Ideas & Debate

Political furore trumped issues in polls run-up

Members of the public queue to register as voters at Kenya Medical Training College, Eldoret Campus on February 14, 2017. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG
Members of the public queue to register as voters at Kenya Medical Training College, Eldoret Campus on February 14, 2017. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG 

I have mixed feelings about opinion polls. Yes, they provide signals. But they aren’t oracles. They are only helpful in teasing out issues. In Kenya, for example, medium to long-term polling speaks to everyday concerns around gharama ya maisha (cost of living), unemployment and underemployment (good jobs), insecurity, corruption (who’s eating our children) and social fractionalisation — ethnic and religious divide.

Yet the notion of honest response that prevails on the issues front quickly dissipates like our current light rain showers when we move to personalities. Fortunately, poll season closed on August 1.

In our wary pre-to-post election economic climate, most disappointing has been a lack of the rational, national debate our development state badly needs. Instead, we go to the polls fed on a tasty mixed salad of opprobrium and blarney. It doesn’t help that we’re walking into an election with no budget allocation for the presidential assumption of office, or, God forbid, a presidential run-off.

At some stage, we had the manifestos and missed their debate potential. Like, on security, why Jubilee would remain in Somalia, but Nasa wouldn’t. Equally, why Nasa seeks a county security presence that Jubilee will not contemplate.


On graft, why instrumentalism, as argued by one side, is superior to the other side’s moral constructs. Broadly, which side sounds more convincing on Kofi Annan’s quote that good government is a necessary (though insufficient) precondition for good governance?

Socioeconomic differences? We could have better interrogated the real variations in candidates’ education and health proposals. Or demanded more detail on fiscal outcomes. We could have compared the 60-odd economic proposals of the main protagonists. Or the 150 proposals on each side.

Less obviously, this electoral moment reflects a growing post-tribal calculus among young people around day-to-day issues, which could better define the sort of transformative leadership needed for Kenya’s transformation in five ways.

First, through a pro-growth agenda that is inclusive — meaning real jobs, not gimmicks. Agriculture, anyone? SMEs, MSMEs? Intrapreneurship as the future for job creation, rather than cuts? More balanced mega-investment between human (software) and physical (hardware) capital?

Second, paid for and encouraged by a responsible fiscal management regime. Simply, a better balance between revenue extraction from the few and prudent spending by the many In a way that avoids our fast growing debt mountain, and one day, fiscal cliff.

More prosaically, in a way that reverses our ‘wink, wink’ approach to food — cartels and subsidies across maize, sugar, milk, seeds, fertiliser et al.

Third, justifying government’s first role — policy innovation — in dealing with “wicked problems”.

‘Wicked’ in the sense of complex, not evil. Like the poverty-inequality-jobless growth nexus that tells us about the imbalance between the contributions of our human capital, physical capital and, least impressively, actual productivity. Corruption is not our wicked problem, we just made it so.

Fourth, government’s second role — seamless citizen service — based on joined-up working, not disjointed silos. Think about government as a ‘least cost’ institution promoting real private sector — everyone outside of the state and religion — as development driver, not procurement agent.

Finally, as our constitutional demands, the role of public participation, on the one hand, and public accountability on the other. These are the ‘curve balls’ we bought with the Constitution. Public participation — not political rallies — explains why this could be our most exciting electoral moment. At its simplest, public accountability is the implementation tool — the enforcement of rewards or sanctions.

Word counts might have helped us through this campaign period. One manifesto mentions Vision 2030 once, the other doesn’t at all. One mentions the Constitution 20 times more often than the other. An equal imbalance applies to words like debt, poverty, human rights and governance.

Yet both mention the economy, devolution and development with almost equal frequency. We could go on and on.
Fortunately, it ends on Tuesday, while the cacophony of political campaigns ends tomorrow.

A brief moment exists to think as the private sector would with top job interviews. There, the key question isn’t What have you done before? but What do you bring to the table? As any corporate nabob, the world over will tell you, the consequences for Kenya will depend on the choices we make next week.