Ideas & Debate

Towards a 'State of the Nation' conversation


President Uhuru Kenyatta delivering his State of the Nation Address at Parliament buildings on November 30, 2021. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG



  • Before his term ends, President Kenyatta will further showcase his work legacy on Jamhuri Day this month and Madaraka Day next June. Not forgetting a New Year’s Address to usher Kenyans into 2022.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Eighth State of the Nation Address (SONA 2021) this week was his latest opportunity to present the Jubilee Administration’s term paper on a near-decade of national leadership.

For those who argue that Jubilee the party no longer coherently exists, this is really about the Uhuru Administration, in the same way that Americans refer to the Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden Administrations (Quick quiz (30 seconds): Name the signature achievements of their Vice-Presidents).

Before his term ends, President Kenyatta will further showcase his work legacy on Jamhuri Day this month and Madaraka Day next June. Not forgetting a New Year’s Address to usher Kenyans into 2022.

Notably, SONA is technically and politically different in its constitutional focus as an accountability statement on Article 10 national values and principles, international obligations under Article 2 (5) and the state of national security under Article 240. A bulky set of quasi-technocratic reports – in line with constitutional demands – therefore supports the popular-leaning address.

What always surprises me about national addresses by our leaders is the huge public and citizen interest they educe. Between “what will he say”, “what is he saying” and “what did he say” you’ve basically covered and captured the entire country’s attention by evening prime time news.

And that’s before the media walks around eliciting public expectations before the event, and feedback thereafter. Oh, don’t forget #KOT, which loves to share legacy thoughts and “states of our nation” 100 times a day.

Of course, conversations between Kenyans and our leaders happen at two extremes - noisy public rallies, or stiff, dry and formal speeches. Where is friendly communication space, like the traditional US-style President’s weekly radio address, or, say, a regular social media interactive, to talk with, not at, the people? When will we get to “real conversations with our leaders”; my first takeaway from SONA?

Let’s highlight four more reflections from the address before we eventually read the detailed reports. These quick thoughts are arranged around the “elements” the President used to structure his speech.

Future national leaders may view these takeaways as a baseline, with social media as background. The smart will find a teachable moment; the less smart will offer acoustics. Here’s the canvas for debate.

First; the state “response to emerging disruptions”, especially the pandemic. The ability to see, lead, facilitate and support private-sector efforts to exploit positive opportunities in crisis (because negative opportunity KEMSA also happened) was highly creditable. Indisputably, between economic stimulus and health capacity enhancement, Kenya’s response was not bad in regional comparison.

However, the devilish detail matters too. A recent survey of the private sector suggested that the stimulus was not as inclusive as officially announced, while we know that improved health capacity in facilities and equipment masks unresolved human resource issues.

More broadly, the path to a holistic strategic response ended up being largely reactive; causing real economic damage that is now being recovered. One senses that the government’s bureaucratic lens is too often poles apart from the view “kwa ground”.

Second; the state of our economic development and national well-being, and two of the four national questions from Madaraka Day - economic acceleration and “big-push” investments. Hello, Rostow’s 1960 5-Stage Growth Model soon turning 58 in Kenya - are we at pre-conditions for take-off, or actual take-off stage?

Much enabling infrastructure is done, before future maintenance battles debt service. Next? The market demand side to build big and small trade and industry within an inclusive growth and development model that values labour participation and productivity as much as headline GDP.

Third, the state of our social structure, with dignity of the people as the third national question (Eish, dear presidential speechwriters, what does the untidy phrase “poverty of dignity” mean in our homes?).

The focus has been water, health, housing, food security, education and national security. Except for food security, there is progress on this front, mostly in hardware. The ongoing challenge is to deliver social service packages that respond hard capital to soft human capital and smart logistics needs.

Finally, the state of our nationhood, with political stabilization as the last national question. Without harking back to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a closing quote on this subject from the President’s address will suffice: “the need for political stabilisation is the most urgent task facing Kenya today, and it is the foundation upon which our greater justice, fairness, health, wealth and security will be (sic) built on. For that reason, it shall happen”.

Wow, a change of heart since the 2020 New Year address? Now the political kingdom precedes the economic one? A pandemic year is clearly a long time in politics.

In positive terms, SONA 2021 is a useful input to Project Kenya discourse. From Vision 2030’s economic, social and political pillars to Big Four Agenda to four national questions, with political stabilization as the first. Underpinned by katiba’s human rights and devolution as the x (horizontal) and y (vertical) axes of our development matrix.

Yes, there was no red meat in the speech around debt, corruption and harsh daily living. Mostly, we are a work-in-progress, but we determine if the glass is half full or half empty.

In the context of national conversation, this was my key takeaway from the State of the Nation Address.