Campaign agenda moves from problems Kenyans face to crowd sizes at rallies

Raila Odinga (left) and DP William Ruto sides are especially excited by the crowds. [File, Standard]

The size of the crowd has taken the primacy of the election agenda in the campaigns for Kenya’s August elections.

Kenyans discuss not the issues, but numbers. Accordingly, excitement about giant crowds is a defining character in the campaigns, now on the homestretch.

Social media posts betray crowd mania and anxiety in the two leading camps, Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance and Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

Both sides are eager to show how their public events are attracting bigger crowds. They accuse each other of posting false images of crowds, to give the impression that they are doing extremely well.

Critical questions for the campaigns and the elections, however, are lost in the obsession with multitudes. Who are these hordes of people, who throng these meetings? Where do they come from, even when politicians suddenly arrive from nowhere?

Why does Kenya seem to have such ready masses for political action anytime, all the time? Where do these people, mostly young persons of roughly 18 – 35 years, come from? What do they do when they are not attending political rallies?

This has gone on since the president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto prayer rallies of 2011 – 2012, to seamlessly flow into the 2013 campaigns, the Okoa Kenya agitations, the 2017 election campaigns, all the way to the BBI campaigns and now the 2022 elections. Who are these hundreds of thousands of people the political class mobilises just by the fillip of two fingers?

Could these throngs speak to vast capacity for idleness and absence of useful employment? Could the country be sitting on a population timebomb? It is unlikely that a society in which people are gainfully employed could produce tens of thousands of youth for rallies on any day of the week, at any hour of the day.

This ought to worry the political class that proposes to take over from President Uhuru Kenyatta in a few weeks’ time from now. The throngs are easy pointers to the gaps in the election campaign focus, and absence of attention to the critical questions of the day in campaign messaging, this far.

Economic fundamentals sit badly for the country. The cost of living is on the people’s lips and in recent pollster reports. Unemployment is the second most cited concern from the polls all round, and poverty the third. The next government has a tall order, waiting for it.

While the 2022 Economic Survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is optimistic, the reality on the ground speaks differently.

The bureau reports a gross domestic product growth of 7.5 percent for 2021. This compares extremely well to 2020, when growth was only 0.3 percent up from 2019. The report, however, acknowledges the negative impact of Covid-19 to the economy, as virtually all sectors slowed down drastically, with others grinding to a complete halt altogether.

KNBS reports that just under a million new jobs were created in 2021 (some 926,100 new jobs). Of these 753,800 were in the informal sector. The borderline between the informal sector and unemployment is however a very thin affair.

Other investment sectoral statistics from KNBS have previously reported that 60 percent of new small and medium enterprises do not survive their first five years, while less than 10 percent survive beyond ten years.

Groping in the dark

Growth of this sector is a key focal point that those who want to take over from President Uhuru need to focus on. The Office of the United States Trade Representative to the European Union states on its official website that “SMEs are the backbone of the American and European economies.  The US 30 million SMEs account for nearly two-thirds of net new private sector jobs in recent decades.”

There are huge lessons here for African economies that are still groping in the dark. If two-thirds of economies that are hundreds of years old have depended on small and medium enterprises, Kenya does not need to reinvent the wheel of employment and creation of wealth.

Sound political party manifestos could frontally address this issue. How do the two main competitors, Azimio’s Raila Odinga and Kenya Kwanza’s William Ruto, propose to generate new jobs, generate new wealth and engage Kenyans meaningfully?

Wealth generation, put differently, is the pushing back of poverty. It requires a very clear measurable and investment agenda, with solid timelines, technology, human capacity and capital mobilization, market linkages and audit mechanisms.

While Ruto has not yet launched his campaign manifesto, he comes closer to addressing the question than Odinga has done. Yet, both remain vague, despite bosting of batteries of economic advisers and other financial and industrial wizards and functionaries around them.

Ruto’s bottom-up model of economic development is essentially about engaging macro and micro enterprises as the springboard to greater investment and growth of the national economy. There is, however, nothing new about this model that emerged in the 1960s, with the coming of independence to Africa, from European powers.

As a radical model in its day, it challenged existing theories and biases that suggested that poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America was a factor of laziness among the people. The poor were therefore poor because they did not want to work.

These dominant thoughts before Africa’s independence proposed a trickle-down agenda. Resources should be taken to spaces that were already friendly to development. After they have advanced, they would be expected to spill the benefits over to backward places. Such was, for example, the development philosophy behind Kenya’s development plan of 1965 – 1969.

The plan has gone down in history as Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning and Development. It clearly failed to spill any useful development to diverse parts of the country, and led to the Kanu regime's model of the District Focus for Rural Development (DFRD) in the 1980's, a disguised attempt in its early years, to sneak Kenya back to regionalism, after it had been abandoned in 1966.

Populist platforms

While Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza team talk about injecting some Sh150 billion into the informal sector, they have so far not gone beyond populist political campaign platforms. They have not shown how this will work. Splashed into the marketplace without tight mechanisms and safeguards, Sh150 billion could easily be to throw good money after bad money.

Nothing stops that kind of money from going where 75 percent of Kenya’s SME investment goes in under five years. Ruto and his team need to get to the nitty-gritty space, not just for believability, but also for actual delivery, should they get the opportunity to govern.

Perhaps their highly anticipated manifesto will speak to the ways and means of the bottom-up agenda, certainly more than they have done so far.

The Azimio team, for its part, has continued to operate in vague space, even after the release of its manifesto a few weeks ago. Where they should be speaking to the manifesto in campaign rallies, and in town hall meetings, they are still stuck in rack mucking, catcalling and name bursting.

Their approach remains to run down Ruto over allegations of corruption and sundry misuse of office, for self-benefit. Raila also talks of a statist welfare agenda, that should transfer Sh6,000 monthly “to families without employment.” There is also a promise for free universal education from the cradle to university, besides healthcare insurance for everyone.

The Raila agenda is good for the campaign platform, especially in a country like Kenya, where the ravages of poverty bite deep. It is not clear, however, how the wealth will be generated to fund these promises. It should probably come from the big push investment agenda in the Azimio manifesto, to include an ultramodern industrial complex investment dream.

Ultimately, whatever they do with their bottom-up dreams, steel industry dreams and monthly Sh6,000 cash handout dreams, Ruto and Raila must recognise that the crowds that they love so much are a ticking time bomb.

Practical interventions

They may be good for campaign euphoria, as they have been over the past four and a half years, but that euphoria will wear out in the face of the escalating cost of living. Practical interventions to tame, slow down and even reverse the cost of living is the first agenda for the new government in August.

When people have no bread, they do not eat cake, as some 18th century French queen suggested. They instead eat the government, the way the French ate their queen and her family in 1789 – 1792.

Next, Kenya’s new government in August must remove the crowds from the streets and melt them into productive work spaces. Cutting grass, as we have seen in some previous job creation efforts, is good for clearing the environment. It is, however, non-productive and, therefore, unsustainable.

If the crowds do not melt into work spaces, the potential for eating the government, and everything in the way, remains. Poverty does not remain a singsong agenda for long, as lessons from Latin America and the Arab Spring have shown. It needs practical interventions.

The political honeymoon with euphoric crowds in Kenya could be in the twilight of its life, courtesy of cost of living, poverty and unemployment. This is the agenda for tomorrow, and the hazy agenda in the campaign efforts this far. 

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