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The campaign season is once again upon us and the political class is charged with a renewed sense of purpose during this unusual time of COVID-19 uncertainty.  As we are inundated with campaign headline after campaign headline, Kenyans are once more captivated by the “telenovela” quality of the shifting political alliances and sensational back-stabbings. We love it. Not only is scheduled gladiatorial combat a welcome reprieve from the tedium of life post-COVID, we will also not begrudge ourselves the pleasure of watching the political elite fight to the reputational death for their (allegedly) ill-gotten gains.

With government spending estimated at a quarter of total Gross Domestic Product in Kenya, the politician’s interest in the presidency is clear. These heavily invested candidates jostling to direct the state’s monopoly power, however, are forced to contend with a new normal in the rhythm and flow of this campaign election cycle. While previous cycles were characterized by mobilization around ethnic cleavages, there is a national fatigue, a marked reluctance to demonize the “other” tribe. Moreover, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty caused by emerging variants has catalysed the calcification of the economy as the core electoral concern.

There is a shift in Kenya’s political taste-palette from the half-hearted ethno-cronyism that has dominated past elections to issue-based electoral competition. The 2022 elections provide the clearest opportunity yet to place the presidential candidate’s competence in governance at the centre of all political discourse. This intangible shift may seem like an inconsequential wave against the tsunami of 60 years of “tupatie mtu wetu” (ethno-cronystic) momentum, but the choices we make during these elections will have incalculable ramifications.

Disrupting the mechanics of mediocrity 

As a wide-eyed, enthusiastic attaché in a heavily wood panelled, dusty government office, I had the pleasure to meet a newly employed crop of “Job Group J” civil servants (the J group). I was captivated by their energy and drawn into their excitement of being part of the select few. They represented what I wanted to become after graduation – they had big dreams, high energy and noble intent. I am still haunted by what I witnessed, but could not articulate, during my time with the J group. In hindsight, I now understand that as I watched, they became conditioned by a pervasive and insidious system with Pavlovian efficiency. With helpless horror, I observed as those who left their integrity at home, questioned nothing, signed where they were told, and did what they were asked, were rewarded with the opportunity to supplement their income, travel and move up the ranks. This is the unacknowledged reason why all civil servants you have engaged with have the same characteristics.

The 2022 election provides the clearest opportunity yet to place the presidential candidate’s competence in governance at the centre of all political discourse.

The exceptional, the visionaries, the agitators and change makers who could not successfully graduate from the behaviour modification programme were pushed out or left behind. I have seen this sequence of system self-selection and reinforcement replicated with soul-crushing consistency. This system of mediocre, sycophantic governance is what has been propagated, protected and encouraged when the product of each electoral cycle is a charismatic figurehead of the “right” ethnicity who still takes instruction on where to append his signature.

As the incentives we create at the ballot are what invariably play out across all configurations of government, changing the distorted incentives that create poor governance outcomes means being intentional about what we reward and what we punish.  If economic outcomes form the bulk of our policy concerns, then the candidate that demonstrates an ability to secure positive socio-economic outcomes is the “right” candidate.

Manifesto shopping list essentials 

At the ballot, the only way for presidential candidates to signal their technical competence, commitment to the public interest and understanding of the complexity of governance is the quality of their manifesto. Below are some of the bare-minimum indicators of manifesto quality to help you make sense of the relentless campaign rhetoric:

  1. Documented manifesto — The lack of a documented and widely available manifesto is a red flag. It signals a candidate who will promise anything and not be held to account. You know this person; he likely owes you money, should you vote for him/her?
  2. Points of accountability — Beware of candidates who are unwilling to burden Wanjiku with the details of their plans. To clarify, each campaign promise should be accompanied by the policies, policy instruments (laws and regulations) and indicators of progress. The thing to look for here is manifesto structural integrity.
  3. Scapegoat-free rhetoric — Learn to recognise the use of loaded language. A candidate that uses the passive voice to shift responsibility from themselves to a mysterious outside force is only out for their own best interests. If he/she has a singular person, group or circumstance to blame for the current state of affairs he/she is stoking emotions because they have no technical competence.
  4. No meaningless platitudes — Reject loose pronouncements of desirable outcomes such as “Increase youth employment” or “eradicate corruption”. These are the descriptive equivalent of “niko kwa jam nakam” (a Kenyan idiom that wastes your time and means nothing).
  5. Straightforward approach to corruption — Look out for avoidance or minimalization of the core electoral concern, corruption. Reframing discussions around corruption as “integrity” or “transparency” issues or challenges is a clear indication of a “corrupt status quo” beneficiary.
  6. No divide-and-rule rhetoric — The application of the “vote for me and I will give you, my voters, x” is a hangover from the colonial tactics of division. It is an indicator that the candidate is unwilling or unable to engage in the policy process. He/she is signalling their inability to produce an integrated development strategy for the whole country and must resort to taking the divisive shortcut of “in-group” favouritism.
  7. Coherence checks—Curate your consumption of candidates’ claims by subscribing to analysts who conduct a thorough issue-based investigation. Shun the rickety sensationalism of pundits, for clear evaluations of the effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy of policy and its instruments. Here, at The Elephant, we are committed to providing timely, informative and objective analysis and we will continue to do so during this campaign period.

Happy bargain hunting!!!