Thursday, March 31, 2016

Kenya's Flight From Theory

Gabriel Nderitu wants to fly. The 49 year old  amateur airplane builder from Othaya has become an annual fixture on our TV screens as he tries out yet another of his contraptions that stubbornly won’t get off the ground. By 2014, Gabriel had reportedly spent a million shillings on his frustrated passion. And though we can't help but admire his chutzpah and determination, it is curious that over a century after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Gabriel, and several others like him across Kenya, are not soaring.

The answer probably has something to do with Kenya's peculiar approach to learning. With a conference underway in Nairobi to discuss the scrapping of the 8-4-4 system of education, there is a marked preference for “practical” as opposed to “book” learning. Opening the conference, Deputy President William Ruto railed against university classrooms that teach Vasco da Gama but not how to fix a lamp. One radio station tweeted: “Kenyans propose curriculum system that emphasizes on skills not theory & exams”.

"Theory" has become a dirty word. Yet it, or rather the lack of it, is perhaps the reason why Gabriel and his friends are staying grounded for now. It is also the reason why Kenyan dreams of economic and political success have yet to take fight. This was well illustrated last week in the reaction to an opinion piece by Dr David Ndii.

That the article made for uncomfortable reading is an understatement. Dr Ndii’s proposal that Kenya consider balkanising into ethnic statelets in the event of a post-election conflagration triggered by a “sham” 2017 poll, had many frothing at the mouth and calling for his arrest. It has also led to an earnest debate about what nationhood is and why Kenya has seemingly failed to propagate a successful national narrative.

Many of the explanations put forward lay the blame on ethnicity. “The tribe has eaten the nation,” Dr Ndii wrote. He Kenyan elite, he argues, has preferred a tribal discourse and spurned several opportunities to nurture a national one. He sees Kenyan tribes in an abusive relationship with one another and proposes dissolution of the marriage as a viable option. Other, while not going so far, still accept that the basic problem is one of tribe versus nation.

However, this is lazy thinking and the frameworks employed obscure rather than explain the true nature of our problems. For the Kenyan people are not in an abusive marriage with each other. They are in an abusive relationship with their governing elites. The underlying reality is one of a state created by the British to extract resources from the local population and feed them up to an elite few. This state, which preys on wananchi for the benefit of wenyenchi has not been fundamentally reformed since independence.

"Will the elite which has inherited power from the colonialists use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes or will they … become part of the Old Establishment?" the future President, Mwai Kibaki, asked in 1964.

History has shown that they chose the latter path. As noted by Professor Daniel Branch in his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, “elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources.”

In using tribe as opposed to class to frame their analysis, Dr Ndii and many of his detractors fall into this trap. They fail to see that that the problem is not one of tribes robbing each other, but of a ravenous elite stealing from everybody else and hyping ethnicity to cover their tracks.

Far from wasting time, better theorising would lead to better solutions and learning from history is critical to not repeating past mistakes. Like Gabriel, if Kenya is to reach for the sky, it would do well to spend at least as much time thinking through theories of how things work as it does tinkering in the backyard.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

What Kenya Got Wrong With Devolution

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century English philosopher, used the term "Leviathan" to refer to a government, inspired by the Biblical description in the Book of Job, Chapter 41 of a huge sea-creature possessing tremendous strength and power. While Hobbes obviously admired the Leviathan’s power, it is clear that it was a creature to be feared. “Any hope of subduing him is false” warns the Bible.

In Kenya, taming this beast has been a consistent preoccupation of pro-independence and human rights activists for at least three generations. It has been long acknowledged that the conduct of people in government and the policies the state undertook were the single largest determinants of either the quality of life citizens enjoyed or the suffering they were forced to endure.

Given this, the concentration of power at the centre, in the hands of a few within the government, and primarily in the hands of the President, was diagnosed as the problem. The obvious solution then was to decentralize functions from the Presidency to other institutions and to devolve them from central government to county governments.

However, it seems, little thought was given to the concentration of power in government itself. Because the government we inherited from the British was all powerful, we appear to have taken for granted the centrality of its position in the lives of Kenyans. The unstated assumption was that by decentralizing and devolving functions within government, by bringing it closer to the people so to speak, we would make the citizenry more powerful.

But it has not turned out that way. We didn’t give the people more power; we gave them more government and kept power firmly ensconced in the hands of the devolved state. Not only do the people now have to shell out much more money to support this new structure, but we have also devolved and decentralized many of Nairobi’s bad habits, from theft of public resources to impunity for the perpetrators.

In the book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, Alex de Waal shows how elite capture and control of government in the region more closely resembles a criminal enterprise than democratic politics. It is a perfect description of what is happening both at national and now, county, levels. Far from serving the people, state structures have become tools for elites seeking opportunities to loot and to reward their supporters. 

Further, despite, or perhaps because of devolution, government continues to play an outsized role in the lives of citizens.  The state’s behaviour, not individual merit, hard work or ingenuity, remains the most important factor for the people’s circumstances. Proximity to it is what determines winners and losers, who lives and who dies. It is no accident that any list of the richest Kenyans is dominated by politicians and government functionaries and that their poorest counterparts tend to be those whom government has either ignored or deliberately marginalized. Far from returning the power to the people, we have actually entrenched their dependence even further.

The problem is we have failed to encourage the growth of alternative centres of power, not within, but outside of the state. We have allowed it to monopolize power and crowd out everybody else. We have allowed it to systematically undermine any potential competitors. We have acquiesced in the subjugation of the media, trade unions, organized civil society, business and even the church, to the dictates of government.

It is thus not surprising that everyone seems to want to be in government and every community wants to control it. It is Kenya’s Number One growth industry, a nationwide pyramid scheme, with benefits percolating upwards. The higher you go, the richer it becomes.

Today the government purports to prescribe to adults how and whom they can love, what and when they are allowed to drink, even what they may say or think. Worse, there has sprung up an entire industry dedicated to push the idea that government knows best, that we are its wards and should not question it, even when it breaks the law.

We should be worried when our professionals, clergy, and governance activists all see joining government as the summit of achievement. We have failed to learn from the experience of 2002 when we decapitated the civil society movement and installed its entire leadership in government. Just as we failed to learn from the co-option of the labour movement by government in the 1960s. Today, as the clergy flocks to the government, the state is trying to regulate who can minister in a church and what can be taught in a mosque. Our once vibrant media has been reduced to parroting the “Official Truth” even as former newsmen dine at the table of state.

The truth of Wendell Phillips’ declaration rings clear: "The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot."

Continual oversight requires powerful actors outside the government who are able to challenge it. It also requires an empowered citizenry that is able to resist the predations of the state. We must create and incentivize the habitation of non-governmental spaces. And to do this, we must give Kenyans true independence, not just a bigger say in how the Leviathan runs their lives.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Price Of A Good Kenyan Name

Kenyan media is going through a torrid time. Once described as one of the most vibrant and critical on the continent, it is today looking like little more than a shadow of its former self. From the firing, reportedly at the behest of the state, of editors and journalists at the country’s two leading newspapers, The Daily Nation and The Standard, to the anodyne and superficial coverage of governmental malfeasance, media in Kenya appears to have raised the white flag of surrender.

It must be particularly humiliating for our veteran journalists, many of whom cut their teeth standing up to and exposing the ills of the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi only to see their publications succumb to the supposedly more democratic regimes that succeeded it. It is a sign that despite all the reforms that have been enacted, including the adoption of a new progressive constitution, little has changed in the fundamental dynamic between the rulers and the ruled. Kenya still very much remains a country of wenyenchi and wananchi.

And every so often, when one peers behind the timid headlines, one is reminded of this.

This week, the newspapers reported on the now “retired” Mr Moi apparently “breaking his long silence” to warn that corruption under the Uhuru Kenyatta administration was “getting out of hand” and to “urge Kenyans to help the government to wage the war on graft.” Now, the irony will not be lost on many Kenyans: the man who presided over a 24-year kleptocracy, and who is still allowed to enjoy the illicit fruit undisturbed, today calls corruption “this bad thing”. Talk about glass houses and throwing stones!

However underneath the comical rubbish that is Mr Moi’s condemnation of graft, lies a gem. For the aging kleptocrat unwittingly offers valuable insight into how Kenya’s ruling and still thieving elite sees its own corruption. And why so little has changed since he left power.

“You know corruption is bad . . . I am appealing to all Christians to help the government eliminate this bad thing… If you are [a] senior government [official] anywhere, please help in stopping this bad thing that is giving the government a bad image,” he is reported as saying.

Notice that Mr Moi is not particularly distressed by the misery graft has visited on Kenyans. The fact that corruption has destroyed lives and livelihoods, robbed kids of their future and impoverished millions pales into significance compared with the fact that it has given "the government a bad image". Further, the talk of it "getting out of hand" appears to imply that some level of abuse of public office for private gain is fine. Graft, it seems, is only bad when many officials do it, causing government to get blamed. Mr Moi appears to pine for the good old days when the eating was "in control".

In his eyes, corruption is not a vice to be eliminated. It is a resource to be managed lest over-exploitation causes disaffection, either among the people or, more likely given his history, among the donors. Thus the problem is not that corruption kills or impoverishes. The real crime is in exposing it and giving government "a bad image".

One only has to compare this to the prevailing rhetoric from the Kenyatta administration and its communications minions, to appreciate that it is the prevalent view among our ruling elite. Late last year, Kenyans loudly demanding a proper accounting of the Kshs 200b the government had borrowed via a Eurobond were warned that their questions, not the government’s inability to provide convincing answers, were sabotaging the economy. On social media sites, criticism of government is being equated with a destructive negativity, and the media is constantly being urged to opt for “positive” news.

Thus coverage of the plunder of Kenya’s wildlife is more likely to steer clear of the government’s role in protecting poachers and to focus attention on the fact that President Kenyatta has invited A-list Hollywood celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio to witness the burning of Kenya’s ivory stockpile.

Similarly, GoK has tended to deal with insecurity and terrorism primarily as threats to its image, not as threats to the lives of Kenyans. The failure to institute a promised public inquiry into security lapses and response failures linked to the September 2013 Westgate attack can be attributed squarely to the imperative to protect government’s “good name” and avoid accountability. A similar dynamic is at work in the two-month silence over the casualties of the Al Shabaab attack on a Kenyan-manned AMISOM base in El Adde, Somalia.

The effective binning in Parliament of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission also illustrates the elite belief that historical injustices can be solved via transient political arrangements and empty rhetoric about "restorative justice".  

It all boils down to the conflation of Kenyans’ troubles with those of its politicians. In this formulation, citizens don't have bread-and-butter issues. They have "political problems" requiring "political solutions". An ethnic community’s welfare is improved, and its poverty vicariously eradicated, by granting its political sons opportunities to “eat” public resources. And conversely, it is impoverished by their exclusion from the feast.

Thus the response of the Jubilee government to allegations of corruption, which has essentially been to point out that the leaders of the opposition CORD coalition are similarly implicated, is entirely understandable. Because, as Mr Moi has revealed, the problem is not that public money has been stolen, but that the government is getting blamed for it. And the reason why so little has changed since he left power is that this continues to be the problem Kenyan politicians are grappling with. 

They don't want to change the system. They want their turn to eat.