16 February 2013

Kenya: Uhuru, Raila Took Us for a Ride in the Big Debate


There was a lot that I found really positive and exciting about the recent presidential candidate debate. For starters, it was amazing that it happened in the first place, and that the major media houses pulled together.

It was certainly impressive to see that presidential candidates could actually be civil to each other in front of the electorate rather than whipping 'their people' up against 'certain communities' who are out to finish them.

And with a bit of insistence, you could actually get the odd reasonably focused response out of them. Overall, I thought the moderation was well done, although the second half dragged on a bit.

It wasn't ideal to have all candidates there - apart from Odinga and Kenyatta, the rest simply don't stand a chance at the presidency this time round.

In the end, this may be inclusive, but it came at the expense of being able to interrogate the two main candidates properly. Still, Mr Dida was the breakout star of the evening.

Not presidential material (yet?), but his no-nonsense observations clearly resonated with the audience who usually deal with non-tax paying MPs whose income is 42 times that of the average per capita income.

When it comes to understanding the wananchi, Mr Dida has a more credible claim. Odinga was oddly flat without a crowd to whip up, and Kenyatta was a little at a loss to explain how he can run a government while being in court in Europe. The ICC 'a personal challenge'? Why do we let people get away with such nonsense?

And this was probably the single best thing about the debates: following the commentary on social media. Comments did come hard and fast and I did mention hard?

Me, I laughed! It wasn't just funny, but there was also a good bit of fact-checking going on. And then we got to the second half where the candidates were asked to explain how they would address security, healthcare, education (and Migingo.

Good grief, where did Migingo come from? What about Tana? Samburu? Mungiki in Central?). All candidates of course promised that they would make everything better (duh) and make lots more resources available, all without having to make any cuts elsewhere. In fact, the money would be found by cutting down on corruption and waste. Well. Colour me cynical, but I'm still not buying this.

You could have checked in with Ramah Nyang (@Ramah_Nyang) on Twitter. He likes his tax stuff, and he had an excellent, slightly ranty commentary about how a) none of the candidates really brought any hard data to the discussion, and b) how their proposed measures were simply divorced from fiscal realities. Ramah had a lot of the data that we weren't hearing from the candidates.

And then of course we all know about corruption. How, I (and a couple of millions of Kenyans) wonder, can people who are actually part of government credibly argue that no, seriously, next time round they will actually look after public funds and deploy them sensibly?

They've had years to do what they promise us now, no? (somewhat incongruously, Odinga also promised a new government, but denied that he ever party-hopped. His party merely changed names numerous times. Why do we let people get away with such nonsense?).

In the latest East African, Kwame Owino from the IEA made a few very insightful observations about the promises of both leading candidates: 'Every party and its leading candidate seem to have an enormous faith in the ability and availability of government to resolve large social problems.

This is discernible in proposals that always involve either inserting government in public affairs or directing public spending. These manifestos contain very few instances in which the proposals consider that some issues may arise from a surfeit of government. (...)

As a political philosophy, none of the coalitions contemplate the alternative means that would involve providing the means and not engineering the result.

Thirdly, judged by the approaches to solving the policy issues that they identify, the manifestos do not score very highly in policy innovation.'

Owino speaks of a 'scramble to promise quick solutions and characteristic spending of money as a solution to nearly every problem. (...) Essentially therefore, the tenor of the manifestos creates the impression that the presidency is primarily an "economic development officer" who has no limits in financial or other resources and merely needs to start spending in line with the manifesto.'

I quote this because it captures my niggling unease so much better than I was able to express it. There is the seemingly superficial challenge of finding money and making sure it's not wasted (already difficult).

But beyond that, it's important to recognise that more of the same will probably not move things forward, or not fast enough. So how do we start thinking about how to make the same resources work harder, more efficiently, more effectively?

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