What must we do to stabilise our politics, get the economy moving?

A sectgion of youth supporting the Azimio la Umoja mass protests against the high cost of living engage police in running battles in Mathare 4A on March 27, 2023. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

As we return to work and play after a welcome Easter break for rest, reflection and rejuvenation, even in these difficult times, Kenyans enjoyed the significant resource we have; our social capital as family and community. We tend to miss this in our obsessive focus on our politics and economy.

Let’s start with politics. We went into Easter with both sides of our political divide holding hardline positions. The interesting part is these hardlines are neither contextualized (where are we coming from?) nor conceptualized (where are we going to?) in a way that begins a consensus on content (what is discussed) and process (how the discussion is organized, including whom). We will return to this, but if this brinkmanship is the way we are going, forget any real political reform.

Then there is the economy. Let’s include the fiscus in this and agree that the big news walking into Easter was that civil servants and parliamentarians were heading to the holidays in pay arrears. The Azimio side of our divide came out guns blazing; seeking parliamentary answers to various questions on Kenya Kwanza’s tax collection, expenditure management and, of course, any theft or malfeasance in between. Then the latter’s advisory view was debt repayment comes before payroll (which is constitutionally and technically correct). Of course, by the time we got to Easter Sunday, we heard that the payroll and county crisis was because the 'handshake' stole everything. My take is this. Every time you hear an economic blame game, the back story is 'it’s our turn to eat'.

Two quick thoughts here. First, to quote a colleague on the debt/payroll hierarchy, the 'kwa ground' view on public spending order is it’s (a) theft (b) debt (c) other consolidated fund services (like pensions, or judges’ salaries) (d) payroll and the rest. Second, one wishes they were a fly on the wall as 'dilapidated economy' issues play out in private meetings at this week’s Bretton Woods Spring meetings where Kenya has probably sent a large, per-diem laden delegation. I wonder if the handshake is being discussed at six-course dinners in Washington DC.

Let’s quickly state the following. I am not sure how much the ordinary person today cares about the previous administration, with its successes and failures. But I know that Easter Monday as the 100th day of 2023 was a day to reflect, and reboot for the rest of the year. That’s we were probably doing. But, if you think about these first 100 days, how much have our leaders done for us? Yes, we will see initiatives and actions here and there, but how do we get leadership to go better, faster?

Writing this on Monday April 10, I can bet you the rest of the week will be full of noise, and counter-noise – whether it is about 'maandamano' politics or 'no-handshake' economics. Before we know it, the week gets to a month, a month to three, then six months and suddenly 2023 is over.

This is why I have argued before that these endless elite arguments – however framed -  deliberately and systematically distract us from our everyday issues to the point of hopelessness.

In post-Easter perspective, here’s my very quick hope for the rest of leadership 2023. It is based on a simple premise: we need a 'whole of society' approach to fixing Kenya. For the record, we have not even got to a 'whole of government' approach, that we also need. Let’s explore further.

Where we are now is we have both an economic and a political problem. Of course there is that famous adage, loosely paraphrased as “seek ye first the political kingdom, and the fruits of the economic kingdom shall emerge”. Or as former President Moi more pithily put it “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life (socio-economics). But here is the real question for now.

We have been working to fix our politics since independence, and before it. And there’s no perfect political kingdom anywhere in the world. So, because we will never get it perfect, the question we need to be asking is, “what do we need to do to stabilize our politics enough to get the economy moving”? After watching 'maandamano' for two weeks, you know this is not a trick question.

If that is the question we are asking, then it just can’t be our Parliament that is involved, as Kenya Kwanza suggests. And it isn’t this National Accord-type idea that Azimio suggests to mirror the Kofi Annan-led process of 2008, because it means we always run to the neighbour whenever there’s a fight in our house. I also say this since I don’t know what “opening the servers” means.

But before the handshake in 2018, I recall a NASA summary of points for national dialogue (around 'People’s President' time). If memory serves me right, the three main points were electoral justice, the structure of government (presidential or parliamentary) and the future of devolution to be processed through some form of constituent assembly – a super-Bomas of Kenya. Of course, the handshake happened and we ended up with BBI and its nine issues and everything thereafter.

If the political dialogue is important, it is worth considering this multi-stakeholder, constituent assembly option as an inclusive 'whole of society' process that must then be ratified in Parliament. Kenya’s strong belief in process will fine-tune the content to focus on; let’s first get process right.

What if we turned that new question around, and asked “what needs to be done to our economy to stabilize our politics”? We never ask this question. We think we can divorce the economy from politics, as we thought we did in 2007 only to plunge into post-election violence seconds later. In simple logic, a better economy has less people waiting for handouts at elections or during protests.

This is where I do not get either side of the political divide. Let’s start with Azimio who can pretty much say, and sometimes do (through Parliament) what they want. They have been smart and less smart. Definitely smart in focusing on the cost of living issue. Less smart in two ways.

First, in arranging themselves to more systematically track other elements of Kenya Kwanza’s economy-focused manifesto. Second, in explaining how their alternative ideas were better. It is easier to know Kenya Kwanza’s progress using Mzalendo Tracker than it is listening to Azimio.

But Kenya Kwanza itself is where I simply don’t get it. The five key targets that they promised as transformative triggers for Kenya (lower cost of living, reduce hunger, create jobs, grow tax collections, improve the forex balance (i.e. export vs imports)) hit the nail right on our heads. But these are the same five things where it’s all going pear-shaped. And it’s not that we expected full results 25 weeks after inauguration, but we can’t see the coherent action that should kick this off.

That’s before we get to an emerging Tower of Babel where practically every Cabinet secretary has spent 16 weeks in office speaking in tongues – unga at 100 from 200; FDI at 10 billion from 500 million, tourists at 5 million from one million now, getting foreign farmers to grow our maize instead of boosting our local farmers, digitizing 5,000 government services we cannot see, hoping to hit 25,000 free internet hotspots at maybe 2-3 per month over 60 months. That’s just a sample.

Here's where I don’t get it. Kenya Kwanza had and has this thing they call The Plan. The five targets above. The five pillars (agriculture, MSMEs, UHC, affordable housing, digital and creative). Other sector interventions. By recollection, around 150 electoral promises in all. But here’s the game changer in The Plan. It wants economic transformation to stabilize our politics.

Now here’s the next step most are familiar with. The manifesto and the ongoing long-term national development plan are aligned, harmonized, streamlined, adjusted into the next medium-term plan. So The Plan and Vision 2030 come together to form MTP 4. We know there’s a game-changing Bottom-up Economic Transformation Agenda (BETA) but we don’t see where it fits into MTP 4 (and Vision 2030), or more radically replaces it and completely ditches MTP 4 and Vision 2030.

This is not bureaucratic thinking. Any MTP builds on Sector Plans in a process that provides subsequent guidance to MDA Strategic Plans directly and County Integrated Development Plans indirectly. So either all other government plans for the next five years are in limbo, or more dramatically, the country’s entire planning framework has been turned on its head to be truly bottom-up. But this would also need to apply to budgeting and the MTEF which it doesn’t.

Here's where I am going on the economy. Kenyans are in 'whole of society' mode in our economic pain with reducing patience for fiscal blame games and economic fairy tales. What we want is true 'whole of government', starting with a Kenya Kwanza speaking with one voice.

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