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Ideas & Debate

Kenya requires economic rehab before elections

Uhuru Kenyatta
Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A chief executive friend in financial services called the other day to discuss the state of the nation. He observed that Kenya in 2019 looks very much like 1999 at the height of the “Kenya in economic ICU” moment of the time. He then made the point that today we are many more Kenyans — especially young people — so any deepening crisis is a social tinderbox.

By the middle of 2002, Kenya had completed its first ever Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Elections were due shortly, and yote yawezekana (it is possible) was the tune of the day.

The election happened, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) assumed power after decades of Kanu rule.

Eliud Kipchoge’s amazing #nohumanislimited marathon run last Saturday morning also reminded me of that moment. Brigid Kosgei’s women’s marathon record the next day was the icing on the cake.

Back to 2002. Building on the yote yawezekana euphoria, at a time when Kenyans were rated the most optimistic people in the world, Narc developed a three-year Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS).

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The ERS differed from PRSP in two important ways. First, it was predicated on productive employment, not economic growth for its own sake.

Second, it sought the rapid restoration of public confidence in government, specifically, “efficient, impartial law enforcement and the administration of justice; competent, responsive public administration; (and) enabling, even-handed economic regulation”.

Eventually, of course, this draft ERS was “bureaucratised” into a larger five-year document, later supplemented by an Investment Programme.

However, mostly, the ERS symbolised a political self-recognition that Kenya had an economic problem, and needed fixing. In the end Kenya embarked on a path of progress and prosperity, before the 2007/8 post-election pogrom.

We have a 2010 Constitution, one of the bargains from the Accord that stopped the violence. On Sunday, October 20, we will celebrate the Mashujaa Day that it created, a day for our heroes. And there are many who are genuinely deserving of this accolade.

Yet, these are worrying times. We are clearly in the throes of a fiscal and debt crisis. And with a stuttering economy, and faltering public service, public confidence in our individual heroes and heroines many times exceeds that in government. Take this week’s infrastructure ‘roadshow’. First, that tolled PPP double-decker expressway from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) to James Gichuru Road that’s offering, like the standard gauge railway (SGR), minimal financial results, but exceedingly rosy economic returns. So it’s feasible but not viable? We’ve heard that one before.

Don’t forget the “back story” to this. First, we had a JKIA-Southern Bypass-James Gichuru-Road-Rironi World Bank supported project.

Today we have a James Gichuru Road-Rironi project at 18 percent completion (even though the bank project has technically ended). Now, suddenly, we have a PPP for JKIA to James Gichuru Road, unwritten by the same Chinese firm that built the SGR.

Then there’s the BRT part of the PPP that looks like a single route along the expressway, unlike an earlier 2015 plan that envisaged 16 service routes from all corners of Nairobi (the Kenha-CBD-Lang’ata option).

What problem are we trying to solve? In our public transport “system” (that, is, outside private cars), estimates show that 33 percent of commuters use “matatus”, 19 percent use buses, one percent use commuter rail and 47 percent walk to work. Oh!

DUKA MOJA

Now, let’s dash along to SGR Phase 2A, which quietly morphed from Nairobi-Naivasha-Nakuru-Eldoret-Bungoma-Malaba (and Kisumu) into “cheaper” Nairobi-Mai Mahiu-Suswa-Narok-Bomet-Sondu-Ahero-Kisumu-Yala-Mumias-Malaba. And currently terminates at Duka Moja (literally “one shop”) near Suswa.

Let’s not even get into the news that Naivasha-Malaba might cost as much to fix the old line as to build a new SGR, when Naivasha is at least 50 kilometres away from the current termination point. Or the whole question of the freight volumes necessary to make the entire SGR viable in the first place.

Clearly, our China-inspired infrastructure project binge continues unabated. Meanwhile, the Treasury slashes operations and maintenance spending in ministries and then throws more money than these budget cuts back into the Big Four. It’s all mixed up. Or is it another “yote yawezekana” moment?

Isn’t this the time to pause, reflect and consider economic rehabilitation, before, not after the election?

Happy Heroes Day! #nohumanislimited

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