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February 20, 2019

Even bigger problems lie ahead


Right now, two things seem to be of obsessive concern to many Kenyans.

The first is what the immediate electoral and constitutional implications will be of what is now generally termed as ‘the handshake’. By this we mean the decision by previous bitter enemies President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga to work together towards ending the deadly political rivalries that have come to define Kenyan politics.

The second is the question of how exactly national reconciliation will be attained, given that barely three months ago, many Kenyans were genuinely dreading the possibility of a virulent campaign of secession breaking their country in two.

There are two useful points that can be made on these matters of great interest.

First is that we must allow plenty of time for the committee of ‘elders’ that has been set up to lay the groundwork for this great effort at national unity to do its work. It would be disastrous to expect instant results from anything this complex.

We must bear it in mind that just a few months ago, Uhuru’s political troops lost no opportunity to brand Raila as a toxic and perennial loser. A dangerous man who was willing to see the country go down in flames, rather than admit that he had lost the presidential election.

While — far more toxic in my view, and inimical to national stability — Raila’s millions of supporters had come to believe that there was really no use in their hero participating in any presidential election. From their perspective, any such election would have its outcome predetermined by ‘those people’ who had already rigged out their hero Raila, no less than three times in presidential elections, which they had no doubt he had actually won.

So, the only vote they wanted to cast now was at a referendum on secession, which would divide Kenya into two independent nations.

And a satisfying preliminary to that had already been provided by Raila being ‘sworn in’ in broad daylight in Uhuru Park as ‘the People’s President’, to the ecstatic cheers of a large crowd of his supporters,

No doubt the citizens of some of the African nations which have for many years now experienced continuing instability — DRC Congo, Burundi, South Sudan— yearn for nothing more than to have former irreconcilable political rivals shake hands as Uhuru and Raila did. To them this would seem like an absolute miracle.

This brings us to the second point: The fact that this grand gesture of reconciliation is the easy part. Even the ‘elders’ going around collecting views from the public (or whatever it is they will do as a means of arriving at a consensus on the way forward) qualifies as easy.

What is truly difficult is to generate widely shared prosperity. For the root cause of all our troubles is not political at all, but economic.

Politics in Kenya generally — and presidential polls in particular — have become a life and death struggle, precisely because there is a general awareness of diminishing economic opportunities.

For example, 20 years ago it made perfect sense for a Kenyan family of modest means to invest all they had — even unto selling livestock and maybe even a parcel of land — to get their son or daughter through college. Back then, education paid heavy dividends, and a university degree guaranteed a good job.

But now, even those graduating in fields like medicine and education must wait for years before they can hope to get a job, despite a definite need for additional staff in public hospitals and schools. Why would any family make such a sacrifice when fully aware that there would be no dividends to speak of?

We should certainly be grateful that our two most influential political leaders found a way out of the really tight corner we were in, just a few months ago.

But as of this point, I remain unconvinced that they have any viable ideas on how to generate for us substantive — and widely shared — prosperity that would ensure that we never again have to endure the horrors of deadly political divisions.

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