8 December 2012

Kenya: Uncertainty of Coalitions Is a Clear Message to the Civil Service


The flurry of political activities towards the deadline for filing coalitions this week could have passed as shocking but certainly not surprising.

In the anticipated new dispensation, a reasonable expectation would have been for thoroughly negotiated coalitions giving Kenyans clear policy choices beyond narrow ethnic constructs.

Yet positive lessons could as well be drawn from it from a rule of law perspective. Opportunistic as it clearly was, the visible apprehension on the part of the political class to comply with the Political Parties Act was a certain step forward.

Sadly, that is as far as it goes. While we may not know for now the fine prints in the agreements deposited with the registrar, one certainty is that none remotely attended to Kenya's perennial economic challenges that are the concern of the humble citizen.

Instead, the motivation for the long predictable elite power sharing was palpable. This apparent disdain for concrete policy proposals that is eventually inevitable for Kenya's long-delayed take-off was clear in the body language displayed during the signing of the so-called agreements.

In fact, in both events only Water Minister Charity Ngilu had the courtesy to spell out her distinct vision especially on encouraging local investment-led job creation, quality education and other social policy reforms.

All other political players chose the fatigued themes of magically turning Kenya into a 'middle-income economy' and 'constitutional reforms' which of themselves will never take Kenya anywhere.

The presumption therefore is that both leading 'coalitions' that have been mobilising on narrow but diametrically different, if not irrelevant, positions like 'ethnic unity' and the ICC want to get into government before defining a clear vision for Kenya.

This hardly happens anywhere else where belief in coherent policy positions outweighs individual desire to ascend to power at all costs.

Yet in this country, we're now treated to periodic convenient coalitions without raising a finger only for complaints of betrayal to ensue soon thereafter.

A lasting solution to this can be different depending on the particular circumstances of a country. However, in situations like Kenya where majority simply have no discernible stake in the economy, established public, and rarely private and civil society-led, institutions have been known to provide alternatives by filling the void.

For some weird but unforgivable reasons, in Kenya the civil society has single-handedly filled this void. The private sector has arguably been active in recent times but there are lingering questions of crony-capitalism.

The lot of universities and, crucially, the civil service have simply stood-by, perhaps still suffering from stifling of the past regimes. And the consequences are clear as they are now reduced to joining out lot in loudly complaining about poorly handled, yet novel, policies like the recent NHIF saga. It's therefore time they stepped forward to save Kenya from this policy vacuum.

There's credible evidence that societies that have achieved admirable policy changes on issues ranging from healthcare, pensions reforms to economic transformation have indispensable incentive in civil service generation and uptake.

Examples of these abound from Taiwan, Singapore, Massachusetts, Sweden and even Britain, all of which have some of the world's best inclusive social programmes yet remain competitive.

China too is arguably reforming its programme and consistent predictions are that its competitiveness though needs greater diversification, is not waning soon.

The conventional argument that public service should be relegated to pure regulatory issues is a myth nobody adheres to outside the vulnerable countries for which they're often prescribed.

Unfortunately, the civil service in Kenya is yet to wake up to this reality. As some have argued, it remains a 'battered institution, which has virtually lost all its attributes including anonymity, neutrality, and security in tenure...' Various attempts to reinvigorate it have equally failed as its leadership sometimes appear to find comfort in the ethnic narrowness of national politics instead of guiding politicians on long term economic issues that matter for the country.

However, there still is a strong case for optimism. Although the far-reaching promise of its reforms under the constitution is somewhat off-track as fears of ending up with regime compliant commissioners becomes real, union activism and radical mental refocus by the new leadership can be reasons for hope.

Already, the judiciary presents an impressive example where simple difference in mentality to public service is producing fruits to all Kenyans.

Writer is a Swire Scholar at the University of Hong Kong.

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