rants. The fact remains that folks are hurting under the heavy weight of prices on basic necessities. It is also true that the current administrations’ economic policies have only acted to profit some privileged few with households left to their own whims.

Message to IMF

Recently, there was another flare-up where folks, on their own motion petitioned IMF to cease any further debt engagements with their own government. The #lowerfoodprices rant is no longer pedestrian when it is also trending in all mainstream media houses. For those in power to imagine these regular flare-ups are random and nonrelated events is to stretch their imaginations beyond even what the gods of luck can tolerate.

Four, growing apathy against the Government – as things stand, except the minority that are enjoying the trappings of State and political power, few folks trust the administration. Young people no longer believe it is possible to get a job in this country without a godfather pushing for you. On roads we have become accustomed to sorting traffic misdemeanors with the police officers. The voter apathy in the just concluded mass registration is full prove that many of us do not even believe our votes will count in the ballot. This must worry any political leader who claims to hold legitimate power.

Five, the growing feeling of invincibility of those in power – in the land of my ancestors, folklore has it that when the gods come for you, they often give a sense of greatness. Thus, it is common to hear tales of people who couldn’t feed or in agonizing pain to have received a bout of appetite or sense of calm before they rested for eternity.

In the same breath, almost always societal revolutions have eaten political leaders and lords who had grown to a momentous sense of invisibility. Thus, while whipping anyone with contra political views into submission may look like political greatness, it closes out the window for voters to vent their frustrations with the administration. A clear signal is seeing former close allies bolt-out to become bitter critics. In the 48 laws of power, kingdoms are destroyed first from the inside.

In my concluding thoughts, I trust the gods of the land intended we all be equal heirs in the abundance of the land. God bless Kenya. 

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