Ideas & Debate

Let 2021 be the year for national conversation


President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister display a copy of BBI Report during the presentation at Kisii State Lodge. PHOTO | PSCU



  • Kenyans are treading carefully, but optimistically into an uncertain, yet potentially promising 2021.
  • BBI is an elite power bargain that fails to address divisive elections and lack of inclusion.
  • Think; five "big" positions for the "Big Five" allows a "merry-go-round/rotational presidency'.

Kenyans are treading carefully, but optimistically into an uncertain, yet potentially promising 2021. This writer is no exception. As we adjust to the "new/next normal" and "build back better", it doesn't hurt to observe the ebb and flow of Kenya's political sights and sounds, and what these portend for life, livelihoods and living. Let's skip the fiscus and debt today, and reflect on Kenya's year thus far.

On January 20, Inauguration Day for US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, an opinion piece in the New York Times exhorted America to learn from Kenya's own Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). As far as I know it was a plant, a fake generated by our political propaganda machine. A day or so earlier, the media was awash with translations of President Uhuru Kenyatta's wide ranging "State of the Vernacular Nation" Monday address on Kikuyu language radio stations.

A popular press interpretation of one of his BBI thoughts was that the referendum is affordable (or worthwhile) given that government is losing (or someone is stealing) at least its lower-end cost estimate of Sh2 billion every day (the higher-cost referendum estimate being Sh14 billion). Days before, the President had reminded Kenyans that he is still in control of all matters government. Mind boggling!

At the end of last week we heard from the other BBI principal, Opposition Leader Raila Odinga, that BBI, not wheelbarrows, will underpin Kenya's journey from Third to First World. What does this mean today when countries, nations and states are not the same thing?

It's barely end-January 2021, and we're into political contestation, and 2022 succession! In all of this, BBI looks and feels like a mix of "smoke and mirrors" strategy and "Trojan Horse" tactics.

Is "Hustlers vs Dynasties" a new conversation? Is it more than "rich vs poor", or "governors vs governed"? Are we talking "oppressor vs oppressed"? What about "pro-business" (dominant corporates) vs "pro-markets", or "pro-poor"? Jubilee vs NASA 2017 manifestos?

The lens that BBI misses from these perspectives is inequality, not simply poverty. Reducing poverty is important, but inequality matters too, what I call the four opportunity inequalities: gender, geography, inter-generational and social exclusion (religion, ethnicity, physical and others).

Or, as others suggest, is it a case of "new forest, same monkeys"? Kenya's "Big Five" tribes account for 70 percent of the population, and by extension, the vote at every election. Because no single tribe has can win on its own, every multi-party election since the first in 1992 has involved coalition building.

Through this lens, BBI is an elite power bargain that fails to address divisive elections and lack of inclusion. Think; five "big" positions for the "Big Five" allows a "merry-go-round/rotational presidency'.

I have commented often on BBI, but let's go back to its much-heralded March 2018 beginning.

The "handshake" and BBI document covered nine issues, and implied that existing institution arrangements were necessary, but insufficient, preconditions for nation building. More than National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) to address ethnic antagonism and competition. More than the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to address divisive elections.

More than NCIC, Public Service Commission (PSC) and County Public Service Boards for inclusivity. More than the Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (EACC) to fight corruption. And a national ethos around rights and responsibilities towards shared prosperity and sustainable devolution. Wasn't that the idea?

Before BBI, it was also accepted that Kenya's challenge was more about "software" (values, norms, virtues, principles, practices and informal institutions) than "hardware" (rules, laws, formal institutions).

That this notion then spoke to a change management approach different from the standard change by logic (empirical-rational), force (power-coercion) or evangelism (normative-re-educative) to a "change by shared visioning" approach (aspirational-reconstruction) akin to what former President Mwai Kibaki called a "social vision" – the third pillar in Kenya's development after the (political) constitution and (economic) Vision 2030. I repeat here what I wrote in March, then August, 2018.

At the time, it made sense that this social vision would be bottom-up and underpinned by a right-based and responsibility-aware shared national ethos and identity, a virtuous circle of ethnic harmony, just electoral outcomes and inclusivity, and integrity, transparency, accountability and human security; all geared towards shared prosperity and human progress, and sustainable political and economic devolution outcomes. This vision would emerge from an honest national conversation.

This week I have seen suggestions to pursue this conversation. There will be arguments for and against it, especially with planned constitutional amendments. Yet anecdote points to BBI's current unpopularity (whether or not Kenyans have read or understand it). By example, on TV this week, I watched one Kenyan from the President's community quip — after following the radio address — that "selling BBI in central Kenya is like selling bhang (marijuana) to a policeman".

Once upon a time we saw peace as the absence of violence or war. Today, peace is more deeply understood as the presence of justice. Beyond politics/crime to social and economic justice. Across our four inequalities, the dialogue isn't over. We must choose between orderly and disorderly conversation for the next 18 months. And what the economy and Kenyans can afford to bear before 2022.