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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Kenya's Political Transition: Lessons from China

Last week, in what will go down as his swansong, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao lauded the achievements under his watch; a decade of breathtaking economic growth. With the second largest GDP – $8.24 trillion – the Chinese economy will surpass the United States of America in less than 20 years.

Addressing the National People’s Congress, Wen Jiabao outlined the legions of problems he was bequeathing his successor; widening gulf between the rich and the poor, noxious haze over Chinese cities, rampant water and soil pollution and endemic corruption. In November 2012, Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping warned that unbridled corruption could trigger the collapse of the China’s Communist Party. Wen Jiabao’s advise; “we should have a strong sense of responsibility toward our country and people, work harder and solve these problems more quickly in order to meet people's expectations and never let them down”.

Although dreadfully short on how to deal with the myriad problems, the political China’s political class understands how the ordinary Chinese feel. They feel that the policies that delivered stunning growth have been defiled by corruption and that economic benefit accrues largely to a party-connected elite. The Chinese public also is unhappy about problems with food safety, health care and housing.

What is laudable and, I believe, unprecedented in transition history is the candor of the Communist Party leadership about both it triumphs and failures. Moreover, the leaders take intergenerational responsibility, acknowledging that some of the problems that stalk China have built up over several decades, while others have emerged more recently due to inadequacies and weaknesses in our government work.

Here is why China is relevant to Kenya’s political transition. I have had this administration talk in glowing terms about its unprecedented achievements, and they are many. But I have not heard any acknowledgement of the failures and huge challenges, which the new government will inherit. Some of the problems we face today have been 50 years in the making; some have emerged in the last 10 years. I would like to see Kenya’s politicians taking some responsibility.

Today Kenya is one of the most unequal countries in Africa. The richest 10 % of households spent on average 14.3 times more than the poorest 10% of households in 2011. As a result, the development of broad-based consumer markets is constrained as purchasing power becomes concentrated among a small elite. Only 6.25% of our youth who enter the job market can find high quality, well paying stable jobs. This is problematic and is a tinderbox for social and political instability. 

50 years after independence, progress in education perilous for most of our children and is often associated with massive and unconscionable ruin of human potential. In the last decade we made education free expanded access but failed to provide resources to support our children’s aspiration. Today, the Kenyan education system is beholden to the authority of an overburdened 20th century curricular and paralyzed by the tyranny of high-stakes national examinations. For the massive outlay of public resources – 13.5% of the national budget – our education accomplishes far less for our children and society.

50 years later, a cardinal dream of our founders still eludes us. Kenya’s different ethnic groups can only come together, often fleetingly, if they rationalize a negative stereotype or straw man or propagate a mutually compelling and circumstantial narrative of victimology or fear mongering that casts one or more ethnic groups as the villain. Kenyan politicians learn from very early in the careers to stir toxic ethnic sensitivities. Political parties map neatly along ethnic fault lines. Most Kenyans cannot participate freely in a democratic process because their ethnic chiefs frame the political agenda. Political power is appropriated and perpetuated through a combination of three elements:  the culture of corruption and impunity; harnessing negative ethnicity; and manipulating the youth, which is enabled by chronic poverty and unemployment. 

About one-third of Kenya’s GDP is lost each year owing to corruption. 25-30 % of our budget remains unaccounted for because of mismanagement, poor accounting practices. Loss of one-third of our GDP robs our children of their future, sending millions of children to their graves owing to preventable diseases. It denies our senior citizens ort and security in old age. It makes our streets and neighborhood unsafe.

There is a chance to put Kenya on a path of irreversible socio-economic and political transformation. Will Kenyan politicians have the courage to take responsibility for their achievements and failures? Looking East could offer invaluable lessons. 


  1. I believe that more than ever before Kenya is trudging towards the path of self-actualization. We may not spill our challenges for the world to look at and to be awed by 'our backwardness' at some problems we would have solved 50 years back. But trust me, every leader who is mandated to govern this country is doing his bit to ensure that the gaping gaps in the staus quo are being bridged.

  2. ...a break from our filthy past is only possible through radical surgery. unfortunately this will not possible without disappointing the status quo. Uhuru/Ruto government will not be any better and will most likely wipe out the little gains and strides we have made as a country, thanks to their ICC indictments and its likely effects. why do i say so? these two guys, if Raila's petition fails, will inherit an empty treasury. our revenue collection has never hit the target, recurrent expenditure chews a big chunk of our trillion plus budget, any attempt to turn to domestic borrowing will be suicidal in an economy that is still struggling from the effects of last general election, and an increasing number of unemployed youth churned into the market to mention a few. All these would be possible with a leader acceptable by the international community. Uhuru/Ruto is not that leader.



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