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Ideas & Debate

A letter to the BBI task force

Building Bridges Initiative
Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team during one of their sessions. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I read in the press that your final report is more or less complete. As a Kenyan who has never been opinion-polled or consulted on public policy, but who nevertheless submits to compulsory official acquisition of my personal data and information, I thought I would drop you this short note through a business newspaper, because the truth is that I never actually found a website or e-mail address to which I could earlier submit my views. Let’s call that water under the bridge (pun fully intended).

While the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was widely welcomed as part of the famous 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga that restored calm, if not peace, to the country, I am still trying to wrap my head around why everyday Kenyans – call us Kenya 2 - consistently need elite bargains (Kenya 1) to get on with our daily business. Perhaps some recent history is in order. So let’s take out the flip chart and “mind map” these moments.

We don’t need to go too far back, so let’s start with what happened after the failed 2005 constitutional referendum. I refer of course to the Committee of Eminent Persons on the Constitution (sic) Review Process that was ostensibly tasked with finding out what went wrong with, but in reality was the “calming” mechanism of the time.

Its 2006 report produced recommendations around ensuring process was as important as product, providing better civic education, delinking the review process from the elections and undertaking nationwide reconciliation and healing. There were suggestions around the need to form a Constituent Assembly to shepherd the review under an (implied) interim “big tent” government.

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At this time, the economy was growing at five percent, and was headed towards seven percent. Our fiscal affairs were sound; indeed Kenya actually recorded a budget surplus in one year. But I digress.

A year or so after the “eminent” report, we experienced the 2007/8 post election violence (PEV). So we tried again. Agenda 1 stopped the violence. Agenda 2 addressed the immediate humanitarian crisis and promised reconciliation, healing and restoration. Agenda 3 created the “big tent” government we called the Grand Coalition. By this time, the economy had tanked, but the fiscus remained stable.

There was also Agenda 4 that was supposed to fix ten “long-term” issues. A new constitution was the first of these, and we created one. Judiciary reform was another, and we’ve done well on that. We were also supposed to reform the police, civil service and parliament, not on paper, but in practice. Ditto land reform. We were expected to tackle poverty and inequality (which we haven’t) and combat regional development imbalances (which devolution has begun to address).

The same hard tackle was supposed to address unemployment, particularly among the youth, while consolidating national cohesion and unity, and addressing transparency, accountability and impunity. Let’s generously agree that we’ve probably scored four out of ten on Agenda 4. Meanwhile our “resilient” economy has ebbed and flowed, and our fiscus has crashed.

Today, after two essentially divisive elections in 2013 and 2017, we have your BBI initiative. We also have an independent “Punguza Mizigo” constitutional reform initiative based on 16 proposals around seven issues – strengthening Parliament, buttressing devolution, addressing gender imbalance, demystifying the Presidency (and the electoral violence it invites), reducing the public wage bill, cutting the cost of elections and ending impunity, corruption and the theft of public money. The lawyers tell us the Bill is badly drafted but the issues are germane.

Which brings us to the nine BBI issues. Ethnic antagonism and competition. Lack of a national ethos. Exclusion. Unviable and unsustainable devolution, politically and economically. Divisive elections. Unsafe and insecure living. Corruption. Inequality in economic opportunity and outcomes. Unprotected rights and unacknowledged responsibilities.

Now that we’ve “mind-mapped” all of this stuff on the flip chart, what do we see? Beyond unresolved issues upon unanswered issues, no answers today, just questions.

Is there another “Kenya 1” elite bargain in store? Has the report revisited the outstanding “Kenya 2” long-term issues from Agenda 4, before we speak to “Big Four”? Will we address, say, land reform and finally escape our diversionary “bad” politics? Or our uncontrollable police and supine civil service?

Are there real ideas about how to build a real private sector that respects SMEs? This may sound a bit unfair, but I really hope we have a product that transforms our political-social-economic landscape for the benefit not just for “Kenya 1”, but “Kenya 2”. And that this is the last ever Task Force or Committee we need for this important stuff for Kenyans.

Sincerely yours

Dennis

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