Ideas & Debate

Kenya needs stronger institutions to get ahead


Governors at a past CoG event. FILE PHOTO | NMG


  • Devolution meant the establishment of new county administrations.
  • The first crop of governors were like pioneers.
  • So, in my view, there seems to be a lack of institutional thinking in the counties.

Over the past few months, I have been able to observe with some accuracy, how various Eastern Africa nations have reacted to the public health challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is largely because as an ambassador, I am accredited not just to Kenya, but also to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia.

And while the leaderships of most of these countries have worked diligently to save as many lives as possible as well as to prevent the spread of infection, I must say that it has been obvious to me that Kenya has a distinct advantage here, in possessing the leading biomedical research institute in the region.

This is, of course, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

I am now in my final days in Kenya, and so tend to be reflective about my tenure here as Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya. And I have increasingly come to believe that the benchmark by which I should judge my contributions to Kenya and to relationships between Kenya and Switzerland, can be summarized by this question: What have I been able to do to help in building and strengthening independent institutions in Kenya.

The highlight of my tenure here in Kenya was the visit of the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, in 2018. The Kenyan government and the whole administration did an outstanding job in organizing that visit.

The President of the Republic of Kenya was charming, professional and statesmanlike. The two Presidents connected well at a personal level too.

But only six months later, Switzerland had a new President. The Presidency in Switzerland rotates on a yearly basis. What I want to say is that when President Berset visited Kenya, it was not a politician that visited Kenya, it was the Swiss Presidency — the institution of the Presidency of the Swiss Confederation.

Our members of government feel first and foremost that they are representatives of the Federal Council, the institution of the Swiss Government. And only after that, do they feel that they are individual politicians.

I would like to add one more example here: the institution which is the Kenyan media. It has been my pleasure to interact extensively with members of the Kenyan media during my time here in Nairobi. And all I can say is that I fully appreciate why in every poll that is conducted in this country, the media is judged to be the single most trusted institution in Kenya.

I have always found the journalists in Kenya to be very professional. This has played a key role in enabling me to do an essential part of my job, which is that of bringing our two countries closer together and facilitating more and greater investments by Swiss corporations who see opportunities in Kenya.

So, whether you talk of the executive arm of government, or the media, it is strong institutions which make it possible for a country to move forward.

You might ask: “So, did you not see any sector in which a lack of strong institutions was holding Kenya back?”

And I would answer, Yes, I did. And it was, most unfortunately, in something which is very close to my heart, coming as I do from the country most famous for its devolution and federal system of government.

During my tenure here, I had the privilege to witness institution building in the counties. Devolution meant the establishment of new county administrations. The first crop of governors were like pioneers.

They had to find their way through sometimes unchartered waters. Many mistakes were made. Many lessons were learnt. And some counties witnessed transformational changes.

For that reason, after the elections in 2017, with the second crop of governors, I thought that the good work of a good number of outgoing ones would be followed up. And I was deeply disappointed to see that in quite a number of instances, the new governors did not finish the work started by their predecessors.

You could read about white elephant projects in counties, projects that were just abandoned. Some new governors were investing in ‘their’ projects. Projects in which they — and they alone — could take full credit. And in the process, they were ignoring the partially completed projects which had been started by their political rivals whom they had defeated in the 2017 election.

From an institutional perspective, that was a big mistake. First, they should have finished what was not yet finished by their predecessors.

So, in my view, there seems to be a lack of institutional thinking in the counties.

All the same my embassy did what it could to contribute to institution building within devolution: we helped to establish and strengthen the Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC). The FCDC is a ‘regional bloc’ of 10 northern counties, a region that was historically neglected and had seen little development.

It is a region that faces the same challenges of a tough arid and semi-arid climate with recurrent drought and flooding. Last but not least, it is a region of Kenya known for insecurity.

Facing the same challenges and sharing the same way of pastoralist life, the governors of the FCDC counties came together in order to coordinate and promote social and economic development of their region.

The FCDC secretariat, a small institution set up years ago with the assistance of my embassy, helps the governors to remain focused and to work on the most important challenges their people face.

It is critical to invest in the strengthening of independent institutions. I tried my best to contribute to the building of independent institutions here during my time as Ambassador to Kenya. I worked with all the institutions fighting corruption.

And as I prepare to leave, I wish the Kenyan people well in their efforts to continue with national building – which always begins with institution building.

Dr Heckner is the Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya