I must admit that I am a sceptic, when it comes to the subject of Kenya’s alleged “innovation” prowess.
For I am inclined to see the invention of our world-famous M-Pesa mobile cash transfer system as “a black swan event”: A truly transformational — but strictly one-off — success which is unlikely to be replicated.
To those Kenyans who yet hold out hope, I would pose this question: M-Pesa has now been around for over 10 years; Why is it taking us so long to come up with the next Big Thing?
Consider middle-distance running. Could we still have any claim to being a world-class competitor in athletics if the last Olympic gold medal we could boast of was one that Kipchoge Keino won in the 1970s? Anyway, that is no reason for us to stop trying to be a nation of innovators.
Also, we can take consolation in the fact that what we lack in ICT innovations, we make up for in political ingenuity.
I am constantly amazed at how creative Kenyans can be in their pursuit of their political goals.
A classic example from well over 10 years ago that I have never forgotten, is that of a couple of young men who were arrested when they were found heading towards the grounds where a political rally was underway. They were carrying a beehive, which they – evidently – intended to toss into the crowd at that rally, and thus bring the proceedings to a swift and chaotic end.
Now be honest: If you wanted to bring a political rival’s rally to a premature end, would that thought occur to you? That you did not need a large gang of intoxicated hooligans armed to the teeth, but just a couple of young men, and a small beehive filled with provoked bees? You must admit there is genius in the elegant simplicity of this ‘crowd dispersal strategy’.
Even at a higher level up the political ladder, equally clever schemes come up all the time.
For example, I was out of the country for most of the last two years of President Mwai Kibaki’s first term in office. Thus, seeing Kenyan politics from a distance, I assumed Kibaki would prove invincible in his 2007 reelection bid, given his remarkable achievement in reviving the economy.
I returned to find a substantial part of the electorate absolutely convinced that only Central Kenya had benefitted at all from the Kibaki presidency, and so determined to send him into early retirement. This was largely due to the opposition propaganda.
In 2013, it was Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s turn to be on the receiving end of such effective propaganda. To those of us who knew something of its history, it seemed patently obvious that no politician could possibly manipulate the ICC to neutralise his rivals. Yet this is precisely what a good number of Kenyan voters believed Raila had managed to do, in the run-up to the 2013 General Election.
Like all effective schemes, both these massively fraudulent and exclusionary narratives were based on a real understanding of the psychology of the electorate.
Well, this year’s election also has its psychologically insightful and brilliant innovation: The pre-election sharing out of Cabinet office on a regional basis, which has been pioneered by opposition NASA.
What has truly poisoned our politics and created a propensity for election-related violence is a fear of marginalisation, even within the biggest tribal communities.
Given how deeply every corner of the nation yearns for “inclusion”, it is truly impressive that NASA has announced in advance that each of its “five principals” — its top leadership — will get to appoint a given number of members to the Cabinet, if they win. This is bound to prove very popular with the many voters who judge political inclusion solely by how many “one of our own” is appointed to high office.
I predict that by 2022, we will have gone even further down this road — irrespective of who wins in August.
And that anyone running for President will have to give us voters his full list of proposed Cabinet ministers before he or she even starts to campaign.