Columnists

‘Building back better’ is Kenya’s current priority

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Parliament buildings in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya’s next general election is 18 months away. Five years ago, a year to the 2017 election, I offered a “tongue in cheek” perspective on our “normative” multi-party five-year “political-business-public service” cycle (without the violence). Here’s a nuanced summary to begin this reflection today.

Starting with the political cycle. For politicians, the first 18 to 20 months are a honeymoon phase of excitement and “homecoming” parties. It’s also the time when debts incurred in running for office are repaid, in cash and contracts to campaign supporters and contributors. The next 20 to 24 months are a period of stressful “ups and downs” focusing initially on the delivery of electoral promises, before re-election hints are dropped. This is the time to build the election campaign war chest. The final 18 to 20 months involve the life and death of “campaigns proper”, regardless of official campaign timelines.

Corruption flows smoothly through this cycle, with cash inflows and outflows matched to each phase. Where violence does happen, it is at its worst in the three to six months before and after the election.

The business cycle aligns with this politics, with one risk-focused eye on potential violence. So the first phase is a “wait and see” moment, the middle years are when serious investment happens (coinciding with war chests on the political side) and the final phase reflects retrenchment/hold on productive investment and careful, anonymous spending on “political investment” (to finance political campaigns).

The public service cycle reflects two parts. For the contracted lot (cabinet, principal secretaries, advisors) it’s five years to quietly manage service delivery and development, “eat or die” (so much for saving on pensions costs!) and, if lucky, run for political office. For the second, permanent and pensionable, lot (the rest) it’s “government as usual”; after all political administrations are temporary and transient, but public service is permanent. Any “eating” reflects the signals they get from above.

Is this too cynical a view? It’s not atypical, except probably in scale and scope. In fact, it mostly reflects the original “It’s our turn to eat” cycle that anti-corruption guru John Githongo memorably defined. For the uninitiated, like those thinking about a rotational presidency, what we have in Kenya today is a dystopian “I eat where, what, when and how I want” continuum, an energiser bunny-like perpetual motion national enterprise. This matters for the use of our national time over the next 18 months.

What are we and are we not doing, and what must we do more of? In the simplest of terms, we’re spending an inordinate amount of time building bridges, and we’re probably not thinking or doing enough about building better. Let’s dig into these two aspects of the President’s legacy agenda.

As its main sponsors argue, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) responds to the business and economic uncertainty occasioned by our noisy, unpredictable and violent politics, the result of which, as mentioned earlier, is two to three years of relative peace every five years. Without revisiting its merits and demerits, given it is now in a veritable “foot race to the people” between political approval on one hand, and judicial review on the other, questions remain about BBI’s timing, and the answers it offers.

Is it Big Government (as the state) that people sought, or the more modern idea of Big Governance (in a whole of society sense, in other words in the legality and legitimacy of society’s rules and inter-relations)? Is BBI selling us the monolithism of the unitary state or the promise of national unity? Whatever the case, we need to be done and dusted with it, one way or the other, as soon as possible.

The reason for this is Covid-19. Let’s be honest; the pandemic has distorted our particularly contorted political and business cycles and asked us tough questions; of our past and present and for our future.

Simply, how to Build Back Better (BBB). Welcome “VUCA” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity); goodbye “SCSC” (stability, certainty, simplicity, clarity). It’s a brave new world beyond BBI.

Public debt

BBB is not simply about recovery, it is about reflecting and learning, and then reimagining and reengineering. Recent economic headlines have focused on our public debt difficulties, where it now seems our “Casino Royale” National Treasury is apparently playing a three-card hand of debt relief, conditional IMF borrowing and a planned fourth Eurobond. But it goes beyond debt and the state of the fiscus, and what appears to be a mad official rush to complete all manner of “shiny” projects by 2022.

It goes by example to new public-private sector cooperation – policy dialogue, problem solving, partnerships, financing - that reimagines and reengineers Kenya’s socio-economic sectors, industries and clusters for a digital and green Covid-19 world. Within a Covid-19 Africa with a priority agenda including the African Continental Free Trade Area and Single African Air Transport Market.

Mostly, Covid-19 offers a “back to basics” chance to execute a BBB legacy agenda for Kenya that exceeds the sum of our now clearly outdated Vision 2030, Big Four agenda and other plans. Whatever happens with BBI, higher-priority BBB starts now. Let’s begin to explore this “business unusual” moment next week.