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February 17, 2019

Uhuru could use some advice from Kibaki

Kibaki & Uhuru
Kibaki & Uhuru

President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced that his plans for the nation are to be based on “four pillars” of development.

Well it does not matter whether they are four or 10 pillars. What matters is the end result: And what we all seek from the President and his government is that he should help us to prosper.

Nations are never prosperous in the abstract. If purely abstract considerations counted, then the richest country in the world might well have been the DR Congo, with its fabulous untapped mineral wealth. Countries are prosperous only to the extent that the people who live there are prosperous.

Thus, in any African nation, the single most important challenge facing the leadership is that of how to create (in a case like South Sudan) or expand (in a case like South Africa) the middle class. Indeed, the only real difference between the rich nations of North America and Western Europe, and the poorer nations of Asia and Africa is that the great majority of the West’s populations are solidly middle class, while in a country like ours, the middle class is relatively small.

Here is how it works: if you have a substantial percentage of your population prosperous enough with money to attain what we may broadly define as a middle-class standard of living, these same people provide an essential tax base. In the absence of such a tax base, you will be enchained to the whims of “donors” and their financial agencies, without whose support you cannot meet your national budgetary obligations.

From such taxes you can pay for roads, railways, improved water supply, cheaper power, good public schools and hospitals, and all kinds of public infrastructure, which even the poor will benefit from.

Here in Kenya one man has shown himself to be particularly adept in public finance management, and hence, in the creation and expansion of the middle class. And he is available to advise Uhuru Kenyatta on what must be done.

That man is retired President Mwai Kibaki.

When he was Finance minister back in the late 1960s all the way to the mid-1980s, Kenya flourished, and was an example to all African nations of what good governance (at least as applied to public finances) looked like.

What is most impressive in retrospect, is that this prosperity was built on widely shared, agriculture-based economic growth. Whether you talked of the tea farmers of the Rift Valley and Central Kenya; or the coffee farmers of Central Kenya; or the sugarcane growers of the old Nyanza and Western provinces; or the maize farmers of Trans Nzoia. All these lived comfortable lives of the kind which our current poverty-stricken farmers can hardly imagine.

However, in Kenyan politics, no good deed goes unpunished. And so, his boss in the 1980s, President Daniel Moi, was quick to sideline Kibaki to the powerless Home Affairs docket, and thereafter appointed a series of mediocre Finance ministers, who — usually acting on Moi’s direct instructions — drove the country deep into perilous indebtedness and economic stagnation.

We were not to see any signs of growing prosperity again until Kibaki was voted in as President in 2002, when — in just a few short years — Kenyans became acquainted with world-class traffic jams, as those joining the rapidly expanding middle class bought their first cars.

Now you may wonder, which Finance Minister worked this magic during the Kibaki presidency. Well, if you had read the autobiography of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, The Flame of Freedom, you would know that Kibaki was his own Finance minister.

Raila’s book mentions a conversation he had with Kibaki at a time when the coalition government of 2008 was being crafted, and Raila was adamant that Musalia Mudavadi (arguably the only political figure whose grasp of public finances rivals Kibaki’s) must be the new Finance minister.

Kibaki won Raila over by explaining that anyone who had served as Finance minister under him had in reality been a mere figurehead. Kibaki made the case that he understood public finance better than most, and ran that key ministry personally — the so-called Finance minister at any one time being merely someone who reported to him daily, to take instructions.

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