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September 26, 2017

We don’t reward development

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For some time now, I have been waiting for a brilliant, transformational narrative to emerge from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party: Some clever idea that would immediately put the opposition National Super Alliance on the defensive.

Seeing as it is now just two months to the August 8 General Election, I must assume that the foreign political strategists of JP have not been as effective as they were in the last election.

Why do I mention these foreign strategists?

Well, it is because it was apparently one such international political advisory group that came up with the bold idea that to defeat Raila Odinga (back then, the serving PM and the runaway leader in all opinion polls) presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto had to sell a critical mass of Kenyan voters on the proposition that it was Raila who had paved the way to their indictment by the International Criminal Court.

It took a profound understanding of Kenyan political culture to arrive at this brilliant idea – totally false, and easily disproven, but brilliant, all the same.

For although we are now in our 55th year as an independent nation, Kenyans still show a classical post-colonial phobia for “foreigners” interfering in our affairs. And any leader successfully branded as “an agent of foreign interests” will find that this works against him.

But it is not only Uhuru and Ruto who benefitted from this clever strategy, which opened the way to their victory in 2013. The whole country benefitted. Because the two tribal communities that manifested the most bitter hatreds in the 2007 post-election violence ended up working together. And this, more than anything else, ensured that we had a peaceful election.

Election-related violence, which is to be truly dreaded, tends to have the upper Rift Valley as its epicentre: Any violence that starts in this region will tend to spread rapidly to other regions as well, as retaliatory attacks are mounted in various distant locations.

So whoever it was who came up with this idea of demonising Raila as the initiator of the ICC process in Kenya, served those who paid him well. Not only that, this mysterious person also helped give us a peaceful election, which we desperately needed.

It’s true enough that, even now, Kenya’s reputation as a relatively peaceful and democratic nation has not fully recovered from the conflagration of the 2007-08 PEV. But had there been a second explosion of violence in 2013, then heaven knows what would have followed, or where we would have ended up.

But why do I say that the President is in need of an equally powerful idea and narrative as that which propelled him to power in 2013?

Largely because of an odd fact of Kenyan politics that I have noticed many media commentators dancing around, but failing to address directly: The odd fact that Kenyan voters don’t generally reward a President seeking reelection for his successes in economic development.

We Kenyans are so many, and generally so poor that such development is rarely experienced in a personal way by the average Kenyan within a five-year term. And so it is not hard to convince that average Kenyan that all economic progress reported was centred on the President’s tribe.

I remember reading after the 2007 election an article by a famous economist, who marvelled at how President Kibaki should have won such a narrow victory (and, arguably, did not win at all) when he had taken over a stagnant economy, and raised it to a near-miraculous seven per cent annual growth rate.

But that is who we are. We scream about “development” from the rooftops. But not even a historic infrastructure project like the brand new standard gauge railway will shift a major vote bloc in favour of the President who brought this about.

If Uhuru had somehow managed to bring into his fold the entire Kisii community, a good part of the Coast, or all of the former Northeastern Province, this would have been far more useful to him than the SGR, as far as this election is concerned.

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