Ideas & Debate

BBI is essentially a chance to get our policies right


President Uhuru Kenyatta reads the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report when he received it at State House, Nairobi. PHOTO | PSCU

Kenyans lack shared ideals and aspirations; we are bonded by ethnicity and locality. We don’t trust our leaders, institutions, and systems; and we’re let down at community, religious and political level. We love to disrespect the law, especially when we’re in public service. We believe in today, not tomorrow, and have scant regard for the future. Families are in crisis, and we are suffering a failure of parentage.

We celebrate our heroes when they deliver, but do little to nurture and promote talent. We’re insensitive to the disabled; seeing it as someone else’s curse, or fate. We’re insecure in public places and private spaces, and we’re silent when injustice is swept under the carpet. We accept public service as a favour, not a right.

We have a “software” problem driven by our poor attitudes and behaviour; and we don’t take responsibility for bad stuff. Our political and economic systems have failed. Our youth are excluded. Our “politics of prosperity” dwells on sharing a small cake; not baking a bigger one. A Kenya of 47 million people will not be dictated to in the way that our previous 15 to 20 million was. Revolution is coming.

This sociopathic depiction of the ordinary Kenyan summarizes Chapter One of the report by the Presidential Task Force on Building Bridges to Unity Advisory (BBI report). Since our leaders aren’t elected by ghosts, the report’s baseline is that we vote in a leadership of sociopaths (and psychopaths).

The Task Force imbibed this as they traversed Kenya; providing an unhappy prelude to the rest of the report. In its conclusion, we are told that “Kenya is at a crossroad. On…present trajectory, we risk… continuity as a democracy and a safe and secure country as our political culture and economic model destroy the fragile bonds between us. (Yet) Kenya has the unusual genius of being open to change”.

Forget the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission among other initiatives, think about the Looters and Grabbers and State Capture reports in public domain.

The print and electronic media has accorded excellent time and space to this BBI report. For the numerical record, we are talking - between the main report, and its separate “highlights package’ – 128 recommendations (numbered 1, 2, 3 etc) and sub-recommendations (labeled a, b, c etc); 167 proposed solutions and 365 actions (one for each day of the year?).

Basically, it’s a “mega-brainstorm.” A third of the recommendations and half of the actions centre on two of the nine BBI issues – shared prosperity and corruption. Not the Prime Minister recommendation. Not electoral justice.

Most of the report’s recommendations are administrative – about what government should already be doing, or should do. There’s nothing in these proposals that is earth-shaking, which is disappointing given the earlier opening context. What did Kenya just spend 18 months of public time and money on?

Granted, this work should be the beginning, not the end, of a national conversation. The question to ask then is “What next?”. Parliamentarians are salivating in anticipation of a process to panel-beat innocent public ideas into nasty law. Some are dreaming “referendum”. Noisy public debate is split between a parliamentary or popular initiative to amend the Constitution. This is to miss the point. As far as one can tell, what we have is an “ideas package” that is ready for an action-oriented policy conversation.

So the question to ask – before rushing into law making is, “What’s our Theory of Change?” Simply, what’s the long-term Kenya we seek and what do we need to do today and tomorrow to get there? I see four “theories” we must consider in this policy discourse.

First, our theory of politics as “bottom-up” democracy; not “top-down” monarchical power for its own sake. That most of the recommendations are administrative reflects our “top-down administrative state”; a “post-mzungu” state designed to resist the Constitution we’re now eager to amend.

Second, our theory of the economy. The BBI report calls for a jobs-driven economic revolution. What does that look like for Kenya’s owners of capital? Is Vision 2030 now irrelevant? Shouldn’t we revise this vision before the Constitution? Which is more important for Kenya, Northlands or Nairobi?

Third, our theory of government. We blame the Constitution for our high-cost government when it was we who implemented it on top of the existing structure, rather than reforming the structure to fit it. That’s food for thought for our Cabinet of dollar millionaires and billionaires.

Finally, our theory of Kenya, that starts with the people, and builds a nation. In days past, we sniggered at Tanzania, calling them a “dog eat nothing” society when they called us “dog eat dog”.

How ironic that self-same Tanzania lectured us on our “tribalism, parochialism and provincialism” and beseeched us to be “the empire; the economic giant of East Africa”?

Let’s talk. We have a stressed but calm window to debate what we think Kenya actually means.