Another Happy New Year ?

Exactly a week from today Kenyans will join the rest of the world in welcoming the New Year.  We will shout away the ending year and shout in the New with the usual pomp. We will even proclaim it a happy new year, as we have always done. Kenyans are ending 2016 in hostile style, with the political class setting the ugly pace and agenda. It is understandable that we should want a happy new year. Yet, is this likely?

The activities of the ending week imbue men and women of goodwill with sadness and despair. When those from whom so much is expected deliver so little, or next to nothing, we have cause to worry. Our context is worse than saddening and worrying. It is frightening. The activities in Parliament are a pointer to the year ahead. We have seen fisticuffs, foul language and outrageous goings on. We have seen Parliament itself summoned at an irregular moment for the irregular business of bipartisan verbal and political violence.  It is violence of an ethnic character, and which defines what you should expect next year. Ethnic tensions are going to be at fever pitch, unless wise counsel prevails. It should not surprise us to see a repeat of 2007/2008. The script will be the same, the cast and roles slightly different, the outcomes the same.

The most critical players are going to be President Uhuru Kenyatta and his nemesis, Raila Odinga of the Opposition ODM and Cord. The two leaders must reign in their troops and exercise personal moderation in their public pronouncements and actions. But they also need to reign in themselves. Ultimately, however, the buck stops with President Kenyatta. He is the person to whom Kenyans have given the responsibility of steering the ship of State. If we run into headwinds we all look up to him for the solution. If we run into an iceberg, he takes the flak. If we prosper, he takes the credit. Eventually, it is his tea party.

The New Year brings us to the homestretch of an election campaign process that began nearly five years ago. We are getting into this phase with a government that openly exhibits symptoms of panic and not so rational impulses. On the other hand is an opposition that is getting increasingly confident and sometimes reckless. That President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party are in political trouble is not in doubt. I have of course seen contrary opinion polls, published by a pollster who has lost all credibility and respectability – and does not seem to care about this anyway.

Ipsos Synovate says that the President’s popularity rating stands at 50 percent. This is laughable. Dr. Tom Wolf is taking our intelligence for granted. However, I appreciate the human factors behind his laughable opinion polling. It is public knowledge about who owns Dr. Wolf’s organization. A powerful individual in government owns big shares in Ipsos Synovate. They no longer exist to do opinion polls, but to influence opinion. I have previously torn apart Dr. Wolf’s below average polls. When we faced off on national TV Dr. Wolf came loaded with computers, books, files and memoranda. However, these did not add any value to his flawed polls. His rating of President Kenyatta at 50 percent should be ignored – and especially by the President himself.

I suspect, however, that the President knows the truth about his rating, which should now be anywhere around 25 to 29 percent – to take an educated guess. As I write, I have recently traversed the Western Kenya and Coastal regions over the past few weeks. The vibes on the ground are not good at all for the President and his Jubilee Party. And I hope they are listening. In the wake of the crowds that throng their meetings, you hear people who have just been shouting “Hosanna in the highest” saying that they will never vote for Kenyatta. His undoing is corruption in government, poor management of ethnic diversity and access to opportunities and a certain propensity towards the puffed-up absolutism of a Medieval Age Russian landlord.

In the emerging scenario, I am not surprised that there is panic and high handedness in Jubilee. But it is the recklessness that is worrying. Away from pronouncements that can only whip up the ethnic sentiment against the President and those he considers to be his people, there is culpable political recklessness of a dangerous strain. Consider the reigning controversy about election laws. The initial memorandum was from the Interim Electoral and Boundaries Commission, submitted to a committee of Parliament, shortly after the negotiated amendment of the election laws.

It is instructive that Jubilee has not only been very passionate about the contentious electoral proposals that came from IEBC, it has also finagled them through Parliament, to give them a legitimate face.  Is it wrong to wonder whether the original impetus may actually not have been from the IEBC, but from Jubilee? For why would Jubilee take over and be so passionate about a proposition that was purely an IEBC initiative? Why would the Presidency cause the Speaker of the National Assembly to publish a Government Gazette notice at midnight, summoning Parliament to rubber stamp these amendments in the morning? Why would Jubilee legislators be given an edict to ensure that these laws go through, at whatever cost?

We are walking into 2017 with these questions and many more on our collective mind. We think of the unresolved questions around corruption in the national and county governments. There is palpable civil unrest and fear among the citizenry over the possibility of political violence. The opposition has promised unprecedented mass action. Jubilee remains recalcitrant with the irksome Aden Duale waving the iron fist against everybody, including the Judiciary. It is difficult to see how 2017 is going to be a happy new year. Yet all is not yet lost. Maybe President Kenyatta could still be persuaded to rise above partisan ethnic politics to provide leadership as the President of all Kenyans. He could still refrain from signing the controversial amendments into law. He could also lead in marshaling dialogue around all the other burning questions of the day. For if President Uhuru does not rise to the challenge of leadership, Kenyans could be headed into a most difficult year. Nonetheless, may I wish you a happy New Year

Kenya Sliding Back to 2007

Receive festive greetings from Mt. Elgon. I am here in this land of wonders, sampling nectar and ambrosia with senior oracles. The oracles here are known to be stumbling blocks to kings and princes. For in the words of the ancient oracle called Isaiah, nobody can teach wisdom to the Great Inspirer of oracles (Isaiah 40: 14).

That was why in the month of October 2007 the oracles pronounced through this page that Raila Odinga would later that year arrive at the seat of power only to find President Mwai Kibaki already seated, proclaiming – like the chameleon who ran faster than the horse – that he had beaten Raila in the race to the throne. And it came to pass.

Later, in January 2008, the oracles proclaimed that Raila Odinga, the Son of the Bull, was a slow punctured politician. It did not matter that afterwards he enjoyed direct oracular intervention. He was set to run out of gas. And he did. The details of his spurning oracular advice in 2012 are with him. The outcome is common knowledge. By the same token, the oracles on diverse dates in 2002 cautioned Mzee Moi about the Uhuru Project but he would not listen. He was told that the project was the poisoned chalice in the Kanu lap. He ignored. What happened to the Baba and Mama party thereafter is common knowledge.

It is not, however the Son of the Bull and Mzee Moi that I want to address today. I want to talk to the Son of the Burning Spear, otherwise known as President Uhuru, Kenyatta. The oracles are saying that things don’t look good at all. If the Son of the Bull has been on a slow puncture, the Son of the Burning Spear could be headed for a tragic political tire burst.

The Elgon oracles are telling him to forget about the lying hired oracles from offshore. These are of the type that is led by Mzungus who speak “Key-swa-hilly.” These people are lying to President Kenyatta through the nose. They are cheating him about his popularity rating in the country. They are tell him that half of the voters in the country would vote for him, were elections to be held today. I am told that the President actually owns the outfit through which a certain Tom Dick Harry is processing this popularity dossier before publishing it in “Key-swa-hilly.”

Hence, they are telling him that at a time when all the public hospitals in the country are under the paralysis of a nationwide doctors strike, Kenyans are very pleased with the performance of his government. At a time when theft by State officers has reached unprecedented levels, a Mzungu oracle is saying that Kenyans are very happy. This offshore oracle is saying that President Kenyatta is going to have a very easy walk back to State House in the next elections. He is either lying straight through the nose, or he has been commissioned to say exactly what he is saying.

Instructively, the sense of nationhood is at its lowest ebb. This is by courtesy of the President preaching the water of nationhood and drinking from the wine goblet of negative ethnicity. The President has succeeded in filling up Kenyans with negative ethnic passions. This includes both those from his tribe and those from other tribes. He is pushing the country back to the mantra of 2007, when it used to be proclaimed, “Forty-one against one.” There is urgent need to arrest this drift and restore the sense of togetherness across Kenyan tribes. Shutting our eyes to it will not work. Cheating the President that things are very good and that he is very popular only makes things worse. When the explosion comes, he will not even know where it came from. The time to tell him the truth is now.

We have sunk so low that legislators are even barred from driving into the precincts of Parliament. Hostile armed characters stand in their way, brandishing guns, daring them to try and drive on. The goal is to intimidate them and everyone else ahead of a bad electoral law being forced through Parliament.

It is instructive that while State House has been very passionate about the contentious electoral laws that Jubilee wangled through the House, the original impetus is known to have come from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Given the passion with which State House and the Jubilee Party have afterwards owned and crusaded for these amendments, should we continue to believe that the IEBC did not, in fact, get the original draft from the Executive?

A very worrying scenario begins emerging. Is the IEBC acting at the behest of State House and Jubilee as the Opposition has claimed time and again? For why would State House be so passionate about a purely IEBC initiative? Why would the Presidency cause the Speaker of the National Assembly to publish a Government Gazette notice at midnight, recalling Parliament to rubber stamp these amendments? Why would Jubilee legislators be given an edict to ensure that these laws go through, at whatever cost?

As happened in 2006 and 2007, the country is getting dangerously polarized over things that could be resolved through sober dialogue. From the doctors’ strike to amendment of electoral laws, all the way to managing ethnic diversity, nothing is beyond dialogical engagement. In all this, the President sets out the direction, the pace and the mood. The preferred path would seem to be that of mutual ethnic hostility and draconian methods, even in Parliament. The oracles see a very difficult year ahead, with every line from the 2007 script.

President Kenyatta’s Style Generates Worry and Fear

In the arts we appreciate both form and content. What you do is just as important as how you do it. Sometimes your style will even say more than what the substance is saying.  Appreciation of this duality is as old as ancient antiquity. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) elaborately discussed form and content in Rhetoric and in Poetics. And so when President Uhuru Kenyatta is giving his State of the Nation Address on Kenya’s 53rd Jamhuri Day, I cannot help drifting into both the form and content of his message.

His body gestures and movements, the cadence, timbre and nuanced inflections in his voice (especially the non conscious ones), the succession of facial expressions, the involuntary activities that the fingers do, the fumbling with the sheaf of papers that are his official address, as he ad libs – all these and many more little gradations of performance – are just as important as what he is labouring to say. And both the substance and style on this occasion speak to a troubled mind.

My president speaks with the urgency and ire of the aggrieved. Jamhuri should be a happy day. We are marking the most important happening in our togetherness as an independent people, a nation. Our self-determination began on this day, 53 years ago. It is time for national stocktaking; acknowledging our gains and loses as a people and producing our national balance sheet. In the process, we also expect to examine the promissory notes that those who were in charge 53 years ago set aside for the future generations.

Happily for President Kenyatta, he is the second member of his family to lead the nation in this very useful exercise. Between him and his late father, they have led 19 of our 53 celebrations. Perhaps no other father and son will achieve this feat anytime soon. Unless one of the Moi progeny ascends to power. You understand why I expect the President to be happy. But he is not. Even when he rolls out his catalogue of successes – real and perceived – he is still not happy. The triumphal cadence is missing, the victorious facial expression absent.

The celebratory text has the sound of an elegy, a typical poetic lament for the dead. There is a salvo at some detractor here and another one there – people who cannot see the good that this government is doing. Apparently some are planning to bring in foreign money, to mess with the forthcoming general elections. Scheming with foreigners does not end there. There are people – maybe even the same ones – planning to bring back the matter of the International Criminal Court (ICC), from which six Kenyans escaped by whiskers.

Now Kenya intends to pull out of this court, the President says. And he says many other low-spirited things on this day of high celebration. We all go home unhappy. Sad.   Some are sad because others don’t see anything good in what our good government is doing. Others are unhappy because they don’t like what the President has said. There are no winners. We are all losers on the greatest day in our national calendar.

The detached critic of art has difficulty finding the context in which the address is hinged, except the context of unhappiness. And yet am I not getting used to the reality that is President Kenyatta and the Habit of Unhappiness? President Kenyatta and the Habit of Unhappiness? With fitting apologies to departed Cameroonian novelist Mongo Beti, this would be a good title for some book in future. But I digress. Back to my thing, what is making my President so unhappy? What is rattling him?

I am worried because my President is worried. And I share in some of his worries. He has told us that some people are planning violence in next year’s polls. So it is not enough that foregners are “pouring in money” to influence the outcome of the elections? Now someone wants us to fight, too. And yet there will be no ICC to restrain us? So it will be a free for all? Well, this is true self-determination.

Yet, maybe, all this could just be made up stuff? High level scaremongering? You see, there has been far too much talk about corruption. Corruption, corruption, corruption! Every morning I wake up to new narratives of corruption in government. It is as if the thing just thrives on its energy. And I have never seen anyone punished. Now someone has ranked Kenya the third most corrupt country in the world. But I don’t believe him. They must have rigged us out of our number one position. After all the President is telling us that they even plan to rig our elections next year.

But the President has also told us, “We will not accept this.” We will not accept foreigners to rig our elections. So what, exactly, will we do? How exactly will we reject? Does it mean that we will reject the rigged election results? But who are “we,” we who will reject the rigging of our thing? Will “we” reject the same way some people rejected in 2007? This whole thing is confusing. Refusing foreign induced election processes and outcomes, people planning violence, Kenya pulling out of the ICC – it is all confusing.

It is however not just confusing. It is frightening. For in this style and substance, I read panic – I should have used a more politically correct idiom, but I cannot find one. Is there panic in the House of Jubilee? Could they have run out of election campaign agenda? Could all this talk of corruption be messing up their development campaign agenda soup with bad flies?

The test of national unity, in my estimation, failed flat – long ago. There is no redemption here. The test of economic development is going south. They spoke of Uwazi (openness), Umoja (Unity) and Uchumi (Economy). None of these seems able to stand on its feet. Maybe the best thing is to try what has been tested and proven before? ICC and railing at foreigners worked, last time. Maybe it is time to play that card again?

Photo by reuters

Stop Insults and Negotiate With Striking Health Workers in Kenya

We have not handled the health sector well. The ongoing doctors’ strike and its impact is the price society pays for mismanaging a highly sensitive sector. It is a factor of an insensitive National Government usurping devolved functions and funds without intending to give back anything, except cosmetic tokens and official mirage.

We are wallowing in the mess that a people must sink into when Government is about “eating meat” while “others salivate,” as President Uhuru Kenyatta says. Under these circumstances, those who drive the system don’t even believe in it. They don’t have to. It doesn’t matter. The important thing here is “the meat.” The rest is about showbiz, catwalks and allied political drama. Accordingly, none of the government officials in this drama has use for public hospitals. They only go there for photo opportunities and related official cowboy activities.

You cannot expect them to address the issues that doctors have raised for more than three years now. They don’t give a damn, as they say in America. I repeat. That is not why they are here. They are here “to eat meat.” They know that the systems are not working; and they really don’t care. Nor do they care that patients are dying. The only thing that matters now is how to make the doctors look bad in the public eye. If we could blackmail the medics with catch phrases like “insensitivity,” “the Hippocratic Oath,” and allied emotive idiom, we could get them to return to work and ourselves back to business as usual. This matter goes back to June 2013. A brand new Jubilee Government signed a collective bargaining agreement with the medics. They agreed to certain terms. Three years on, they have not delivered. Worse still, they have avoided talking to the health workers on this matter over the period. This is despite everyone seeing the gathering clouds.

Meanwhile on Friday February 7, 2015, the National Government signed contracts with five international companies from India, Italy, the United States, The Netherlands and China for the supply of leased medical equipment for the 47 counties. The leases are supposed to last up to ten years. They will cost Sh38 billion. This was done under secretive and suspicious circumstances.

The equipment was then forced upon the counties, including those that had already made alternative affordable arrangements. If this Government can afford Sh38 billion for equipment that is today lying idle in hospitals across the country, why can it not agree with health workers on their stipend? Sh40,000 per month for a doctor is a cruel joke.

But it also turns out that the leased equipment was sourced through a company owned by a sister to a very powerful individual in the National Government. There was no competitive bidding. Those behind this deal did not even bother about the personnel who would operate the equipment, or if the necessary supportive infrastructure was in place. They did not even factor in repairs and maintenance. The only thing that mattered was to seal the deal. It was all about making a quick business kill. This is what Government seems to be about these days. The doctors’ strike comes in the wake of a Sh5.2 billion mystery about “mobile clinics,” acquired at about 20 times the cost. The procurement was feverish. Even internal audits show that “mobilisation fees” were paid the same day the tenders were issued. Six months later, the “clinics” are lying idle in some yard at the coast.

Health is a fully devolved function, as we have said. Why does this Government cling on it? Why can’t it let go? Consider that for the first two years of the Jubilee Government, the budget lines in the Ministry of Health remained exactly the way they had been before devolution. This is to say that while the services had been devolved, the funds remained with the National Government. Despite keeping the funds, they could not address the wage crises in the sector. In the third year, they removed the devolved budget lines but placed the funds under different budget heads. The question remains, what are they doing with these monies?

In the end, the citizen is a fool. The stupidity of it all begins with the belief that no matter how useless they may be, we must defend the people in power, for so long as they are from our village. Yet even in the little village called Emanyulia, we can’t trust the cook if he will not eat from the same pot with us. Time is nigh. We must re-educate ourselves about the institution of Government and why governments are constituted among men and women.

Governments exist to serve. Those who ask for State office basically apply to be servants. Yet you see them everywhere, shouting at us, angrily. We see people who are veritably drunk with power, abusing those who raise legitimate questions about the performance of this Jubilee Government. You must be forgiven if you begin imagining that the country is the personal property of the individuals in power. The rest of us seem to be their vassals. We are heaps of rubbish. That is why whenever we raise issues, their response is uncontrolled display of anger at public rallies.

The people in power need to wake up to the reality that the country is not their personal property. They therefore need to listen keenly when Kenyans speak to them. Right now health workers are asking to be listened to. The Government needs to engage them in sober dialogue. But this Government also needs to let go of devolved services as well as the funds to support them.

For those who imagine that citizens are just heaps of dry rubbish there is need to remember that all dry rubbish risks catching fire on some windy day. Then some people will know how to shout at rubbish at public rallies, when they should instead be engaging citizens in sober conversation.

Photo Credits: Reuters

Sometimes Good Things Happen

Education Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiang’i and his team caught us all flatfooted. They say that old habits die hard. And ours don’t just die hard. They are bad habits that seem to be only second to our nature. For, we are accustomed to repeated cycles of life, after the same pattern of bad things, year in year out.

We gravitate towards the beasts that George Orwell had in mind when he wrote, “Their life, so far as they knew, was as it had always been. They were generally hungry, they slept on straw, drank from the pool; they labored in the fields; in winter they were troubled by the cold, and in summer by the flies.”  In essence, nothing changes and nothing good happens.

When we seem to stumble into a good thing, it takes the air out of our lungs. That is what the management of national examinations this year – and now the announcement of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) – results has done to us. We are flabbergasted. And rightly so.  Jogoo House knocked us breathless this week. We are used to the results coming out during the last two days of December. They arrive fully loaded with all manner of anomalies and angry exchanges.

There are accusations and counter accusations about exam stealing, cheating, doctoring and a whole cocktail of dysfunctional recriminations. The teachers’ unions are brandishing the fist from one corner and a self-styled parents’ association is making shrill sounds from some other corner. Private schools are complaining over one thing or the other, and some parents and schools are frantically drawing everyone’s attention to the plight of cancellation of their results. From there we move on to a messy selection of Form One candidates, equally amidst a complaints galore. We move on to a teacher’s strike – or a threat about an imminent one. Our life goes on that way, up to the end of the year, when teachers either go on strike or promise to do so as a preface to the next cycle of national examinations.

When they tell us on the first day of December that the results are ready and that Form One selections are set to begin in a week’s time; and every candidate will get their results, we are lost for words. It seems that we should wonder for the first time ever what they have always done with the results in the previous years. Yet, more significantly, there are great lessons to take home. Primarily is the reality that one committed and focused individual can make all the difference.

It is usually unpleasant to attempt to draw parallels between two officials who are serving the same entity and who sit in the same forums as equals. Yet when you have passed through a certain orbit, you must invariably accept to be part of the reference frame. When he came to Jogoo House in the first quarter of this year, Dr. Matiang’i, like Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi before him, had the mien of a no nonsense man. Barring a confounding brush with some universities, Dr. Matiang’i, has been more methodical and consultative than his predecessor and former senior at the University of Nairobi.

Put together with the straight shooting Prof. George Magoha at the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC), the duo makes for a redoubtable two cylinder head engine. Throw in General Joseph Nkaissery from the Ministry of Interior and garnish the arrangement with the rest of the top boys and girls in Jogoo House and you have a team that Kenya has not witnessed in recent times. They have worked with clockwork precision, with dignity and decorum. Which must lead us to ask the question, why is it so difficult for this to become our way of life?

When Kenyans complain about the way things are done in Government, they mean that they expect the kind of service the Ministry of Education is now providing. They have of course had their own challenges in Jogoo House. There was the spate of fires in high schools across the country, the unending agenda of salaries and the plight of exam cheating – the latter which we had almost come to accept as our way of life. Indeed, the fires were said to have been a reaction to new stringent measures against cheating in exams. Jogoo House dug in, regardless. In the end we have examination results that we are likely to believe. We also have a team that we are likely to trust, going forward.

Dr. Matiang’i was the first Cabinet Secretary President Kenyatta named when he began putting his government together. Others followed slowly over a period of almost one month. In the fullness of time, Kenyans begin to appreciate what the President had seen in this Cabinet Secretary. The question remains, however, where is the rest of the Government?

What this country needs are efficient men and women who can give citizens cause to smile because they have a functional government. Regrettably this is not the case. Instead, the place is awash with cantankerous sycophantic characters that seem to think that their role is to antagonize everyone who did not vote for the Jubilee Government. They frolic from pillar to post engaging the nation in arrogant ethnic based invective and still expect that their government can be popular.

If President Kenyatta wants his government to be popular, he now has the answer. If he has been almost tearfully asking what Kenyans want him to do about thieves in his government, he now knows that Kenyans are asking him to provide leadership. He needs to provide political will, provide a new paradigm and lead from the front. A warning shot has gone out to all in leadership and those who would aspire to lead. The bar has been set. And it is a high bar.

In the ended Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams and in all other areas of public service, Kenyans will expect no less commitment and no less efficiency than what the Ministry of Education has demonstrated that it is capable of. As for the Ministry and for Dr. Matiang’i, the last word is that Kenya is watching. We don’t expect anything less than what you have just given us. Congratulations and good luck, going forward.