Inside the Utu political and socio-cultural infrastructure

Jua kali artisan

A jua kali artisan molds a metallic pan at his workshop in Kibuye Market, Kisumu County. Prof Kivutha Kibwana argues that when citizens understand they are the economy’s primary architects and beneficiaries, then an utu economic model is achievable.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The utu model holds that the citizen and institutions should drive the economy to avert its capture by the exclusive ‘Ownership Club’.
  • When citizens understand they are the economy’s primary architects and beneficiaries, then an utu economic model is achievable.

After unveiling the Utu economic model, which calls for replacement of the current trickle-down economic model with radical social democracy, I now proceed to unpack the facilitative political and socio-cultural infrastructure. In other words, how can the Kenyan society be politically re-engineered to guarantee co-ownership of the economy to benefit the grassroots, the middle class and the upper class?

In The Challenge for Africa: A New Vision (2009), Wangari Maathai defines democracy as, “among other things, the protection of minority rights, an effective and truly representative parliament; an independent judiciary; an informed and engaged citizenry; an independent fourth estate; the rights to assemble, practise one’s religion freely and advocate one’s views peacefully without fear of reprisal or arbitrary arrest; and an empowered and active civil society that can operate without intimidation.”

The existence of the above minimum elements of democracy would neutralise an overbearing executive. These pillars beget the freedom and environment needed to actualise the utu economic model.

Political democracy places the citizen above those elected to rule or appointed to manage society’s public affairs. Article 1 of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution vests sovereign power in the people of Kenya to be exercised either directly or through delegation.

I have previously demonstrated how the utu economic model makes the economy and its benefits equitably accessible to all classes of society, beginning with the less privileged majority. In a nutshell, the utu model holds that the citizen and institutions should drive the economy to avert its capture by the exclusive ‘Ownership Club’.

Therefore, when citizens understand they are the economy’s primary architects and beneficiaries, then an utu economic model is achievable. Where the people cede their sovereign power in the socio-cultural and economic spheres, a top-down economy and unequal society prevails.

Another critical political pillar of the utu economic model is the Constitution. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution has been lauded as one of the most progressive in Africa and beyond. Its provisions on bill of rights; land; leadership and integrity; independence of the judiciary, commissions and other independent offices; the devolved government; public finance; national security, amendment procedures etc. create a conducive environment for securing the citizen and the economy. Fidelity to the Constitution by all is imperative. Those who breach the Constitution and ordinary law must face sanctions.

National philosophy

However, the national executive has routinely undermined the constitution. For example, county governments and the national level have engaged in perennial court battles. Without protection of the economic activities of ordinary citizens, workers, employers and other investors by the Constitution and rule of law generally, realisation of the utu economic model is impossible.

The utu model is a product of genuine national philosophy. Examples of progressive national philosophies are Nyerere’s ujamaa, South Africa’s ubuntu, Kaunda’s humanism and Germany’s social market economy, etc. Such philosophies underscore the national interest or public good. Kenya’s harambee ‘Nyayo’ philosophy or even African socialism as anchored in Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965 fell short of articulating a national philosophy. Between 2002 and 2013, Mwai Kibaki’s Vision 2030 endeavoured to establish a transformative socio-economic model. The Big Four Agenda is premised on Vision 2030.

All existing policies, plans and programmes must be holistically reviewed and revamped to elaborate the utu economic model. I have argued before that Kenya needs to convene a National Dialogue from the 1,450 wards, 290 constituencies, the former regions and the national level. Apart from discussing Kenya’s challenges and possible solutions, a national philosophy, the requisite economic model can be birthed from this conversation.

Institutional autonomy such as separation of powers and independence of the judiciary are key in safeguarding citizen rights and inclusive participation in the economy. The judiciary must be free to adjudicate disputes. Parliament must be independent of the executive so that it can check the latter. Sadly, Kenya’s Parliament is largely subservient to the Executive.

Parliament has failed to control the Executive’s appetite for public borrowing. Consequently, the national government has been depriving the private sector of affordable capital. If government is unresponsive to citizen demands on the economy, an utu economic model is a pipedream.

For Wangari Maathai as quoted above, protection of minorities – economic, religious, socio-cultural, disability, ethnic, gender, age etc – is key. They must be fully integrated in social life and the economy.

One key innovation in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution was the creation of sub-national governments. Devolving resources to the 47 counties has been a game changer. County economies are beginning to bloom.

Since 2013, the national government has continued to sabotage the devolution experiment. Counties are often starved of national resources while their taxation powers are severely limited. If the national government leaders promote devolution and even deploy more revenue to the counties under an utu economic model, equitable national development will become a reality.

Building democracy

Devolution can also be strengthened by economic blocs. The idea of forming an additional layer of 14 or so regions in the initial Bomas draft constitution was visionary.

Kenya does not have distinct ideology-based political parties or coalitions as the majority are founded on ethnicity. The majority of these formations and their leaders support a top-down economic model. Kenya has no clearly defined labour, green, youth-friendly, utu or other such party. And yet politics is primarily organised around political parties. The utu model presumes a national stage for economic competition and solidarity. Narrow ethnic competition cannot promote a robust national economy.

An utu economy and corruption are antithetical. When Kenya will resolutely confront corruption and dismantle the “Owners Club”, it will thrive. 

Public servants must declare their wealth annually, then it is made public. Undeclared or unexplained wealth should be forfeited to the state. Any public servant must be annually subjected to a lifestyle audit. Corruption-related crimes should attract appropriate jail terms with no fines and the convicts must be barred from public office.

The country should heavily invest in building a national culture. Hlumelo Biko in Africa Reimagined: Reclaiming a sense of abundance and prosperity (2019) observes: “placing our (African) culture at the centre of our life is essential to being free to be self-affirming.” This is not only culture of ethnic groups, but culture in all spheres including art, music, theatre, sports etc.

Most Kenyans are locked out of national discourse since the media and the leaders carry out the conversations in English or Kiswahili. Unlike in Tanzania where Kiswahili is a lingua franca, Kenya lacks a universal language of communication. Adult literacy should be promoted for those who did not access primary or secondary education.

Community institutions and structures must be recognised and enhanced as one ingredient of building democracy and an utu economy. Governments, NGOs and development partners ought to build on these institutions and use indigenous knowledge. 

In my view, to transform Kenya, the utu economic model is the best paradigm.

The writer is the Governor of Makueni County. [email protected]


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