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February 21, 2019

What the President should do

The missing link
The missing link

“What do you want me to do?”

With that statement, President Uhuru Kenyatta seemed to throw his hands up in resignation two weeks ago. The most powerful man in the land claiming to be powerless in the face of the rampant stealing of public resources that has now become the hallmark of his administration.

And it surely does seem that everything the Jubilee administration touches turns to loot. Few of the projects it has initiated over the past 43 months — from laptops for schoolkids to the standard gauge railway to the free maternity programme — have escaped the reek of corruption. Anti-corruption crusader John Githongo says it is “by far the most corrupt government in our history”.

It is all so very different from the euphoria that accompanied President Mwai Kibaki’s electoral triumph and assumption of office a year earlier. Then, it seemed, Kenya was well on the way to slaying the proverbial corruption dragon. Kibaki and his Narc allies, including Raila Odinga, had built their campaign on an unabashedly anti-corruption platform, promising to end the plunder the country had experienced under his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi. However, the revelations of continuing theft in high place coupled with the de facto immunity afforded to Nyayo era thieves, would bring such hope crashing down to earth. How did we come to this?

In their insightful book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson identify the nature of a country’s institutions, whether extractive or inclusive, as the primary determinant of its success. But unlike Kenya, where we equate institutions to an alphabet soup of organisations, Acemoglu and Robinson describe institutions as simply the rules, written and unwritten, that influence how systems work. Countries where such rules encourage participation by the masses, distribute political power broadly and subject it to constraint will tend to be successful whereas, as Kenyans can attest to from experience, those where the distribution of power is narrow and unconstrained will end up with systems geared to enrich a powerful few at the expense of the rest.

The primary reason why Kenya’s war on corruption remains little more than words on paper is because we are focussed on changing personalities and organisations, rather than the rules that underpin the system we inherited from the British colonialists. In 1963, it was all about getting rid of the “colonial masters”. Half a century later, it was all about “Moi must go”. As the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report demonstrated, the rules of the game remained mostly unchanged. The government still functioned as a vehicle of plunder, with the only difference being that in place of white oppressors, we had black ones.

The inauguration of the 2010 Constitution provided an opportunity to address this system but here again, form is triumphing over substance. The fact of its passage continues to be hailed as a success (and it is) even as its spirit is crushed. Nominally independent institutions, such as the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, remain, for all intents and purposes, subservient to the presidential whim. Parliament, too, is little more than a lackey for the executive. The political sphere still excludes participation by most citizens in everyday governance while continuing to be the dominant influence over their lives. Impunity for wielders of political power is still the norm.

Passing the Constitution was just a necessary first step. As at Independence, the real work lies in its implementation and in overthrowing the existing authoritarian underpinnings of the state. This is where we are failing. The exclusive focus on prosecutions and convictions (which are necessary) sadly elides this.

It is true that the Constitution limits the role of the President in punishing offenders. But that is not the problem. The question is why, despite the constitution, opportunities to steal with impunity continue to proliferate, while transparency and accountability continue to diminish. Where the President has been largely absent is in articulating and leading the necessary systemic reform to ensure that the state delivers the system that the constitution he swore to uphold envisages. More than simply setting up more organisations or replacing existing ones, it will require a fundamental rethinking of the institutions governing the relationship between state organs and that between the state and its citizens.

That, Mr President, is what we want you to do. Not turn back the clock.

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