Ruto, Raila truce is a rare chance to reimagine the nation's future

When Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga met with President William Ruto at the burial of Kisii Deputy Governor's father Abel Gongera in Bomachoge Constituency on February 01, 2021. [File, Standard]

Let’s begin with perspective. We may start controversially. President William Ruto has ideas, and Azimio leader Raila Odinga is an idea. I know I am endlessly pushing this point, but it is a fair reflection of the political divide that defines today’s Kenya.

These are our two premier politicians right now. I have said before that if we got our multi-party politics right from the beginning, Raila would have been our inclusive President and Ruto would have been a world-class Prime Minister. It has not happened, but I still offer that a combo that emerges from consultation and negotiation transforms Kenya in ways that merge principles, ideas and action. 

The question, therefore, is what Dr Ruto does with his presidency when he has an opponent who has demonstrated that he can close down the economy. This is no joke. Nairobi is a quarter of our economy and it was shut down for a fortnight. Its proximate supply chain we refer to as Mount Kenya – another quarter of the economy – was basically shut out from Nairobi. The third quarter of our economy in our West was not playing games in the disruption we violently observed. The final quarter of the economy basically didn’t turn up to work. Don’t believe? Run the numbers.

Here’s my take. We have a moment for dialogue from Sunday announcements. But we also have a moment of imagination.

Positive word

Imagination is a positive word, but it doesn’t mean we ignore legacy issues. In the adult moment we finally have, this is not the time to do “rear view mirror” rhetoric and accusations when our National Treasury bravely published its post-election economic and fiscal update as demanded by our public finance management laws. There was no scandal in that report, so where are all of these emergent July-August scandals we are being bombarded with?

But let’s not be negative today; let’s instead think about what an imaginative discourse might look like. Here’s a quick one. How is it that two weeks ago we had 32 drought-ridden counties, and now, after a little rain, we have 17 flash-flooded counties?

That was a question one of my adult children asked me as we watched the news. I had no answer.  I couldn’t explain it as our politics because we are not incompetent. Kenya flows with smart people, but there is always a but.

Let’s jump quickly to the imaginative part of our future. Here’s the politics of it. Kenya Kwanza offered Kenyans a five by five strategy. Reduce the cost of living. Eradicate hunger. Create jobs. Enhance the tax base. Improve our forex balance. Through better agriculture. And MSMEs. And affordable housing. And universal healthcare. And a promise to youth around digital and creative.

Own agenda

We’re probably at four out of 10 on that scorecard though Azimio focuses on one (cost of living). But Azimio had its own agenda. In proper countries, your opponent’s failure to deliver on its agenda is not a checklist. The checklist is the alternative agenda you offer, like Azimio’s ten electoral propositions. In simple English, don’t ask what they haven’t done, say what you would have done differently, or better. This is our problem; our smartness doesn’t flow into our politics.

Sorry, the imaginative part. Let’s cut to the chase. After Azimio’s issues were cut down from seven in week one to four in week two to one right now, we are back to electoral reform. The quick fix, after our Huduma Namba disaster, is the current Unique (Universal?) Personal Identifier (UPI) offered. This is a step forward, but it isn’t quite the national integrated identity database that transforms us by linking people to companies to assets to land. That’s what we really need. Think about the electoral reform perspective here. We had almost 30 million adults eligible to vote. We registered 22 million. Only 14 million of us voted. Without suggesting any “Big Brother” language here, I suspect that better identity might have led to better turnout (or, in reverse, if the election was rigged, it happened before, not during the vote count). I have a technology bias here, but if India with three commissioners can run a billion-plus people-tech election without noise, why are we struggling with 14 million voters (before we get to the Nigerian voting ridicule)?

Ballot papers

If we want to think about big things then UPI is the beginning of a game-changing moment. Any suggestion that our election needs to get back to a manual setting – as Azimio appears to suggest - is a giant step backwards as long as we positively deal with the thieving ways that inform our electoral ICT and materials procurement. The most amusing part here is no one has counted the ballot papers, which were sequentially pre-numbered (and probably identifiable by individual).

In other words, there is clever forensic audit experience we have to know who voted for whom. Back to imagination. Methinks ICT (digital identity done properly) will emancipate us. But we also have to think about stuff on the ground. As written before, I like to think about my country Kenya from a “meta to nano” lens. Meta is the big things – we demand a national leadership that understands three concepts. Peace is the product of justice.  Justice is the balance between security and rights. Peace is the result of a balance between national prosperity (GDP etc) and human progress (HDI etc). That’s why Kenya needs “governance and rule of law” leadership.

If you don’t agree, let’s go to macro. Not our three economic prices – external shilling (exchange rate), internal shilling (cost of living) or interest rates (cost of money). We are now using the third to control a first that’s gone haywire, and the second as a haywire effect.  I have a different macro – our capitals. We have two capitals – hard and soft.  The hard is our economic (infrastructure), financial and natural (including land). The soft is our human (numbers), knowledge (and skills) and social (family to community).  Kenya’s existence is premised on the last one on this list. Not only is this not good enough, but it promotes our survivalism and existentialism. We are better.

Youth agenda

Which is why our meso and micro levels matter importantly. The meso idea might be that we plan around an important inequality we ignore, the intergenerational one. Not with official blather about youth agendas and the like, but a more considered view of lifetime experiences that addresses our constitutionally-defined children (0-18), youth (19-35) and elderly (over 65). And the rest of us.

In a country growing at a million people a year, it is absurd that we lack the sort of Japan-like strategy that figures out what our needs and wants might look like throughout our lifetimes. The needs and wants, of course, are defined at micro-level.

The best way to look at micro is families, or households. The quiet discourse I have encountered over time is the way to fix Kenya is to start at the family unit. To mix this up, I thought this means that every family (or household) in Kenya deserves five things. Food. Basic rights (from education to health to shelter).

Access to assets and income opportunities. Participatory governance (the ability to contribute publicly during and between elections). And safety and security in public places and private spaces.

That’s what every one of our 12-13 million families and households needs and wants.  Period. Nobody wants a nano-level that is individualised into cost of living and other beefs and complaints.

The imagination does not stop there, but this is a basic framing. I will be harsh and state that I can’t see this imagination on either side of our political divide. But I will be positive to return to my beginning. Ruto and Raila are our premier politicians today. I want them to fix our Kenya.