Lessons from UAE and how we catch up

Aerial view of Dubai Palm Jumeirah island, United Arab Emirates. [iStockphoto]

At the World Trade Center in Dubai days ago, a coffee shop executive noticed my Kenyan wrist band. He stepped back, wagged a finger and after a blank stare, put me on my defense.

The object of his unease was the fact that his chain, with branches in Europe, US and the Middle East, no longer gets ample coffee supplies from Kenya, a market they have trusted for decades.

Without letting me talk, the man advanced a theory. He seethed: “It seems that many creative Kenyans, including yourself, have left the country to seek better life abroad and now, there are no people at home to work in the farms and produce coffee...”

I had no immediate right answer on the coffee supply cuts. What crossed my mind is how Riggy G is sparring day and night with cartels in Mt Kenya – real or imagined – whom he says have brought the sub-sector to its knees and left farmers miserable. It’s about graft in the chain.

The coffee shop man’s speculative theory seemed far-fetched but relatable. Some critics claim that Kenya is causing a mass ‘labour exodus’ by encouraging its citizens to seek jobs abroad without addressing productivity concerns at the grassroots where it matters most.

The ‘brain-drain’ or ‘labour flight’ will always be debatable. While it’s pretty much in order to create jobs at home and keep supply chains running, geographical boundaries shouldn’t be a big issue in today’s globalised economy.

Meanwhile, during the two weeks I was in the UAE for COP28 climate talks, I empathised with attendees from Africa. With bruised egos, they could only gaze in awe at the growth, order and sophistication of Dubai in under 30 years. Sitting inside automated Dubai Metro trains heading to the COP venue, Africans only spoke in hushed tones.

Younger countries have shown sub-Saharan Africa the dust. Like what UAE’s King Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed did, leaders out there are modernising their nations towards economic eminence. Today, migrant workers form 88 per cent of Dubai’s population.

In our continent, leaders tout power. And our Achilles heel is the ‘eating’ habit. It’s crippling everything, not just the coffee sector. I followed the debate days ago when career civil servant Francis Muthaura revisited the need to have state officials declare their wealth. Will it work this time? Does the wanton looting bother us?

In the days of Jubilee, State officers were asked to declare their worth. They were to face lie detector tests while procurement officers were to quit to allow for audit. The initiative came a cropper. It’s clear that fighting graft from the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary won’t work. Let’s attempt it from lower levels first and get the people’s goodwill. Call it the ‘bottom-up’ way of curing the malaise. Cut the red tape now and give Wanjiku tools to take charge of governance.

We’ve had graft claims against police, CDF officers, county offices, immigration officers, chiefs and others. Cleaning up these lower levels first could jolt the upper echelons into self-realisation. In a big way, participatory action will empower all of us to fight graft. Voters must reject crooks at the ballot.

Since the anti-graft agency cannot win the war alone, we need a national resolve. Judge Aaron Ringera once asked ‘what do we stand for’? If there’s one thing to stand for, it is the defense of our destiny from being undermined by sleaze.

Lest you forget, Kenyans cannot wait to see the day the people who caused ‘state capture’ will be jailed; those who wanted to steal Galana Kulalu and Kibiku lands, looted sugar firms and raised bank interest rates illegally.

Granted, graft must end if we are to see a Singapore or UAE moment. Faith groups, media, civil society, citizen assemblies and all allies must shout.

In Gabonese ex-leader Ali Bongo words, let’s ‘make some noise’.

The writer is a communications practitioner. X:@markoloo