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February 20, 2019

Counties get white elephants

Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru../FILE
Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru../FILE

If the media reports on this matter are to be believed, Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru intends to set up a Sh19 billion tourism-driven convention centre within her county.

And, reportedly, “investors” have been approached to take advantage of the glittering opportunities that Kirinyaga offers for such an establishment.

In terms of sheer ambition, this puts her way behind Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti, now serving his second term in office, who shortly after he was sworn in back in 2013 promised his county’s voters a Sh500 billion “agri-city” which would create tens of thousands of jobs. He even brought a group of “investors” to attend a meeting to launch this historic project. And that – as far as I am aware – was the last that was heard of the “agri-city”.

Not very far behind Awiti in terms of sheer grandeur is the Sh200 billion “industrial park” which is to be established somewhere near Eldoret. This is a private capital investment, enthusiastically supported by the Uasin Gishu government.

I look forward with great interest to finding out how this industrial park will get around the longstanding barrier to Kenyan industrialisation. And this is that compared to our two key continental rivals for manufacturing – Egypt and South Africa – Kenyan electricity (which would predetermine the viability of any such vast industrial project) is far too costly.

On the day you see your power bill drop by 70 per cent, that is the day you should take seriously any talk of “industrialisation”. Until then, our economic future lies in labour-intensive agriculture and service industries.

Still, there you have it: Massive projects for, first agriculture, then tourism and then manufacturing, being presented to a dazzled public as being, more or less, “round the next corner”.

The question it raises is this: Why is it that so many governors cannot resist the temptation to come up with these massive projects which – in their nature - have a very high chance of failing altogether?

Cynical Kenyans would probably answer that “there is more to eat” in such large projects. In other words, that you need such large projects (for which the feasibility study alone may cost many millions) if you are to skim enough off the top to have an adequate war chest for the next election.

That may be so. But I don’t think it is the only reason. There is a psychological dimension to this as well.

A coastal politician – now long deceased – once told me that he had no doubt that there was witchcraft embedded in the tiny flag fluttering on the bonnet of every ministerial limousine.

His argument was that you could start off as the most sane and sober of men. But once elevated to the Cabinet, the regular sight of that flag on your official car would have a hypnotic - and ultimately devastating - effect on you.

It would change the way you walked. It would change your way of addressing ordinary Kenyans. It would impose on you new and expensive tastes in the kind of suits you wore. You would suddenly find that the seats in the Economy section of any aircraft are too small, and that you simply had to be upgraded to Business Class.

And above all, it would make you feel that you simply had to leave behind some impressive legacy of your time in the Cabinet – usually an epic white elephant project.

I believe something of that kind affects our governors too. And maybe it affects them even more, since - after all - each of them presides over their own “cabinet”.

Admittedly it is very pleasant – and indeed intoxicating – to meet with so-called investors and to contemplate vast schemes which will – in the abstract - have a massively trans-formational impact on your county. This is more enjoyable than taking many small, inconspicuous steps to improve the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of small-scale farmers who make up the greater part of the population of most counties.

Thus, we find that – to mix metaphors – such red herrings lead many governors on a wild goose chase, as they indulge their newly-found appetite for white elephants.

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