Don't privatise, deal with those messing up state-owned firms

 

The Kenyatta International Conference Centre is among the state agencies listed for privatisation. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

It is the considered wisdom of the Kenya Kwanza government to sell state-owned companies, including the iconic KICC, is to increase efficiency in the services that they offer, generate more revenue for the government which in turn will be plugged in budget deficits and make the firms more competitive. Privatisation is neither new in the world nor a magic bullet.

The main reason why privatisation is being advanced calls for deeper reflection. It is argued that the returns from the companies are too low compared to what they would generate if privatised. Well, let us stop right here.

Either cartels are running the companies, or the CEOs and top management of the said companies are incompetent to deliver on their mandates. So, the option left is to sell the companies to committed business moguls from whom the government will make some handsome revenue.

There are several counterarguments for consideration. The assumption in the privatisation policy is the famous Kiswahili saying that chetu sio changu (public property is not mine). When politicians scorn the public shouting “Hii pesa ni ya mama yako?” they are simply buttressing the same idea that public property does not belong to anyone in particular and therefore there is a leeway to plunder.

The concept of privatisation, arguably, embeds the belief that public servants are incapable of managing government property that generates income.

The concept echoes well the pessimistic philosophy of Thomas Hobbes that human nature is bent towards self-preservation even when using cruelty to dominate and amass wealth. The state of nature, Hobbes argues, is characterised by fear. This fear creates a natural tendency to be competitive and conflictual. The failure to manage the Kenyan state-owned companies can be seen in this light. The government cannot trust its servants to deliver on their mandates. By outsourcing expertise, the government is throwing in the towel that it cannot manage individuals hell-bent towards self-preservation. The option is to take away the mandate. As if to say, manage your life elsewhere but not as a civil servant.

Privatisation has also an assumption that individuals with an appetite for profit will be efficient. In the intended privatisation business contract, the government has a more or less ready market waiting for smart business hawks to make the most of it. The assumption is that businesspeople will make a profit and, besides, they are honest and will responsibly submit revenue to the government.

Yes, privatisation has its strengths. It will help to contextualise Kenya’s leadership deficit in many public sectors which often lead to the collapse of state-owned companies and poor service delivery. If a man cannot manage his farm, renting it to good farm managers does not mean that returns will be gainfully invested. This is the risk the impending privatisation faces.

A government committed to raising the bar of leadership in this country will directly face the cartels rendering government companies impotent. Instead of escapism to privatisation, the government's task would be first and foremost to ensure civil servants embrace public ethics and a code of conduct in serving the government. Otherwise, many government companies would be privatised if we choose to outsource services.

In addition, the government says it is committed to fighting corruption at the highest levels. Privatising the companies denies the government an opportunity to streamline systems of service delivery. In particular, improving accountability and transparency at the top levels of government agencies and companies is critical if tangible development is to happen.

We risk narrowing our worldview to the Hobbesian world. While human beings have an evil side to them, we can reverse this negative world by demonstrating authentic leadership and inspiring values in the civil servants to do what is right. Countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg have socialised their civil servants to know that chetu ni changu. Moreover, our African traditional culture is rich in this philosophy in which service to the community was the mark of a statesman. Nelson Mandela and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere are great virtuous examples here.

Happy 2024 to the readers of this column!

Dr Mokua is Executive Director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication

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