NATIONAL CONVERSATION

Shift from 'national cake' to national debt

The Standard Gauge Railway finally gave the game away.

In Summary

• It is a giant step forward when citizens begin to demand accountability in the use of all monies borrowed by their government.

• ‘Eurobond’, here in Kenya anyway, was the very definition of official corruption.

One of the positive trends I have noticed in recent years refers to what we may term as “the national conversation”. Specifically, as concerns economics.

By “national conversation” I mean the kind of topics that are often written about in newspapers or dissected on talk shows. Things which the average Kenyan man or woman will discuss with friends while having a drink.

And above all – of course – the kind of topic likely to catch fire on social media.

Up to just a few years ago, such a conversation would usually revolve around “the national cake”. This idea – that there was some kind of “cake” in the hands of the government which was to be “eaten” by the citizens of Kenya – was so much taken for granted that hardly anyone bothered to debate its existence.

Instead, there were many passionate arguments as to who had – and who had not – received their share of this mythical cake.

During the tenure of the retired president Daniel Moi, for example, it was often alleged that the Kalenjin community (and the Rift Valley region in general) were always receiving a disproportionately large slice of this cake. But – even back then – there were those who ardently believed that what the Rift Valley communities “ate” was mere peanuts. And that it was Central Kenya which had previously done some serious “eating”: Received so much of this “national cake” that they did not deserve to have another go at it.

Our government had assured us that the new railway would be a much faster and more economic way to transport goods from the Port of Mombasa to any destination inland. But then we suddenly found that the government was ordering importers to use the new railway whether they liked it or not – and no matter how much more expensive it was. So clearly, something did not quite add up.

This all sounds like nonsense now, but back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the kind of thing you routinely heard politicians announce in plain language.

The Central Kenya region’s relatively advanced public infrastructure, for example, was considered to be proof of such “eating” and was bitterly resented by much of the rest of the country.

It was during the tenure of our immediate former president, Mwai Kibaki that all this began to change.

Two things happened. First, China started to lend Kenya really large sums, mostly for infrastructure development. And, second, it soon became clear that the Chinese loans were apparently not subject to the same level of scrutiny as the infrastructure loans which Kenya had long received from the World Bank; the European Investment Bank; the Japanese government, etc.

I suspect it was the standard gauge railway – the single most expensive infrastructure project ever undertaken in Kenya – which finally gave the game away, as it became clear that the country was visibly struggling to repay the loan from China which made this SGR possible.

Our government had assured us that the new railway would be a much faster and more economic way to transport goods from the Port of Mombasa to any destination inland. But then we suddenly found that the government was ordering importers to use the new railway whether they liked it or not – and no matter how much more expensive it was.

So clearly, something did not quite add up.

At all events, the national discussion – formal as well as informal – soon turned from the “national cake” (of which we had all been determined to get a slice) to the “national debt” (and the question of how on earth we would pay this debt; and in any case, did we really get value for money?).

And of course, there was a time when “Eurobond” was a word which, far from describing an instrument for raising money needed for various national purposes, morphed into a four-letter word. ‘Eurobond’, here in Kenya anyway, was the very definition of official corruption.

The opposition leader Raila Odinga, in particular, convinced many people that some of the money being borrowed by Kenya as sovereign debt on overseas bond markets, was being “stolen” even before the money got to Kenya.

At all events, the national discussion – formal as well as informal – soon turned from the “national cake” (of which we had all been determined to get a slice) to the “national debt” (and the question of how on earth we would pay this debt; and in any case, did we really get value for money?).

In my view it is a giant step forward when the citizens of a country begin to demand accountability in the use of all monies borrowed by their government.

And it is certainly better than the old culture of dependency, in which the arrival of a senior delegation from the IMF or World Bank, had the theatrical quality of gods descending from Mount Olympus, to shower economic benefits on the destitute mortals below.