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February 17, 2019

Securing legacy a huge task

President Uhuru Kenyatta at Kasarani Stadium during Kenya's 54th Jamhuri Day celebrations. / COURTESY
President Uhuru Kenyatta at Kasarani Stadium during Kenya's 54th Jamhuri Day celebrations. / COURTESY

It is rather surprising — and in many ways not at all flattering — that over the past few weeks, we have had many in the media, alongside various politicians, offering President Uhuru Kenyatta the advice that he needs to move quickly to secure his “legacy”.

This is because it seems to suggest that he achieved nothing in his first five years. And while media pundits will of course always criticise anyone in high office, you would not normally expect a Kenyan President’s core supporters to speak so carelessly.

But since the subject has come up, let’s consider what Uhuru’s legacy might be. In this we need to ask what he might do to guarantee that in years to come, Kenyans will look back on his time in office as a golden age, which ended all too soon.

And here we run into a brick wall: For this will not be at all easy. Indeed, this matter of securing a legacy is far more difficult than his greatest challenge right now: Addressing the legitimate grievances of the opposition parties and their many millions of supporters.

There is really no mystery as to what the great majority of Kenyans desire above all else. It can be encapsulated in just two words: Economic opportunity.

We may demand free healthcare, free education, and so on. And politically, there is now a cry for electoral justice.

But far greater than any of these, and the one thing which touches everyone most profoundly is that we all desire the opportunity for advancement. And indeed, it is out of a belief that “certain communities” have denied others such opportunity that the opposition to the Uhuru presidency is so focused and unyielding.

In general, most people are willing to postpone their own dreams of prosperity, if they can believe the sacrifices they are making will lead to their children living fully prosperous lives, mostly through well-paid employment.

Higher education has traditionally been a direct path to the Kenyan middle class. But that is no longer the case. Nowadays parents question whether the sacrifices made to get their children through college are really worthwhile, because “everybody knows” that these kids will end up “sitting at home” after graduation.

For Uhuru’s legacy to be one of a net positive impact on the lives of ordinary Kenyans, it must involve in some way creating new and viable paths to the middle class for literally millions of citizens.

And that of course is no easy task.There are two reasons for this. First, when it comes to agriculture, increased productivity is generally tied to greater mechanisation. So, it may make a handful of large-scale farmers very rich. But it is unlikely that millions of ordinary Kenyans are going to get much richer by working much harder on their five-acre farms.

The other option is industrialisation. Kenyan intellectuals like to complain loudly that our country failed to achieve economic take-off largely because of a failure to industrialise in the early years after independence. Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea are held out as models of “Asian tigers” who succeeded where we failed.

But leaving aside such historic failures, the fact that is any African nation claiming to be on a path to industrialisation in the 21st century is essentially claiming that it intends to compete with China.

And that of course is like a lightweight boxer declaring that they have decided to bring down Mike Tyson, back in his heyday. It is a fight which could not possibly go beyond the first round.

None of this means that it is impossible to create economic opportunity on a large scale within a country like Kenya. Not at all. Indeed, we have no choice but to try.

But it will not be easy.

And while I have no doubt that at some point our political differences will be resolved, I will be both impressed and surprised if by the time he leaves the presidency, Uhuru succeeds in creating enough economic opportunity to satisfy millions of frustrated Kenyans.

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