DEVELOLUTION

Kenya's progress through the eyes of returning diplomat

A lot seems possible today that did not seem possible in the nineties

In Summary

• The economic development is one of the more dynamic in the world.

• Civil society is strong and vocal, the press is outspoken, young Kenyans are well educated and dynamic.

Ambassador Valentin Zellweger presents his credentials to President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House on September 2,.
WELCOME BACK: Ambassador Valentin Zellweger presents his credentials to President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House on September 2,.
Image: PSCU

"I bet you will be back soon, you like it so much here," a Kenyan friend told me with a laugh when I left the country over 25 years ago. I had spent a year here as part of my diplomatic training.

My friend was right in the end, even though I had to wait for 25 years.  

I am back in Kenya as Ambassador of Switzerland since August. The world is a completely different place today and Kenya has changed a lot. During the night drive through Nairobi immediately after my arrival, I noticed how much the street scene has changed.

 

While the iconic Kenyatta International Convention Centre tower still dominates the Central Business District, other areas such as Upper Hill and Westlands, with their modern high-rises, have changed fundamentally in appearance.

Nairobi in the early nineties still had a quite peaceful and almost rural feel. Today, it is visibly a metropolis and the centre of a dynamic economic area that encompasses the entire region.

However, matatus, which are so typical for Nairobi, have remained.

The impression of a strong structural renewal of the city was confirmed in the first days when I got to know the many new roads, the bypasses and other infrastructure improvements that not only facilitate traffic but also simplify our lives.

Of course, M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based financial innovation, contributed a lot to this impression.

Although Switzerland has for generations been recognised as a global financial centre, we Swiss can only dream of such a modern and practical payment system. Kenya is quite ahead of us in this respect.

However, another change, which I noticed in the weeks following my arrival seems more important to me. At the beginning of the 1990s, the economy did not make much progress. International donors had stopped their payments, for the first time ever, because the government was not doing enough to combat corruption.

 

How different the Kenya I find today is! The economic development is one of the more dynamic in the world. Of course, Kenya is facing challenges and has difficult years ahead, not least because of the current Covid-19 crisis, which the country has managed so far much better than many others.

Civil society is strong and vocal, the press is outspoken, young Kenyans are well educated and dynamic. A lot seems possible today that did not seem possible in the nineties. Jack Ma recently wrote that the current mood in Africa reminded him of the circumstances in China 30 years ago when he founded Alibaba, which later became a global success. I can vividly understand his feelings.

As a Swiss, I am particularly interested in devolution. It has the potential to change Kenya fundamentally, to bring the state closer to its citizens and to foster greater and faster economic development.

There was a lot of talk about Majimbo in the 1990s, but there were neither clear plans nor concrete steps taken for its implementation.

I was not really surprised at the difficulties of 'federalising' a country, from above. For my country, one of the oldest federal states in the world, it was relatively easy because it was founded from the bottom up: First there were the cantons (like the Kenyan counties), only then came the central state.

Mind you, our federal system of cantons only came about after decades of civil strife and contention. It is never easy to change a political system, even if people recognise the system they have is not delivering on their expectations and there is broad support for change.

I was thus pleasantly surprised when I learned about the successful implementation of the devolution provisions of the 2010 Constitution and the manifold successes of devolution.

In Switzerland, we learned to appreciate federalism anew in the course of the Covid-19 crisis. In the beginning, the national government reacted with a comprehensive package of measures that were enacted throughout Switzerland. However, it soon became clear that the situation in international cities such as Geneva and Zurich was not the same as in remote corners of the Alps.

The federal government therefore decided that some important decisions would be deferred back to the cantons. After all, the cantons know the local situation and the needs of their citizens far better than a government in the distant capital. Not surprisingly, therefore, the transfer of powers from the federal level back to the cantons has not been disputed to date.

This example shows the advantages of a federal system. I look forward to getting to know the Kenyan system of devolution better and to exchanging views with governors and other representatives of the counties. I am particularly eager to see what we Swiss, can learn from the Kenyan experience. I am sure there will be plenty of material for fruitful exchanges.

A more immediate project, though, is to find my Kenyan friend and to tell him that I have come back. If I am lucky, he may read this article and get in touch with me. I can only hope that he will not hold it against me that it took me so much longer to return than he predicted at the time. I would tell him that I share his regret wholeheartedly.

Dr Valentin Zellweger is the Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya