Fix the politics, grow economy

Voting on August 9, 2022

Voters at the Kenya School of Government polling station in Mombasa on August 9, 2022. Politicians in this country do not seek political office to implement the good policies and programmes they tell you about on the campaign trail

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Kenya is ready to fly. But we must first graduate from bad politics. As things stand, the indications are that the presidential contest is headed to the Supreme Court. What are we seeing, in terms of our progression in the democratic experiment we started when we passed the 2010 Constitution?

What I like is the fact that it was, by and large, a peaceful process. We have graduated from yesteryear’s post-election era where every presidential elections dispute would be marred by either threats to boycott Parliament or to resort to mass action. We are building a tradition and practice where losers of presidential elections seek redress at the Supreme Court. We are also quietly building a tradition where election losers make concession speeches. These are good trends for brand Kenya.

Biggest Achilles heel

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) remains our biggest Achilles heel in our progression to a democratic Kenya. The veracity about the claims of the four out of seven commissioners who called a press conference to publicly disassociate themselves from the results—and who ended up boycotting the announcement by the chairman of the commission, Mr Wafula Chebukati—will be determined in the Supreme Court.

But whichever way you look at it, that episode dealt a major blow to the image of the electoral agency. Since the days of the infamous “Chickengate scandal”, the IEBC has been unable to conclude a complex procurement project without a whiff of scandal. Just the other day.

Chebukati and other top IEBC officials publicly admitted on prime TV that they contracted a technology provider whose services were going to be critical to the success and credibility of the elections without doing even rudimentary due diligence on the reputation risks issues around that contractor—and without scrutinising the record of performance of the service provider in elections in other countries.

Government finances in bad shape

What about the prospects for the economy? The new administration will be coming in at a time when government finances are in bad shape. With so much of our tax revenues tied to fixed costs such as salaries, pensions and debt service, opportunities for the new administration to make drastic changes on the government’s spending programmes will be limited.

The new regime will neither have the leg room nor latitude to do anything bold or extraordinary. We must not forget that we are deep in the middle of an IMF programme. Since we have not heard anybody talking about breaking ranks with it, we must assume that we remain in the hands of an austerity junta that will be heckling the new government at every turn to start spending within its means.

Yet many years of IMF tutelage has not helped us. We have experimented with all prescriptions in the book and stretched the tools of crisis management to the elastic limit: Fiscal restraint, abolition of subsidies, privatisation, import liberalisation, retrenchment of civil servants, a lid on the public wage bill, monetary restraint and introduction of user fees. But the reforms have proved incapable of giving the economy the kick-start that can stimulate sustainable and durable growth.

Innate strengths

This economy has innate strengths—a strong private sector, high education levels of the populace, basic physical infrastructure and location as the economic hub of Eastern Africa. It’s an economy pegged on the work ethics of its people. It can run on autopilot but has been hampered from exploiting its full potential by bad politics.

The biblical millstone hanging around our neck and stifling efforts to sustainable growth is patronage politics. I refer to the tradition that when you vote for a president you enter into an unwritten contract committing him to reward your loyalty with state jobs and lucrative contracts.

Politicians in this country do not seek political office to implement the good policies and programmes they tell you about on the campaign trail. Corruption and patronage is why our economy perpetually records stagnant growth.

Coalitions politics

When you organise politics around coalitions built around ethnic chieftains, the president will be permanently under pressure to expand the public sector because he has to accommodate the interests of the elites of all ethnic communities that supported him. Were those chief administrative secretaries (CASs) really necessary?

State jobs given out as a consequence of agreements between tribal chiefs is the reason we have so much indiscipline within the public service. As a top civil servant, you are forced to conduct your business as if you are only accountable to the one who hired you. It is the reason we have had so many cases of unpunished corruption during the tenure of the outgoing administration. Azimio and Kenya Kwanza coalitions are built around ethnic chieftains.

Until we start seeing substantial investment by the private sector in new plant and machinery, a vigorous rise in agricultural production and output and significant and new investment infrastructure, we are headed nowhere. Period.


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