Will Uhuru’s agenda for Kenyans pay off?

The President banks on a progressive foreign policy to buttress what he sees as an apparently transformative domestic policy agenda.

President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

IN SUMMARY

  • The President banks on a progressive foreign policy to buttress what he sees as an apparently transformative domestic policy agenda.

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In Kenya, seeking Presidency is a Hunger Games experience. Being President is tougher than the Survivor series. I’m too young to understand the succession politics that handed Kenya from Jomo Kenyatta to Daniel Moi, but old enough to speculate that earlier Mwai Kibaki or Kenneth Matiba presidencies, 1992 or 1997, might have better focused our socio-economic, and possibly political, path.

While the late Mr Matiba sadly didn’t get the chance to lead, Mr Kibaki did his bit in beginning to transform Kenya. He delivered 6.99 per cent GDP growth in 2007, an election year. Then, after our 2007/8 post-election violence (PEV), the subsequent political rapprochement led to our highest growth rate (8.4 per cent in 2010) since Jomo’s final years (9.45 per cent in 1977, 6.91 per cent in 1978).

During this latter halcyon moment otherwise known as the Grand Coalition, Mr Kibaki was President; Raila Odinga was Prime Minister; Uhuru Kenyatta was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

Clearly, Mr Kibaki’s efforts were a start, including the political compromise with Mr Odinga that delivered a great constitution for the people. Eight years later, we struggle with interpretation and implementation. This is a useful context for the foreign sojourns that Mr Kenyatta clearly enjoys.

Let’s extend this context towards Jubilee’s economic management since 2013. Public spend growing faster than tax revenue. Debt growing faster than the economy. The economy growing faster than tax revenue. A “twin deficit” gone crazy – too much spend beyond revenue; not enough in exports (making stuff we can sell) against imports (buying stuff we can’t make).

Better to hang out with Mr Trump, Ms May and Mr Jinping, leaders of three permanent members of the UN Security Council, and important “shareholders” in the IMF, than deal with local questions. When Robert Mugabe did his “travel stuff”, Zimbabweans called him “Marco Polo” – the guy who “discovered” China.

It’s clear that Mr Kenyatta’s legacy view relies on a progressive foreign policy agenda to buttress what he sees as an apparently transformative domestic policy agenda. Foreign policy based on “Kenya First”. Plus a domestic “Big Four” policy agenda proclaiming “Kenyans First”.

Mr Kenyatta’s recent “Road to Damascus” moment is worth a look from an international perspective.

In 2016, he spoke eloquently to the Oxford Business Group about “inefficiency, corruption and poor planning”, and a will to ensure that Kenyans’ ambitions are not harmed by “incompetence, inefficiency or corruption”. That was then. Now, as we observed on the recent BBC “Hard Talk” interview; no need for specific answers to tough questions; a “finessed” interview through local media is preferred.

In an era in which “institutions” should trump “personal rule”, should we be discussing “legacies” before the work is done? Here are a couple of thoughts.

First, foreign policy as the flavour of this fortnight. This moment tells us, in Mr Trump’s “Art of the Deal”, Ms May’s “post-Brexit miasma” and Mr Jinping’s “Silk Belt”, about Kenya’s engagement with “America First”, Britain First”, and “China First”. “Kenya First” anyone?

Second, domestic policy. One assumes “Kenyans First” underpins ‘Kenya First”. Which means the ongoing anti-corruption, anti-counterfeit and anti-“all bad things we do” must be, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga once noted on observing corruption’s own Vision 2030, “neither whitewash, nor witch-hunt”.

One expects a policy and planning (that is, solving people’s real problems) basis that underpins the Big Four. One looks towards a service approach to government that understands how stuff like “digital” and “blockchain” (or better integrated databases) reformat our public service into “Serekali 2.0”.

Mostly, current evidence and experience point towards serious econo-fiscal headwinds in Kenya. A rebased economy in 2014 didn’t translate into a rebased tax base. Our “wheeler-dealer” technocrats and tenderpreneurs missed the memo.

The Treasury number-crunchers who supported our rebasing didn’t get it either, hence the debt spree.

It’s simple. There’s no tax without an economy. There’s no public spend without taxes. Fiscal discipline reduces our debt culture through a “tax and service” regime based on economic opportunity that exceeds the public spend we should use to cut inequality. Development isn’t buildings; people matter far more. And, seriously, all debt we incur must provide returns to both current and future generations.

Simple question. May our National Treasury confirm or deny that national cash flow payment priority is as follows: tenderpreneurs, foreign debt, salaries, development,service delivery, domestic debt, counties?

As last call on Jubilee’s public purse – based on Treasury behavior - counties face existential threat. Back to the beginning. How do we get to “Kenya First” if we can’t do “Kenyans First”?

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