15 November 2012

Kenya: The Task Ahead for Our Next President

In much of the ongoing online debates following the remarkable victory of President Barack Obama, the topic which weighs most heavily is what his "historic role" will be, given the mandate he has received from the American people to lead them for four more years.

We tend not to see our politics in such lofty terms, here in Kenya. I have not seen much reference to President Mwai Kibaki's "historic role" in the analyses which feature in our newspapers and magazines.

But that does not mean that no such perspective would be valid, if applied to the Kenyan situation. For example, it is, I think, indisputable, that our founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, played the "historic role" of leading the nation out of "the yoke of colonialism" as Kenyan commentators love to say, and initiating the hard work of 'nation building'.

In some ways, he did this remarkably well: whether judged by the numbers of children enrolled in schools; the expanding network of clinics and hospitals; the thriving agriculture sector; or the entrenching of the tourism sector; those were great years for the Kenyan economy and the Kenyan people in general.

The problem though, is that the Kenyatta regime, judged by current standards, failed miserably on the issue of "inclusiveness". There was not a single cabinet minister from North Eastern Province. Yet, in those days, no cabinet ever had more than 15 or so members, his own native Kiambu District invariably had a minimum of five people sitting in at cabinet meetings.

Add to that Dr Julius Kiano from Muranga District and one Mwai Kibaki from Nyeri District - both of whom were constant features in the Kenyatta-era cabinets - and you find a cabinet heavily dominated by just one province out of seven.

This is what gave rise to the myth that the Kikuyu are not very good at sharing the fruits of high office with other tribes. Turning to our second president, Daniel arap Moi, it is hard to discern any "historic role" he played other than that of ensuring his own political survival. And he was, as it happens, spectacularly good at this.

No matter what you may say about the Moi presidency - the endemic corruption; the virtual collapse of key economic sectors; the occasional assassination; etc - it takes immense political cunning to remain in State House for 24 years, when so many things are going wrong in the country.

The problem with this, of course, is that it had a depressing effect on the national psyche, and deflated the expectations of ordinary Kenyans.

We came to take it for granted that roads would have plenty of potholes; that electricity supply would be erratic; that water coming out of our taps would not be safe to drink and had to be boiled first; that clinics would have no medicines to hand out to the sick; and that national institutions would be administered by people uniquely unqualified to lead them.

An interesting feature of the Moi presidency, however, is that it was much less tribalist than the Kenyatta era - showing, I suppose, that Moi learned something from Kenyatta's mistakes.

Not only did Moi bring North Eastern Province "back into the fold" so to speak, and make it impossible to consider a cabinet which did not have at least one minister from that province.

But his own native Baringo District, at the end of his 24-year presidency, remained one of the poorest corners of the country, having received no real benefits from its favourite son.

I suppose that the reason why the election of President Mwai Kibaki was so euphoric is that it seemed to signal the reversal of the Moi-era despondency.

It is reasonable to say that Kibaki's "historic role" was to reverse the lowered expectations that characterized the Moi presidency, in its final decade or so.

To my mind, Kibaki was largely successful in this. Kenyans are already at the point where we take good roads and a reasonably efficient public service for granted. Our expectations of what the next president should do are therefore very high.

But like Kenyatta, Kibaki too would have done better if he had created an office that they have in Peru: a "minister of development and social inclusion".

For what made Kibaki vulnerable in the 2007 General Election, was the perception that his government had given priority to the needs of his Central Kenya political backyard.

Next week I will go into what the 'historic role' of that next president will be - and why it is enviably easier than the role President Kibaki had to play.

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