The real cost of Azimio protests is more than Sh10 billion a day

Azimio Leader Raila Odinga addresses his supporters in Kibra Nairobi on March 27, 2023. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

There is a strong case to suggest that Kenya is designed for distraction if not destruction. Indeed, it would even seem that the economy thrives in this place of noisy and rambunctious politics, even though we all claim to want a country of peace and stability. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and our unjust peace and stability is the Newtonian reaction to the risk of falling off the cliff. Why the events that sum up the place we call Kenya are not the subject of a TV drama or a political movie that is actually a thriller is beyond me. That’s Vision 2030 for our creatives right there!

So where is the distraction nowadays? Is it in the snowballing of political to people protests against a “Jekyll and Hyde” administration that can’t seem to buy itself a good week these days? Is it in the mainstream and social media hullabaloo over 50 Chief Administrative Secretaries (CASs)? Or is it about the tales of macro-fiscal crisis we are endlessly regaled with as inherited from the previous administration? And, if these are distractions, then what are we being distracted from?

Let’s begin with “maandamano” because it’s now been promised for Mondays and Thursdays. The assumption we make is that there is an end game, but what if there isn’t? The administration’s bluff has definitely been called, and it was almost surreal shuttling to meetings around town Monday, March 20 with zero traffic and next to no commercial activity. Noticeably, given their omnipresence in our lives, there were few matatus around the city centre and immediate outskirts.

Apart from the tragi-comedy in the DCI’s circulation of images from elsewhere, a few numbers were thrown around. Sh2 billion lost so far, and that was a number in a speech given before lunch.

On telly, the booze value chain said Sh2.7 billion was lost, while matatus claimed a billion shillings that probably covered Nairobi only. This was before Monday, March 27 second round effects. 

To place this in perspective, Kenya is currently a Sh40 billion a day economy. If we threw in all disrupted trade, commerce, industry, finance and services, the upper loss in this wild data is Sh5 billion to Sh10 billion, or an eighth to a quarter of the day’s economic output. In this picture, twice a week at initial and not elevated “maandamano” (before product boycotts) works out at a trillion shilling economic wipe-out over a year (seven per cent of annual economic output) and anything above that with product boycotts. Alarmist numbers? Probably. But these are alarmist times.

Of course, conventional wisdom speaks to a call for dialogue. But dialogue is a process that needs content. Presidential legality or legitimacy is not on the cards in a constructive dialogue. But I have said before, and continue to insist, that an inclusive multi-stakeholder framework that begins to soberly address the outstanding post-election violence Agenda Four issues carefully mixed with the starting principles, not end result, of BBI, are an excellent place to build us better.

Let’s put it simply. “Maandamano” is a disruption that distracts, but could destruct Kenya. If we get to the point where this is not about egos and interests, and, as we observe across Africa, the people get involved, then, to paraphrase the great thinkers, this revolution will eat its children.

This brings us to the CAS perspective and the arguments about smart preparations for 2027. Hello, it’s only 2023! But here’s the interesting part. Kenya is a useful poster child for the hypothesis once explored in Bretton Woods circles that social fractionalisation (a divided society) is a core driver of bloated government we call inclusion. Let’s do rough numbers from memory.

Lest we forget, in the late 1990s we once found ourselves with almost 40 ministers, the same number of assistant ministers and 16 permanent secretaries. This was a response to donor demands for ministerial rationalisation and staff retrenchment. We rationalised ministries, not ministers!

Then think about regime change in 2002/3 that began with 19-21 ministers and 30 assistant ministers. After the 2005 referendum, it went to 29-30 ministers and 47 assistant ministers. We are not naming names today, but you get the picture. After the 2007/8 post-election violence, the Agenda Three (political settlement) outcome was an astonishing 40 ministers and 52 assistant ministers.  More division, bigger government.  We thought the 2010 constitution would stop this.

And the first term of our previous administration began well – 19 ministers, no assistant ministers and 26 permanent secretaries (for a new structure called state departments).  By the time we got to the second term, we had 21 ministers, 39 permanent secretaries and the new animal our constitution deleted known as CAS, all 29 of them.  Are second terms in Kenya more difficult than first terms?

This brings us to an interesting “changing the light bulb” question. How many “top officials” do we need for government to deliver? The straight answer is one – the leader.  All else is detail.

Of course, in purely athletics terms, the current administration is breaking records – 23 ministers (doesn’t the constitution say between 18 and 22?), 52 permanent secretaries and 50 CASs. Yes, there are wage bill concerns. And there are real government efficiency and effectiveness questions. It also stands to reason that every new “big office” in Kenya is a freshly-minted corruption site.

The loud political question might be how a bloated, but still one-sided, government calls itself inclusive. But that is the “handshake” question we must dismiss out of hand. If we approximated the annual cost of running these 125 top officers (not offices) including the presidency at a wild Sh4 billion at the maximum, that’s Sh10 million in every day that the government spends Sh8-9  billion and collects Sh5-6 billion in taxes. We have larger spending queries to answer.

Let’s just say that CAS is a distraction that is diversionary rather than disruptive, without ignoring the likely behavioural consequences of these appointments as destructive in productivity terms.

Spending brings us to our largest distraction. Otherwise known as “rear-view mirror” management, it is the constant refrain we hear from the current administration about the legacy it inherited while denying the possibility that we lose Sh2 billion a day in waste, graft and malfeasance.  Per-day calculations are always more helpful than useful, especially with graft that happens in lump sums, but there is a worst-case scenario that gets us to this number.

What would this scenario look like? Here’s your chance to test assumptions against data. At the national government level, take 5 per cent of the payroll as ghosts, 50 per cent of O&M (goods and services) as undelivered, 80 per cent of the locally-funded development budget as stolen and 30 per cent of its foreign equivalent as bribes. Add 30 per cent of everything that we transfer to parastatals. That’s Sh1.5 billion in daily “eating” at national level based on 2021/22 budget data.

Then go to counties. Take ghosts at 30 per cent of a bloated payroll and add a copycat of national-level 80 per cent of the development budget that’s eaten. At lower service delivery levels, assume 60 per cent of O&M disappears into thin air. That’s Sh500 million “eaten” across all counties daily; about Sh10 million per county. To repeat, this is purely illustrative food for thought.

But if this is anything close to reality, then cry, our beloved country. That’s where to start – with a systematic, not episodic, view of spending and payments beyond individual transactions. This “he stole, they stole” blather and blarney we are bombarded with is exactly that – blather and blarney. We need the story - investigation, detection, prosecution and conviction – not fairy tales. And that’s the distraction that is the diversion that cannot explain as disruptive or destructive.

So what are we being distracted from? The easy answer here is there is a mighty task facing this administration which is much larger than they anticipated on the campaign trail. But here’s the real distraction. That “maandamano” is asking hard questions beyond campaign promises to this administration’s actions on security as human, not policing as bullets and tear gas. In a presidential political system without an opposition, “maandamano” can be a useful accountability tool.

That the real CAS question is not if we have an administration that “walks the talk” not just on its “theory of government” and the emergent theory of “tyranny of officers” as a governance instrument; but on its rule of law proclivities in mad rushes to pre-empt anticipated court orders. 

That this “dilapidated everything” narrative (is its economy, fiscus or government that they found dilapidated?) cleverly masks the administration’s own acknowledgement in its manifesto that the country’s three challenges were a difficult global, fiscal stress (local translation - “nothing in the coffers”) and structural economic imbalance (now translated as “monopolies and cartels”).

Actually, the real distraction here is we can’t see what work is going on, but still expect progress.

Kabaara is a management consultant