The presidency is the topmost and ultimate prize of Kenya’s general elections and competition for it stems from the notion that it is not only a good thing of and in itself but a consequential political tool to possess.
In the 2013 and 2017 general elections, Uhuru Kenyatta convinced his political base in the Mount Kenya region that because Raila Odinga could not be entrusted with the presidency, electing him was crucial to protect and advance their interests. Put bluntly, the presidency was a necessary tool to protect the existing share of pork for them and bring more ugali and mboga home.
Three years into Jubilee’s presidency doubts begun to creep among Uhuru’s supporters about his capacity and willingness to improve their welfare. The majority, however, were willing to blame the Constitution and devolution for making it hard for Uhuru to deliver the economic goodies they expected.
Indeed by the end of hisfirst term the situation was so gloomy in Central Kenya that genuine concerns about voter turnout in the 2017 general election arose. In my humble view, therefore, political accountability entitles Uhuru’s supporters to question whether the Jubilee presidency has delivered enough of the promised ugali na mboga and seek answers for any shortcoming.
Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria took refuge in a drunken stupor and party mood during the New Year celebrations at Thika to question the practical value of Uhuru’s presidency to Central Kenya, no one expected his utterances would generate the political storm they caused, especially after the President responded in kind and termed washenzi (fools) those questioning his development record.
Truth be told, as much as I empathise with the conflicting obligations of Uhuru to serve the whole country fairly and address the political expectations of his backyard, I also understand the gravity of the issues being raised by MPs Kuria, Kimani Ngunjiri (Bahati) and other leaders courageous enough to express concerns that have long been expressed in whispers.
To most Kenyans , that leaders from Mt Kenya can complain over economic neglect sounds like a cruel joke. In the circumstances, in defending the constitutional right of all Kenyans to development and summoning the courage to dismiss two of his ablest and passionate political mobilisers as washenzi, Uhuru has confirmed the old refrain among his non-Gema supporters that unlike his Kikuyu people, Uhuru is a good person.
In fact, in the wake of his handshake with Raila Odinga, if Uhuru were to cease being Kenya’s President today (God forbid!) chances that many Kenyans would remember him as a great president are as high as the probability that few of his supporters in Central would remember him with the nostalgia the older generation remember his father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. We should, therefore, thank Kuria and Ngunjiri for opening our eyes to this reality.
Whatever the merits of the “washenzi” utterances it is obvious that their cardinal sin is breaking the unwritten taboo of Kenyan politics that when a brother from the neighbouring cave is calling shots in our jungle, it is bad manners to join his rivals in questioning his development record. At the very least, you should pretend all is well even as the pangs of hunger devour your homesteads.
Now that the taboo is broken, I can now contribute to this debate. First, whereas the dynamic duo of UhuRuto might be Kenya’s undisputed political geniuses so far, they are yet to demonstrate much capacity and imagination in running Kenya’s economic affairs beyond the lazy strategy of throwing expensive loans at zero or low productivity public projects.
Second, those Kikuyus who expected Uhuru would be the dominant political actor during the Jubilee presidency the way President Mwai Kibaki outmanoeuvred Raila in the Grand Coalition government have been shocked by the revelations that on balance William Ruto has been the smarter partner. Third, the elected politicians from Mount Kenya who expected they would acquire the special status that comes with presidential access have bitterly learnt of a different reality as they scavenge for space in the crowded lobbies of DP Ruto to seek small favours.
Having thus dispensed with the subjective matters at play, let’s interrogate the concerns of team washenzi. If government projects were synonymous with development, it would be difficult to deny that Jubilee has done more than enough for Mount Kenya. There are many completed and ongoing projects to prove Jubilee has delivered what passes for development in modern Kenya — dams, tarmacked roads, level 5 hospitals, sewerage works, power projects, technical institutions, universities and village polytechnics. Driving across Kenya, there are thousands of projects to prove Jubilee cares about national development and it is nice to see many townships and market centres are well lit.
This big picture of maendeleo across Kenya’s countryside is well captured in official government statistics and development agencies. There is, however, another economic reality in the overwhelming majority of Kenyan homesteads. In a typical homestead, you would be lucky to find one self-reliant person out of every 10 adults. Many families struggle to secure three meals a day let alone healthy food. Thousands of well-educated youths are wasting away in market centres and those who try their luck in urban crime are quickly despatched back home in coffins.
Even the middle class is feeling the pinch. Nowadays it is hard to come across an African Kenyan without ties to the brokerage networks of Jubilee who is thriving economically. In short, the rosy picture of development in official statistics is yet to impact on the lives of most Kenyans.
The way I see it, Central Kenya is no longer at ease because the people do not feel the debt-procured maendeleo of Jubilee, and politicians are seemingly clueless about this. Projects are necessary to facilitate economic production and wealth generation but Jubilee has tragically equated those initiatives with development leading to neglect of interventions likely to improve the living standards. Even worse because of rising Chinese debt procured to finance expensive projects of negligible value an impoverished nation is being taxed more to pay such debts in order to ward off the spectre of sovereign bankruptcy.
What does Uhuru have to do with all this? A lot in my humble view. Whilst he cannot be entirely blamed for the low calibre cabinets that have managed Kenya since 2013, for a leader with his ambitions, he ought to have insisted on appointment of more capable Kenyans to run the critical ministries of Planning, Industrialisation, Agriculture and Finance, without which Kenya cannot achieve meaningful economic progress.
In a capitalist economy, the true role of government is not to buy unga, medicine, tablets and housing but to enable them earn sufficient income to do such things for themselves. Stated differently, the President’s responsibility is to make capitalism work for the people as opposed to turning the state into an economic enterprise politely called the developmental state.
Compared to Raila in 2013, Kenyans hoped that under Uhuru capitalism would work for Kenyans and the economic progress began by Kibaki would continue. That has not happened as the Jubilee presidency has embraced state-led capitalism which, has evidently created several billionaires among its ranks and brokers whilst genuine local business people have been bankrupted by non-payment of bills for goods and services procured by the national and county governments.
It is a pity that Kenya has invested billions of shillings in infrastructure without creating new local millionaires and the economy has only managed to produce minimum wage jobs in hospitality, private security, clerks, farmhands and construction workers in agriculture and building sectors that many Kikuyu youth detest.
At the same time the traditional economic sectors preferred by the Kikuyu such as trading, transport, importation of merchandise, real estate and farming have taken a hard knock from the policies of Jubilee. In such circumstances, some Kikuyus are justified to view themselves as victims of Jubilee and Kenyans should try and understand the grumbling in Central Kenya, despite the compelling evidence of the phoney maendeleo delivered by Jubilee.
*The writer is a constitutional lawyer (firstname.lastname@example.org)