• After the elections in 2017 and with the second crop of governors, I thought the work of a good number of outgoing governors would be followed up by the incoming ones.
• I was deeply disappointed to see that in quite a number of instances, the new governors did not finish the work started by their predecessors.
Over the past few months, I have observed with some accuracy how various Eastern Africa nations have reacted to the public health challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
This is largely because as an ambassador, I am accredited not just to Kenya, but also to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.
And while the leaderships of most of these countries have worked diligently to save as many lives as possible as well as to prevent the spread of infection, I must say it has been obvious to me that Kenya has a distinct advantage here, in possessing the leading biomedical research institute in the region. This is the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
I am now in my final days in Kenya, and so I tend to be reflective about my tenure here as the Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya.
I have increasingly come to believe the benchmark by which I should judge my contributions to Kenya and to relationships between Kenya and Switzerland can be summarised by this question: What have I been able to do to help in building and strengthening independent institutions here?
Let me explain my point.
The most important development project Switzerland and Kenya jointly undertook over the last 50 years was the establishment of Utalii College.
You might say that Utalii today is facing serious challenges and question the degree of success that has been attained through this historic partnership.
But all institutions have their ups and downs. The same is true for Utalii. It had for years been a famous centre of excellence for training in the hospitality sector. So, while it may at the moment face challenges, I believe it will rise again.
What is beyond any doubt, though, is that Utalii was clearly an institution. It institutionalised vocational training in the hospitality sector.
Thanks to Utalii, all Kenyan hotels, lodges and restaurants could hire well-trained Kenyan youth to work in the tourism sector, having received a high standard of education.
This institution changed the face of Kenya’s tourism industry from the 1970s onwards. That is what I mean by institutionalised hospitality education.
Let me give you another example.
The highlight of my tenure was the visit of the Swiss Confederation President Alain Berset in 2018, which the Kenyan government did an outstanding job in organising.
President Uhuru Kenyatta was charming, professional and statesmanlike. The two presidents connected well at a personal level too.
But only six months later, Switzerland had a new president. The presidency in Switzerland rotates on a yearly basis.
When President Berset visited Kenya, it was not a politician who visited, it was the Swiss Presidency — the institution of the Presidency of the Swiss Confederation.
Our members of government feel first and foremost that they are representatives of the Federal Council, the institution of the Swiss government. And only after that do they feel that they are individual politicians.
I would like to add one more example here: The institution that is the Kenyan media.
It has been my pleasure to interact extensively with members of the media during my time in Nairobi and all I can say is that I fully appreciate why in every poll conducted in this country, the media is judged to be the single most trusted institution in Kenya.
I have always found journalists in Kenya to be very professional: Hardworking, straightforward and keen to engage with not just me, but also with the members of my staff at the embassy.
So, whether you talk of the tourism sector, or the executive arm of government, or even the media, it is strong institutions that make it possible for a country to move forward.
You might ask, “So, did you not see any sector in which a lack of strong institutions was holding Kenya back?”
Yes, I did. And it was, most unfortunately, in something that is very close to my heart, coming from the country most famous for its devolution and federal system of government.
During my tour of duty, I had the privilege to witness institution building in Kenya – in the counties. Devolution meant the establishment of new county administrations.
The first crop of governors were like pioneers. They had to find their way through sometimes uncharted waters. Many mistakes were made. Many lessons were learnt. And some counties witnessed transformational changes.
For that reason, after the elections in 2017 with the second crop of governors, I thought the commendable work of a good number of outgoing governors would be followed up by the incoming ones.
And I was deeply disappointed to see that in quite a number of instances, the new governors did not finish the work started by their predecessors.
You could read about white elephant projects in the counties, projects that were just abandoned. Some new governors were investing in ‘their’ projects in which they — and they alone — could take full credit.
In the process, they were ignoring the partially completed projects that had been started by their political rivals in the elections.
From an institutional perspective, that was a big mistake.
First, they should have finished what was left by their predecessors and only after that should they have started their own projects.
So, in my view, there seems to be a lack of institutional thinking in the counties. If I have one piece of advice for the governors in Northern Kenya, with whom I worked so closely, as well as for others around Kenya, it would be this: Build your future on the strength of your collective institutions, not on the influence of individual leaders.
All the same, my embassy did what it could to contribute to institution building within devolution: We helped establish and strengthen the Frontier Counties Development Council. FCDC is a ‘regional bloc’ of 10 northern counties, a region that was historically neglected and had seen little development.
It faces the same challenges of a tough arid and semi-arid climate with recurrent drought and flooding. Last but not least, it is a region of Kenya known for insecurity.
Facing the same challenges and sharing the same way of pastoralist life, the FCDC governors came together to coordinate and promote social and economic development of their region.
The FCDC secretariat, a small institution set up years ago with the assistance of my Embassy, helps the governors to remain focussed and to work on the most important challenges their people face.
It is critical to invest in the strengthening of independent institutions.
I tried my best to contribute to the building of independent institutions. I worked with all the institutions fighting corruption.
And as I prepare to leave, I wish Kenya and the Kenyan people well in their efforts to continue with nation building – which always begins with institution building.
Heckner is the outgoing ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya