Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Build Kenya nation on wisdom and reason


If nothing else, the just concluded elections have revealed who are. We revel in the fact-free, anything goes precinct. We abhor thoughtful introspection. Narrow self or ethnic interests tightly frame our prejudiced opinions. And yes, politics and public discourse is a zero sum game.

There are two other ways to characterize our society. We can be dreadfully and ominously silent. We can also be annoyingly loud, bellicose and irreverent. Kenyans are capable of deafening silence and hollow loudness especially when careful introspection is demanded. Is it the case that the path of logical and reasoned conversation is narrow path and not many of us find it?

Who is at the public square? Both TV and radio talk shows have dredged this land for the least edified, most unsophisticated talking heads. The universe of Twitter and Facebook is virulent detachment of narrow tribal zealots and bigoted lynch mobs. Many of the so-called columnists in mainstream print media are revolting pseudo-intellectual legionnaires.

I am persuaded that we are on the cliff’s edge here. We are just about to keel over. As I have said before, the Dark Age of unreason is upon us. We are about to descend into an era of a dominant national culture, which abhors rationality and scorns civility in human interaction.  This inexorable decline manifests as eerie silence and or thoughtless loudness on critical issues, especially the unresolved question about who we are.

I know this is rather mean to say. For reasons economic, most academics spend precious time doing consultancy work, most of which is not deeply intellectual. Hence, there is a catastrophic dearth of public intellectual activity and academic scholarship. If there is any it is happening in infinitesimal quantities and in absolute obscurity. It’s private, rather than public. This is unnerving.

In the early 1970s through to the late 1990s, critical scholarship and public intellectual activity was nearly treasonable. The detention of scholars like Ngugi wa Thiongo, Edward Oyugi and Main wa Kinyatti come to mind. These scholars asked pertinent questions about the state of our society that made the political class uncomfortable.

Piercing public intellectual activity and critical scholarship is not alien to this land. The question is why have we stopped thinking about and debating critical, urgent issues of our time? An ominous halo of incuriosity stalks students across our university campuses.  

In the lecture halls, students are inglorious clerks, taking notes dictated from the professors’ pale yellow notes of yore. For the professoriate, appearances in the lecture halls have become a chore. Is the relationship between the academics and knowledge one of unrequited love? Money is short, bills are stacked high. You got to do what you got to do. 

The Bible in the book of Proverbs 24:3 is unequivocal: The building of a house is by wisdom, and by reason (understanding) it is made strong (secure). This house called the Kenyan Nation must rise on a terra firma of wisdom and each brick must be laid carefully through reasoned, critical thought. 

The tyranny of Kenya’s elections


A survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014, revealed that Kenyan youth have positive views about politics and democracy. Moreover, 90 per cent of youth believed it was important to vote. Over 70 per cent believed their vote could make a difference.

These young people and those older than them were among the 79 per cent of Kenyans who turned up to vote last week. In a process that has been lauded by President Kenyatta and observer missions as free and fair, Kenyans made their voices heard.

The election was fought hard and long on many dimensions; personal, ethnic as well as substantive policy and development priorities. More often the peoples’ agenda, the personal struggles of ordinary citizens were swept by the Tsunami of big money and the attendant razzmatazz of the campaigns.

The campaigns are over. The votes have been counted and Mr. Kenyatta was declared the winner and he will serve is second and final term as President of the Republic of Kenya. But his main challenger, Mr. Odinga has refused to concede, describing the elections as sham and promised to present compelling evidence to prove that the electoral commissioned falsified the results.

Elections must not just be about bellicose political competition, often energized by innuendo, falsehoods, personal attacks and, in out context, ethnic jingoism. Elections should be a candid evaluation or interrogation of the scale of our ambition, the power of our collective capacity to re-imagine our future and our place in the commonwealth of sovereign nations.

Since the repeal of Section 2A of Kenya’s independence constitution, the six successive elections held have been an unsmiling, ruthless audit of the integrity of our institutions: the electoral commission, the executive and the all most important office in a democracy, the citizens.

Consistently, every election in which an incumbent is on the ballot bends to near breaking point our crumbly, flimsy sense of nationhood. Ethnic vitriol is flowing fast, furious and without restraint on social media. I have been insulted, called names because of urging civility and for denouncing ethnic bigotry and ill-formed ideological arguments.

Gripped by fear of a post-election conflagration, ordinary Kenyans scrambled for supplies as supermarket shelves emptied. Thousands fled to the safety of their rural homes. Mombasa highway, which is eternally clogged by cargo trucks, has been free and easy.

One of my domestic staff, Kinyua, who runs a small shop in Kitengela has not made any sales in the past week and is worried about how he will pay his rent and pay school fees for his son Peter when schools re-open. It is sorely disheartening.

Why are elections a matter of life or death? Are elections a fierce contest about alternative ideas about education, economic, industrial, agricultural or educational policies?

Is the rancorous, divisive politics about providing training, skills and jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed youth? Is the contest about project Kenya, how we build a just and fair society for all?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Elected leaders are servants, not overlords

About 19.6 million Kenyans will go to the ballot this 8th day of August 2017 to elect representatives. We will delegate power to men and women who must bear true allegiance to the People and the Republic of Kenya as well as uphold and defend our constitution.

But our responsibility does not end at the ballot. And more importantly, our engagement with elected representatives does not cease with their election. Somehow we have come to accept that our representatives metamorphose into honorable members of the houses of legislation, and suddenly become bosses and not servants of the people.

As the bosses, elected representatives have no sense of duty or obligation to the people. They become too important and inaccessible. Most of our leaders forget why they ran for public office. They bear no allegiance to we the people. They chose not to obey or respect our laws. In fact most elected leaders break the law with impunity and use the privilege of their elective office to subvert justice and due process.

Rule violation and impunity often pays high dividends. Elected leaders often use the powers and privileges of their positions for personal financial gains or to secure favors or business contracts for themselves, relatives or political benefactors.

Unfortunately, a large majority of elected leaders are not motivated by a burning desire to make a difference in how our society works. They are motivated not by a commitment to public service but self-aggrandizement. Somehow the path to wealth is through public service – as a civil servant or elected representative. Essentially, the incentives are warped and inherently selfish.

In a sense, once elected public purpose becomes subsidiary, incidental. Instead elected leaders become consumed by power, privilege and their own self-importance. Self-interest becomes the overriding goal of public service.

We the people are accomplices in this metamorphosis. Once elected, we make the peoples’ servants believe that they are omniscient and omnipotent men and women whose favor we must seek. We venerate them in ways that make it unambiguous that we are subservient supplicants sustained by their majestic magnanimity.

Those who will earn the high privilege of representing us should be driven by the highest ideals – a sense of duty, honor and integrity. The trust we bestow upon elected representatives must be bridled by an awesome fidelity to service to others. Leaders must be willing to put their interests last.

Serving the people must not be about having first dibs. It is not about a front row seat of privilege and access to government tenders, land, and scholarships for your children. It is not about jumping the queue. Leadership is about coming last. It is about having the peoples’ back. 


And to my fellow citizens, delegating power to representatives comes with eternal vigilance against abuse of power. We the people must guard against systemic political corruption where politicians and their friends deploy virulent personal interest to influence decisions, appropriate favors and subvert public interest.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Our duty as citizens does not end when we cast our vote

After over half-century of self-rule the colonial creature is still alive, breathing and starting to thrive. Kenya’s path has not been linear or even. Kenya’s path has been complex, bounded and directed by its colonial heritage and often severely contorted by its contrived creation.

Exactly one week from today, tens of millions of Kenyans will converge in polling stations across the country to exercise a fundamental constitutional right. Kenyans above the age of 18 will mark six ballots and cast their votes for representatives of their choice.

The country has been on campaign footing for nearly three years. But the electioneering process kicked off in earnest with a mass voter registration exercise early 2017. Leading politicians literally camped in their so-called strongholds to encourage new voters to sign up.

After about nine weeks of intense political activity, thousands of kilometers have been traveled. Billions of shillings have been spent. Millions of words have been used to describe agendas, discredit or even abuse opponents and to persuade voters.

In my view the campaigns, especially between the two top presidential candidates have not been driven by the party manifestos they presented to the voting public. The political conversation has been long on innuendo but spectacularly short on specifics such as jobs for youth, quality health care and education, shared prosperity and food security, national unity and regional integration.

One would hope that the leading presidential candidates would lay out a coherent program on expanding access to quality education by improving teacher quality as well as putting more resources into improving school infrastructure. It’s not too much to demand clean water, well-lit classrooms and clean toilets for our children.

Unemployment is highest among youth who drop out of primary and high school. While they often they lack basic literacy and numeracy, their plight is compounded by lack of basic skills. What was the safe storehouse for Kenya’s unemployed has no more headroom. According to The 2016 Economic Survey report growth in the informal sector is tapering.

The agricultural sector is not thumping. Land degradation, climate change and expansion of settlement is a threat to agricultural expansion. We are in the throes of de-industrialization. Urbanization is chaotic and has failed to drive equitable prosperity. Majority of urban dwellers live in squalid slums engulfed by garbage and denied basic amenities like water, sanitation, security, hospitals and schools.

In just four short days, the campaign dust will settle, the vitriol will ebb, and the country will go into eerie silence. The question is when, how and by who will the real development challenges be addressed?


Voting is a right that comes with an inordinate burden of responsibility and an expectation of supreme discernment. But whether you vote or not, the conversation about our development challenges must not end on August 8th 2017. Leadership must be about results. Not empty campaign promises. We must hold to the fire of accountability, the feet of all elected leaders.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Even with limited data we can deliver equitable development

The ability to make good decisions is contingent on the availability and utilization of sound evidence. The overarching assumption is that the evidence is derived from reliable data. Moreover, it is expected that the data be collected by rigorously established procedures.

Morten Jerven’s book Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it provides an insightful analysis of the production and use of data for development in Africa. The book concludes that the capacities national statistical agencies have fallen apart.

A World Bank report, Poverty in a Rising Africa, published in 2016 argued that lack of reliable and comparable data mask complex realities and makes it difficult to assess Africa’s progress. Hence, sustained and joined efforts are urgently needed to improve the quality of and timeliness of statistics in the continent.

The concerns Morten Jerven and the World Bank raise are spot on, and are strong indictment of the incapacity of the statistical offices in African countries. But there is some data. The real concern in my view is how little use we make of existing data. Whatever little data we have and however old or outdated it is, provides invaluable insights about the long-term impacts of national policy priorities. 

At the East African Institute, we looked at about 48 variables ­– from publicly available data – across all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Using both basic and fairly sophisticated data analysis and modeling techniques we uncovered insightful patterns about the differences and similarities among the 47 counties. What is exciting about the insights is that they are most indelible fingerprint of the policies were have implemented for over half a century.

From our analysis Kenya’s 47 counties divide into four neat groupings. One group comprises Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu, Garissa, Tana River, Wajir, Mandera and West Pokot.  These defining characteristics of these counties are: high fertility rates; high maternal mortality rates; low levels of mothers’ education, poor access to health facilities and stunting.

Another group of counties comprises Kiambu, Nyeri, Muranga, Kirinyaga, Machakos, Uasin Gishu, Meru, Nakuru and Nyandarua. A high density of health facilities, high levels of literacy, and high per capita access to grid power characterize these counties, unlike the first set of counties. A child born in Meru is three times more likely to celebrate her fifth birthday compared to a child born in Mandera. Moreover, a pregnant woman in Turkana is six times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than a pregnant woman in Kiambu.

Paucity of data can no longer be used as an excuse for making bad public policy of investment decisions. And yes there is so much we can learn from half a century of policy experiments, which have led to divergent and unequal human wellbeing outcomes.

While counties like Meru or Kiambu are not perfect, they have something we can learn and replicate in Mandera or Tana River. Certainly, a child born in Mandera must have the same life chances as child born in Meru. 

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