Plaudits to Kenya, but the world seems split on the country's future

President William Ruto drives an electric car to the Africa Climate Summit at the KICC, September 5, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The global cameras zeroed in on Nairobi for the most part of this week courtesy of the inaugural Africa Climate Summit (ACS). On the balance of available information and sentiments from the conference proceedings, President William Ruto and his team did a splendid job on the agenda and mobilisation.

Securing the large contingent of dignitaries, smooth airport transfers and movements within the city, and the hospitality to the estimated 20,000 delegates was a big vote of confidence for tourism, conferencing and related sectors. It was also refreshing for the security apparatus to facilitate protestors to peacefully make their voice heard, away from the deadly confrontations witnessed weeks ago with Azimio supporters.

Akin to those moments of glory when our athletes conquer the world, this week was truly a moment of pride for every Kenyan. The candour and grace with which the President made his submissions to the delegates brought a sense of elegance unique to Kenya and her people. On this, we must blow our trumpet for the world to hear.

Having said that, the question left in the minds of everyone who understands the inner workings of the country is whether Kenya whether will assume her deserved leadership role going forward. Reflecting through the country’s chequered history, it is easy to notice that such a successful feat is not an isolated case.

We have obviously pulled such fast ones with programmes like the Universal Free Primary Education back in 2003, a comprehensive overhaul of the Constitution in August 2010 and implementation of one of the world’s most ambitious decentralised system in 2013. Besides, Kenya is home to one of the largest United Nations offices in the region and the world at UN Gigiri complex.

However, for some reasons the country has failed to live up to her true potential with the attendant benefits to her citizens. We seem to have a good flair for acting at the global stage while drowning in incompetence and misdemeanors at the domestic front. Take, for instance, if our visitors had accidentally detoured for less than a kilometre from the conference venue at KICC towards Machakos Bus Station, Muthurwa and Gikomba markets; would they still have the same impressions about the country?

What the World Thinks

As correctly identified during the Summit, there is a lot of empirical and expert evidence that Africa is the new frontier of growth for the world through 2050. Also, it is not debatable that Africa is the least emitter of greenhouse gases, yet the greatest victim of the associated consequences given her ability to respond and mitigate the adverse effects.

However, one may wonder whether the low carbon emissions from Africa are as a result of better anthropogenic practices or simply an accident of history? The fact that Africa is the least developed, industrialised and mechanised in agricultural production, among others, could be the main reason for low carbon emissions as opposed to better practices.

Take, for instance, Kenya with all her endowments with geothermal and solar energy yet it continues to saddle her citizens with exorbitant power bills, attributable to contracts signed with Independent Thermal Power producers. Besides, powerful cartels involved in logging have for decades destroyed the country’s forest cover. The resumption of logging activities by KK administration formed part of the petitions protestors sought to submit to the conference delegates. Other cartels dominate the market for contrabands goods and substandard electronics that fuel air, water and soil pollutions.  

If the ‘Nairobi Declaration’ commitments will translate into tangible action and benefits to Kenyans, the African people and the world in general, only time will tell. On the brighter side, it offers enormous potential for Africa to crystalise her agenda at the global stage on climate change and enhance her negotiating power during COP28.

For analytical purposes, the next question left for debate is: Who among the 55 member states of the African Union will take the lead role in championing the African agenda? Is Kenya ready and well positioned to lead the onslaught?

Valid Barriers

It is without a doubt that President Ruto and Kenya stole the show for Africa at COP 27 in Egypt in November 2022. This is where the ACS was mooted with Kenya offering to host the inaugural summit. In some of my past analyses, I pointed out that there were clear indicators that the President desired to play a bigger role in Africa and probably at the world stage, right from his first global appearance at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 22, 2022.

Whether the driving force behind this desire is to position Kenya as a strategic actor on global agendas or a personal ambition for more power and influence is open for debate. What is clear is that at the domestic front, there are no visible indicators that his administration intends the carry the rest of the nation with him in this voyage.

For example, consider the now trending ‘Mambo Matatu’ threats that he repeated publicly to remove doubts on what he meant. What are the implications of this to potential investors and other providers of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) when such words come from the highest office in the land?

Interestingly, several projections about Africa by 2050 do not place Kenya as among the top five contenders. Dr Ayodele Olusola, a Chief Economist for the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, reports that six of the 12 fastest growing economies in the world are from Africa. This includes Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania and Rwanda in that order. The 2017 Ibrahim Index of African Governance places Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Rwanda and Ethiopia as best performers.

ChatGpt, an economic platform projects the strongest economies of the future in Sub-Saharan Africa would be Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania based on expert opinions. IMF’s recent World Economic outlook lists fastest growing economies in Africa in 2023 would be Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa in that order.

There are several institutional and expert opinions that project Ethiopia will be the most powerful economy in Africa by 2050. This has been attributed to the country’s governance structures and a commitment of the government to development. While Nigeria is projected to remain at the top through 2030 with South Africa second, there are serious governance and political factors that work against them. However, many things can go wrong for any country.

For Kenya, an article by Tyler Cowen on The Washington Post, dated 14th June, 2023 and published on Bloomberg sums up our barriers to be Africa’s beaming star. The author argues that Kenya has all the natural advantages to be the ‘Singapore of Africa’ as the world scrambles for the continent through 2050. That notwithstanding, the country has struggled to attract FDI due to expensive energy, corruption, regulatory barriers and political instability.

Now, if President Ruto desires a seat among great leaders in history, he must deal with these domestic factors conclusively. Further, the elected leaders dreaming of splitting counties to create tribal conclaves for them to be elected governors must be told in no uncertain terms that what is needed are decentralised units that are fiscally sustainable and that can serve as specialised units of production to spur future growth. This thinking of political leaders is probably the single most impediment to Kenya’s future growth prospects.