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February 16, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: Young not always best


If we are to judge from the tone and temper of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s recent speeches, we should be having a major Cabinet reshuffle any day now. After all, the President can hardly make so many references to having been let down by various people within his Cabinet and then continue with business as usual.

In general, there is one perspective that dominates discussion on such reshuffles. This is the question of whether there will be adequate slots given to ‘the youth’. For it is an intrinsic part of Kenyan political mythology that when anything goes wrong in matters of government, it is because a president has ‘recycled’ long-serving politicians — often dismissed as ‘deadwood’. And that if the president would only infuse his government with the ‘new ideas’ and the ‘dynamism’ that only ‘the youth can provide, then all would be well.

But what this mythology really reveals is that the younger cadres of Kenya’s aspiring politicians are particularly good at articulating the case for their inclusion in government.

Age and gender are rarely fundamental determinants of performance in government. There will always be young men or women who are wise beyond their years, and veteran technocrats whose age is no hindrance to adopting new ideas. But also plenty of young fools who are destined to make tragic mistakes, and old fools who refuse to learn.

However you cannot tell how it will all turn out, until the specific individuals are actually appointed to Cabinet or other high office and given the opportunity to serve.

When it comes to corruption — in particular this myth that having plenty of young people in high office will always prove to be a blessing — has been repeatedly exposed to be a hollow sham.

The Youth Fund, for example, which was staffed entirely by young people, turned out to be a haven for thieves on a scale rarely seen in government initiatives dedicated to providing subsidised loans. And many of those who raided the coffers of the National Youth Service were themselves fairly young.

If you look back far enough, the anecdotal evidence suggests that this obsession with having greater representation from “women and youth” was actually an invention of the retired President Daniel Moi. And as with everything else that was initiated during his 24-year rule, this new focus that he came up with cannot be taken at face value.

With Moi, for example, the public servant whom His Excellency praised most loudly was often the very man who would soon be dismissed – sometimes just a few days after he had been praised to the skies.

And something like the “Nyayo Pioneer”, locally manufactured motor vehicles project that was presented as a bold new initiative which would lead to Kenya joining the league of industrial nations, turned out to be just another scam for draining money out of the Treasury into the pockets of pre-selected, individuals.

Anyway, looking back now, it seems fairly clear that a principal reason for this focus on youth by the Moi government was that younger appointees were considered to be easier to manipulate. It was so much easier to handle a young man who was yet dreaming of his first Range Rover, than a veteran of previous cabinets who might have his own ideas on what his job was.

Here is something interesting I came across in an online publication a while ago, following a Cabinet reshuffle in Japan:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rolled out his new Cabinet, shaking up more than a dozen positions in the 19-member group. Despite a broad push from Abe’s administration to advance the role of women in society, the government of one of the largest and most important economies on the planet now has one woman in it and nobody under the age of 52. The average age of the Cabinet is 63 years old.

Here is a country renowned for its economic success. And yet it is clear that considerations of “gender balance” and “youth involvement” play little or no part in the selection of those who will guide the affairs of Japan.

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