Kenya: The Cancer At the Core of Public Health Sector

Susan Liaman is wheeled out of hospital after failing to get medical services at Nakuru Level Five Hospital on December 21, 2020.

The doctors' and nurses' strike that crippled the public health sector is really symptomatic of a cancer at the heart of the Kenyan nation-state.

This illness started in 1963. Its symptoms have ranged from assassinations, grand thievery, extortionist salaries for state officials, and the infiltration of criminal cartels in every government department.

Over the years, various administrations have tried to treat the symptoms. Corrupt officials are arrested. Officials associated with cartels are sacked. Procurement rules are made ever more stringent.

We plant signs reading "Corruption Free Zone" outside government offices. We created a Salaries and Remuneration Commission to stem the avarice of parliament.

We have even written a new constitution to re-engineer the social contract between the Kenyan people and those who steal from -- oops! -- govern them.

But all these measures have failed to treat the cancer.

The cure is to excise the cancer from our body politic. But no leader or administration has had the temperament, the ideological conviction or the moral courage to put the Kenya nation-state under the knife.

Nation-states are more than just administrative entities with parliaments and other formal institutions. They are more than the national anthem, flag, national currency, national dress or language, police or army. They are more than the rituals we re-enact on every national day.

At the heart of a nation-state are values, traditions and shared aspirations, all of which mould a national character. When I say "I'm a Kenyan", it should not just be a reference to my citizenship. The statement should also lay claim to a set of values and traditions.

When a person from South Korea says "I'm Korean", she is not only mentioning her nationality but also the national character -- the values and traditions that make them Korean: Hard work, diligence, personal honour and integrity and the idea of sacrifice for national good.

African countries at independence mistook the formal attributes of a state to denote the nation-state. We sing national anthems even though the values talked of therein have long been forgotten or corrupted.

We hold national ceremonies, even though the majority of attendees live hellish lives in slums and impoverished villages. We obsess over titles such as 'honourable' even though there is nothing honourable about those addressed as such. Officials use the state to enrich themselves and feel absolutely no shame when images of starving millions are broadcast to the world. Officials steal funds meant to fight a killer virus like Covid-19.

We send doctors to fight Covid-19 without personal protective equipment although the PPEs are rotting in government stores. We pay MPs and other state officials millions and pay doctors and teachers peanuts. State officials have fabulous pension and health schemes, public doctors have next to nothing. The solution is re-engineering the nation-state.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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