One would be forgiven for thinking that Kenyans are going to the polls in the next couple of months. The 2022 General Election is four years away yet the country is already in campaign mode. Instead of prirotising key issues such as ending graft, creating jobs for the youth and implementing the President’s Big Four Agenda, the vast majority of politicians are preoccupied with succession politics.
This is detrimental to the economy. The reforms needed to make Kenya’s economy more competitive are not being accorded the priority they deserve. Worse still, some of these reforms have taken a political tangent. For instance, the proposal to introduce lifestyle audits for holders of public office has been politicised even before its implementation. This is despite its ability to promote transparency in public service and improve Kenya’s standing among global investors.
If the heated succession politics persist, Kenya’s risk profile among investors could increase, limiting the flow of long-term investments into strategic sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, which requires huge and sustained investments for the acquisition and maintenance of assets such as industrial machinery. This presents a clear threat to President Kenyatta’s goal of increasing the manufacturing sector’s share of GDP to 15 per cent by 2022, a move that will create 800,000 jobs and improve the level of skills, knowledge and technology in the labour market.
Evidently, the high-octane politics that has gripped the country could derail the implementation of the Big Four agenda, bungling the President’s legacy and undermining the general welfare of Kenyans. Short-term political gain must not take precedence over the welfare of more than 45 million Kenyans. It is egregiously selfish and unacceptable.
Now is the time for politicians who have Kenya’s best interests at heart to come out strongly in support of the development agenda. Though Kenya is still the region’s most advanced economy, our neighbours are not asleep. Competition for global investments in the East African region is rapidly increasing.
Tellingly, the World Investment 2018 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) ranks Kenya as the fourth highest foreign direct investment recipient in East Africa after Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. Our failure to give the economy the priority it deserves could see other more aggressive and focused neighbours surpass Kenya definitively.
To bring the economy back to the centre of national debate, we need to address the root cause of our problems, which is runaway greed. Public office today is the fastest ticket to wealth. From inflated salaries, to the ability to get away with massive corruption, the allure of public office has become irresistible for many. This explains why succession politics grabs news headlines every day, while issues of critical importance such the state of the economy are relegated to the back burner.
As long as politics is seen as a ticket to wealth, politicians will inevitably focus more on the next electoral cycle instead of economic issues. To address this, we need to demonetise public office. Public wages need to be rationalised. Political patronage networks that have infiltrated the private sector also need to be dismantled. These networks, which facilitate the barter of influence for business, encourage corruption and make the economy less competitive. Businesses should succeed because they produce quality products at competitive prices, not because they are politically connected.
We also need to strengthen institutions that can effectively champion Kenya’s economic agenda by complementing government’s efforts in areas such as trade, investment and economic diplomacy. For example, public authorities in Singapore and Dubai fund their Chambers of Commerce as these lobbies complement public sector efforts to boost trade, investment and economic growth. The Kenyan chamber is also ripe for government support, considering its reach is not limited to big businesses, but extends to smaller ones in the counties, including those run by women and youth.
We need to hit the reset button as a country. It is not just politicians who need to change, but the public at large. It would be refreshing if other important issues such as building the economy and creating jobs for the country’s youth captured the public’s imagination in the same cultic way that politics does.
Chairman of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry