Kenya’s fiscal policy – the means by which the government adjusts its spending levels, revenue generation and collection, and debt to monitor and influence the economy- has been a defining feature of the current administration. The three have been characterised by almost consistent features and trends.
Some background information is useful. Kenya has had an annual growth rate of about 5.46 percent from 2004 until 2016. Initially, the economy was slated to grow at around 6 percent in 2017 but this has since been revised to 5 percent. According to Genghis Capital, it will actually be between 4.25- 4.75 percent due to the drought-induced contraction in agriculture, the negative effects of the interest rate cap on the financial sector and the prolonged electioneering period. The Government thinks the economy will grow by over 6 percent next year though the World Bank projects a lower rebound to 5.8 percent in 2018 and 6.1 percent in 2019.
Kenya’s economy is primarily services driven and according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), under the Kenyatta administration, growth has largely been on the back of government spending on infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the expansion of the road network as well as electricity generation and transmission projects. Other significant contributors to growth include a resurgent tourism industry and growth in information and communication, real estate and transport and storage.
Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18.
Back to fiscal policy, we will address each component separately: expenditure, revenue generation and collection, and borrowing.
Over the past 6 years, government spending has grown at an average of 14.7 percent, yet revenue growth has only increased by 12.7 percent. Under the current administration, spending has gone up by two-thirds, from Sh1.6 trillion in 2013/14 to Sh2.64 trillion in 2017/18. While some of this can be explained by inflation reducing the value of money, there is a consistent trend of notable increases in government spending.
(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)
A fundamental problem in analysing fiscal policy at both national and county levels is determining the intended recurrent vs development budgets and comparing these to the actual expenditure pattern. The image below from the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya (IEA) details this for the National Government:
(Source: Institute of Economic Affairs)
Overall, two key trends are clear, the first of which is that the national budget is still geared towards recurrent spending. Indeed, as the Treasury itself has admitted in the past, recurrent expenditure is reaching unsustainable levels.
There are several factors behind this aggressive growth in expenditure, the first of which is devolution. In 2010 Kenyans enacted a new constitution, which established a bicameral Parliament and 47 county governments. At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution, it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus, while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.
At the beginning of the implementation of devolution, a parliamentary report indicated that it would cost at least Sh36 billion to set up. Prior to devolution it cost Sh6.6 billion per year to run Parliament, but that figure is expected to rise to Sh14.3 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has also stated that it will cost Sh21.75 billion annually to run the 47 county assemblies. Thus while welcome, the reality is that devolution is expensive.
Linked to the point above is the public wage bill which, according to the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), has ballooned from Sh465 billion when the Kenyatta administration took over to Sh627 billion in the 2015/2016 financial year, an annual average growth of 9 per cent. SRC’s projections show that it will be Sh676 billion in 2016/2017. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) raised concerns, stating that Kenya is among countries that exhibit large increases in the wage bill, particularly in the run-up to elections. IMF is of the view that given Kenya’s rising debt levels (more on this later) the decision to increase spending on public sector wages is a concern as less funds are left over for economically productive development expenditure. The SRC pooh-poohed the IMF’s concerns, stating that wages were actually falling as a proportion of GDP: from 10.3 per cent in 2012/2013 to 9.5 per cent in 2015/2016.
A second factor behind the growth in expenditure, which the government has been eager to finger as the primary reason, has been the investment in infrastructure. According to the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), Kenya’s current estimated infrastructure funding gap is USD 2-3 billion per year over the next 10 years. To address this, government has allocated nearly a third of total budget expenditure to infrastructure between the 2016/17 and 2019/20 financial years.
The World Bank makes the point that the infrastructure investment drive in Kenya needs to be done in a way that is both efficient and sustainable. With such a robust commitment, key questions must be asked. For example, is Kenya investing in the right infrastructure? The Brookings Institution makes the point that a push for more infrastructure only raises economic growth and people’s well-being if the focus is on quality and impact, rather than quantity and volume. Has Kenya fallen short here? Has the government conducted an audit of infrastructure investment and the development it has engendered thus far? Has there been an audit of its quality? How efficient is our investment? Without an answer to these questions, the country risks wasting resources on aggressive infrastructure expenditure that generates no real benefits for its people.
Indeed, the link between infrastructure and economic growth is more tenuous than previously assumed. According to the London School of Economics, most recent studies on infrastructure’s contribution to growth tend to find smaller effects than those reported in earlier studies; this is linked to improvements in methodological approaches. Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.
Kenya, therefore, shouldn’t assume that infrastructure investment and development will automatically lead to significant improvements in economic growth. It is time for a fundamental rethink of the scale, nature and efficiency of the government’s spending on infrastructure.
The final issue regarding expenditure is linked to the mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels. At the national level, allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement are legion and include: the National Youth Service (NYS) affair where the Auditor General stated a loss of Sh1.9 billion; Sh5.2 billion misappropriated at the Ministry of health according to an in-house audit report; mobile clinics valued at Sh1.4 million each being sold to the government at more than 7 times the price then abandoned in an NYS yard; inflated rig charges at the Geothermal Development Company (GDC) in which the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) found the tender committee culpable and six managers were sent on compulsory leave.
At county level, there are rising concerns with expenditure considering that the national government has sent to the counties more than Sh1 trillion since their establishment in 2013. Research by the International Budget Partnership Kenya (IBPK) reveals that county governments are not making available fiscal documents required by the Public Financial Management Act (PFMA). Only about 20 percent of key budget documents, including fiscal expenditure documents, meant to be online had been uploaded. Indeed, IBPK reports that in some cases, budget allocations are based on lists of projects drawn up by Members of County Assemblies (MCAs). There is no clarity on the criteria governing such allocations, and even less clarity on how county funds are actually spent. There is a distinct air of mischief informing this laxity. It is not a secret that the first iteration of devolution revealed how much autonomy county governments have in the planning and use of funds they receive and generate. This lack of transparency seems to be aimed at facilitating a culture of financial mismanagement and corruption at the county level in an environment where, frankly, no one is holding them accountable.
Further, county governments see themselves as expenditure units, not development units. This needs to change. Rather than concentrating on how much they have to spend, they ought to focus on the development dividends they are responsible for generating. Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.
For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016, which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.
The greatest concern beyond the moral question of the financial mismanagement of the public funds of a poor African country, is the issue of how corruption affects spending efficiency. As will be explained later, Kenya is getting into significant debt, particularly to finance development expenditure. If such debt is not being used as efficiently as possible and instead funds are stolen or dubiously spent, the country will be saddled with onerous debt without he means – the improvements in economic performance that were to come from debt financed development projects – to pay it.
Given the factors detailed above, there are several broad changes that ought to be made. At national level, the first recommendation is for government to commit more money to development expenditure and put more effort into actually absorbing the allocations given to the docket.
Secondly, the national government ought to be more consistent in the manner in which it presents data and should make it easier to track planned versus actual expenditure, particularly across the recurrent and development dockets.
Thirdly, large allocations to infrastructure projects need to be audited and a determination made on the effectiveness of the allocations, how funds can be better spent and recommendations on how to improve efficiency.
Finally, national government has to clamp down on financial mismanagement and prosecute and punish culpable officials. Without this, the government’s commitment to ending corruption will be seen as insincere and ineffective.
At county level, there are several issues that ought to be addressed the first of which is that there needs to be a very clear hierarchy of accountability for county expenditure. Governors and the County Ministers of Finance must be held accountable for their spending and individuals need to be punished if found guilty of corruption.
Secondly, counties must comply with the PFMA and provide breakdowns of their expenditure which includes a delineation between recurrent and development expenditure.
Thirdly, the principle of fiscal discipline should carry considerable weight when national government makes county allocations such that responsible use of resources is rewarded and poor performers are punished.
Finally, a citizen-led effort to create a ranking of county governments according to fiscal transparency with a focus on expenditure would likely create pressure on county governments to adhere to their legal obligations. Included in the ranking should be how well they comply with PFMA stipulations, with the top and bottom performers widely publicised.
REVENUE GENERATION AND COLLECTION
Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has been falling short of its revenue targets for some time. For example, in 2016/17 total collection stood at Sh1.365 trillion representing a performance rate of 95.4 percent, and a shortfall of Sh66.64 billion- a significant number. In the first four months of this fiscal year, KRA has already fallen behind by Sh40 billion. There are questions as to why revenue collection consistently underperforms. I am of the view that KRA is given unrealistic targets, more informed by aggressive increases in government expenditure and oblivious to the serious constraints that mute tax collection.
Without this fundamental shift in thinking, county governments will continue to be like spoilt children, forever crying over what they are owed, but with nothing to show for the development they ought to deliver.
Revenue generation targets tend to be revised upwards over the course of the year. KRA’s original revenue target for the 2016/17 was Sh1.415 trillion which was later revised to Sh1.431 trillion, an increase of KES 16.24 billion. This is a concern because motivations behind the increases in targets are not clear. Do they perhaps stem from a realisation in Treasury that it cannot raise as much as anticipated in borrowing?
The second constraint is that the macroeconomic environment informs the extent to which revenues deviate from targets. For example, it is estimated that a 1 percent reduction in GDP growth reduces revenue by Sh13.4 billion and as noted earlier, this has been something of a tough year. A similar increase in inflation also requires that revenue targets be raised by Sh13 billion.
This is linked to sectoral issues which can affect the ability of KRA to collect tax. For example, 16 firms listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange issued profit warnings in 2016 –a rising trend since 2013– which meant less corporation tax could be collected. Additionally, the 7000 jobs lost to downsizing and shuttering of firms, mainly in the banking sector, reduced Pay As You Earn receipts.
Third, government policy decisions, particularly those related to tax policy, affect the ability to generate revenue. For example, the non-implementation of changes to specific excise rates in 2016/17 reduced revenues by nearly Sh5 billion. Additionally, the duty-free importation of essential foods (maize, milk, sugar) led to a revenue loss of over Sh4 billion in the fourth quarter of the same financial year. Indeed, it is estimated that government policy decisions cost it Sh13 billion in lost revenue that entire year. The government tends to shoot itself in the foot in other ways too. For example, delays in remitting income tax from public institutions costs it Sh823 million.
Finally, revenue generation and collection in Kenya like the rest of Africa is negatively affected by illicit financial flows from the country. According to the UN, Africa loses more than US$50 billion through illicit financial outflows per year. Companies evade and avoid tax by shifting profits to low tax locations, claiming large allowable deductions, carrying losses forward indefinitely, and using transfer pricing.
The main reason why consistent subpar revenue collection is worrying is because the national treasury continues to construct budgets based on the unrealistic targets. For example, revenue generated was meant to play a bigger role in the current budget, financing 60.7 percent of the overall deficit and 58.7 percent of the development expenditure. Since it appears as though targets will again not be met, government will have to borrow more than anticipated.
There ought to be fundamental rethink of revenue generation and collection in order to effect a sustained increase. There are several factors to address, the first of which is improvements in the business environment that increase profits and thus taxable revenue. A key component that is often ignored here is the environment for the informal economy. Current assessments largely ignore the sector in which 90 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living. More ought to be done to make informal businesses more profitable.
At the same time, the government ought to seek to expand the revenue base by encouraging the formalisation of these businesses. Concerted efforts must be undertaken to pilot schemes that remove barriers to – and create incentives for – formalisation, particularly of larger businesses that easily evade tax yet are robust enough to consistently pay.
As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.
Finally, Kenya needs to work on curbing illicit financial outflows. The UN makes the point that G8 leaders have committed to the 2013 Lough Erne Declaration, a 10-point statement calling for an overhaul of corporate transparency rules. Among other things, the declaration urges tax authorities to automatically share information to fight evasion. It states that poor countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed to them. Kenya should join other African countries in lobbying rich countries to enact stricter laws against tax evasion. As recommended by the Africa Progress Report 2013, alongside demanding the highest standards of propriety and disclosure from their government, Kenyans should push citizens of the developed world to demand similar standards from their governments and companies.
BORROWING AND DEBT
In 2013, the Jubilee administration inherited a debt of Sh1.7 trillion after a decade of the Kibaki government. Less than 5 years later, that has ballooned by nearly 250 percent to Sh4.4 trillion. This year’s borrowing has been particularly aggressive. The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) says that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.
Despite this, it seems the government’s debt appetite won’t wane any time soon. The Treasury recently announced that it is seeking to issue another Eurobond, which could be used to repay the outstanding US$750 million syndicated loan the government raised in 2015 and which came due in October. What seems to be clear is that given expanding expenditure and subpar revenue collection, borrowing from both foreign and domestic sources will continue to grow. Further, as a Bloomberg analyst points out, Kenya has among the highest debt levels in sub-Saharan Africa, partly a result of having neither the commodity revenue sources of Nigeria and Angola nor the budget support from donor countries enjoyed by neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.
Before looking at the specific features of Kenya’s debt, it is important to state that debt itself is not necessarily a problem. If used wisely, it can fund investment into activities and projects that catalyse economic development, GDP growth and growth in per capita incomes. Concerns only start being raised when the pattern of debt accrual and servicing seems headed in an unsustainable direction. If expenditure is growing in the context of muted revenue generation, that creates momentum for more debt than cannot be sustainably serviced. Further, if debt is not used efficiently and linked to increases in productivity and GDP growth, it also saddles countries with burdensome repayments. At the moment, Kenya is on the cusp where the government can either take decisive action to put the country on a better debt path, or continue with current trends that are edging the country closer to an unsustainable position.
The IEA points out that as of June 2012, total public debt was composed of 52.9 percent domestic debt and 47.1 percent external debt. However, the share of external debt has been steadily growing and recent statistics show that today the situation is reversed, with external debt taking up more than half (52.3 percent) of total debt.
The National Treasury Report 2015 indicates that the external debt stock for Kenya is composed of multilateral debt (54.7 percent), bilateral debt (27.1 percent), export credits (1.5 percent), commercial banks (0.6 percent) and International Sovereign Bonds (16.1 percent). As the IEA points out, a large part of the external debt remains concessional (i.e. on terms substantially more generous than market loans) and mainly from multilateral creditors; however, the share of concessional loans has been falling over the last three years which means external debt is becoming ever more expensive for the country.
There are several factors affecting the composition of debt, the first of which is Treasury’s desire to reduce domestic borrowing in order to release domestic credit for the private sector. This was a major reason given for issuing the Eurobond. As shown by the statistics above, he government has stayed true to this intent in some ways. However, the cap on interest rates introduced last year, has perversely facilitated government’ ability to raise domestic debt as banks, reluctant to lend to the general public due to profit margin and risk concerns, have more aggressively pursued government securities. The attractiveness of government debt is thus pushing the domestic private sector out of the domestic debt market, which contradicts government’s original intent.
The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) notes that the government is borrowing an average of Sh86 billion per month, the highest level since the bank started listing public debt in 1999, and over Sh30 billion more than the monthly averages of 2015 and 2016.
It is important to note that, as reported in The Standard, World Bank data indicates that the average grace period on repaying new external debt has shrunk by half in the last four years. On average, in 2013, the country was given 8.2 years before starting to repay loans. This had reduced to 4.6 years by 2016. Shorter grace periods reduce the government’s room for flexibility and could be an indicator of jittery lenders keen on getting their money back as soon as possible. Indeed, Bank of America Merrill Lynch notes that Kenyan debt underperforms its peers as evidenced by the fact that yield premiums over U.S. debt have not narrowed as much as those of other sub-Saharan debt. In short, Kenya is seen as riskier to lend to than other African countries.
Informed by the expansion in borrowing, Kenya’s fiscal deficit has also grown. Its ratio to GDP has widened significantly from 6.4 percent in 2013/14 to 10.4 percent in 2016/17. The IEA points out that the large increase in deficit partly reflected the financing of the first phase of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project.
Fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP
The government is targeting a fiscal deficit of 5.9 percent of GDP, in the 2018/19 fiscal year, down from an estimated 7.3 percent this fiscal year. Others however do not expect this will be met. Genghis Capital thinks Kenya’s budget deficit for this fiscal year will likely reach 8 percent of GDP. Further, the government doesn’t always hit its fiscal deficit projections. Indeed, according to Cytonn Investments, in the 2016/2017 fiscal year, the government’s deficit actually widened to 8.3 percent of GDP, some way above its revised target of 6.9 percent. In any case, despite the efforts it may be making to reduce the deficit, current government targets and performance are still higher than its own preferred ceiling of 5 percent.
The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015. A larger component of debt servicing emanates from servicing of domestic debt, but since the proportion of domestic and external debt to GDP are almost at par, it may indicate that it is costlier to service the former.
Debt service 1980 – 2016, KES billions
There are growing concerns as to how much revenue is being committed to servicing debt. In the first nine months of the 2015/16 financial year, the government spent four out of every 10 shillings it collected as tax to settle debts. In April, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the last fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion). If more and more revenue has to be locked into servicing debt, government will either have to ramp down spending on development (given the relatively fixed burden of recurrent expenditure) or borrow even more, none of which is good.
The IEA also notes that the ratio of debt to GDP rose from 40.7 percent in 2012 to 56.4 percent in June, which merited a ranking of 78 out of 138 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.
Government Budget and Public Debt as % of GDP
(Source: IEA); GDP is for full year (FY) and measured in thousands; * Provisional estimates
As borrowing continues to grow aggressively, it will lead to higher imbalances that will raise concerns about sustainability.
Views differ on whether Kenya’s debt is sustainable. Some are of the view that given the massive gaps in key sectors such as energy and transport infrastructure, the country must continue to do everything possible to finance and address the gaps and that debt accrued now will pay off in the long term. Kenya remains below the World Bank’s debt-to-GDP ratio ceiling (or tipping point) of 64 percent. The IMF, in its review of Kenya a year ago, said Kenya’s risk of external debt distress remains low but notes there is need for reduction in the deficit over the medium term. While the IMF has raised concerns about Kenya’s public debt, it is below what they view as the applicable ceiling for Kenya – 74 percent of GDP.
The IEA points out that as the amount of debt held increased, the cost of debt has also gone up with debt servicing increasing from about Sh19 billion in 1990 to Sh400 billion by the end of 2015.
Others, however, are of the view that a debt-to-GDP ratio beyond 40 percent for developing and emerging economies is dangerous. The IMF itself envisages fiscal consolidation that targets a 3.7 percent of GDP deficit by 2018/19 (compared to the government’s own target of 5.9 percent) which it says is critical to maintaining a low risk of debt distress while preserving fiscal space for development priorities.
I disagree with the Treasury’s assertions that the national debt is manageable and that there is headroom for more. Kenya’s debt is only manageable if decisive action is taken to reduce expenditure, boost revenue collection and reduce borrowing. If this does not happen within the next three years, the country will start feeling the effects of debt distress.
The credit rating agency Moody’s has already raised concerns about the country’s accumulating debt. Indeed, the agency is currently assessing whether it needs to downgrade the country’s credit rating from the current B1 status on grounds of its weakening ability to repay debt. Moody argues that unless a decisive policy response is introduced, the upward trajectory in government debt will see the debt-to-GDP ratio surpass the 60 percent mark by June 2018, pushing financing costs for the private sector even higher. Its assessment points to the fact that in the latest fiscal year, the government spent 19 percent of its revenues on interest payments alone, up from 10.7 percent five years ago. It notes that persistent, large, primary deficits and high borrowing costs continue to drive government indebtedness ever higher. Further, government liquidity pressures risk, the danger that the government may not have enough readily available cash to settle its immediate and short-term obligations, is rising in the face of increasingly large financing needs.
Another credit rating agency, Fitch, has also indicated that it could downgrade Kenya’s rating due to its debt position. Fitch noted that the country was spending a larger proportion of its revenue on paying debt compared to its economic peers such as Uganda, Rwanda and Ghana.
Fitch gave Kenya a B+ rating, with a negative outlook. These credit ratings are important as a fall in rating will mean any new foreign debt taken on by the country will be more expensive.
There are several broad strategies Kenya can use to better manage its debt the first of which is to aggressively reduce expenditure. Government must implement austerity budgets and limit unnecessary expenditure. I also think here should be a fundamental downward review of salaries of those in government. While those of technocrats such as Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries as well as professionals such teachers and doctors should remain attractive, there are far too many people in elected office on overly generous terms, and the related wage bill is not sustainable for a relatively poor African country.
Secondly, government needs to improve its recurrent vs development expenditure allocations. As elucidated before, year after year, more money is allocated to recurrent expenditure which is not economically productive. A reduction in recurrent expenditure is crucial and this can be partially addressed by a downward review in wages as explained above. The IEA points out that although in relative terms the proportion of recurrent expenditure to GDP has slightly declined while that of development expenditure has nearly doubled from 5.7 percent of GDP in 2007/8 to 11.0 percent in 2016/17, recurrent expenditure still remains comparatively high.
In April this year, the IMF estimated Kenya’s debt-service to revenue-ratio at 34.7 percent against a threshold of 30 percent, and a report in the Business Daily pointed out that in the 2016/17 fiscal year, the country spent more money to settle debt (Sh435.7 billion) than it did to finance development (Sh394.2 billion).
Development expenditure should be prioritised by considering projects which bring immediate returns to the economy. More money must be committed to spurring the growth required to pay debts, if Kenya is to avoid a repayment crisis.
Thirdly, government has to create strategies to ensure more development expenditure is absorbed. A November 2017 report by Controller of Budget showed the use of development funds for the financial year ending in June was at 70 percent, the highest since 2013. While this is good news and higher than the 66 per cent rate recorded in the previous year, it is not good enough. Indeed, the organisation Development Initiatives notes that the 2017/18 fiscal year actually saw a decline in total allocations to development spending by 12.3 percent, as a result of lower absorption of development spending by ministries in 2016/17. The problem is at both national and county levels. As Price Waterhouse Coopers points out, if the entire amount allocated is not being absorbed, it defeats the purpose of the budget especially around development expenditure. Given that the country is getting into a great deal of debt for development expenditure, it is crucial that absorption rates in this docket increase in order to spur economic growth.
Fourthly, government needs to better track how the debt which is financing the development docket, is being used. Given concerns with financial mismanagement of public funds at both national and county levels, it is crucial that the debt spending is meticulously tracked. This is because financial mismanagement of debt funds poses the dangerous risk of pushing the country into debt unsustainability as money is pocketed rather spent to generate growth.
This article has elucidated Kenya’s fiscal policy and position in terms of expenditure, revenue generation and debt accrual. It is important that the country reduces expenditure, increases revenue generation and better manages debt spending to put the country on a more sustainable fiscal path. We are in a position where Kenya’s fiscal health can be dramatically improved by taking decisive action as per the recommendations herein. It is my hope that the government takes the required action to improve the country’s fiscal path so that fiscal policy plays the positive and important role it can in driving the country’s development.
THE BATTLE FOR KENYA’S SOUL: Will history absolve them?
Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or just right. Soon after the Miguna Miguna arrest-and-deportation circus began, I opened an autobiography I had just been gifted. The book, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, by Duncan Ndegwa, came highly recommended. Little did I know what I was in for.
Duncan Ndegwa was Kenya’s first Head of Civil Service and its second Central Bank Governor. He was in the sanctum sanctorum in those early years. His story promised to be insightful, if not tantalising, revealing the many struggles Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, faced. But it made me angry.
I wasn’t sure why I got angrier and angrier after I got past the diversionary chapters on culture. But I did. Eventually, I scanned through my notes and scribbled them in pencil on one of the blank pages at the back of the book. Then it all made sense. I was reading the past while it was happening in my present. If the past was ever a prologue, Kenya in 2018 is it. We are stuck in a destructive cycle.
Quick, try placing these two statements in the last five decades of Kenya’s history:
- He openly warned the media against misusing press freedom to “misinform the public”.
- He was charged with treason, which was later changed to the lesser crime of incitement.
The first entry is from a speech by Tom Mboya in 1962, but those words have been used many times since. They could as well have been said by Argwings Kodhek, or his boss Jomo. Or in 1979, when newspapers were ordered not to publish an opinion poll. Or by Kalonzo Musyoka in 1990, when he filed a motion to ban a newspaper from covering Parliament proceedings. They could even be taken from John Michuki’s infamous “if you rattle a snake” retort.
The second statement refers to the short-lived treason charge against Maina Kamanda in 2001. He had said that President Daniel arap Moi should be shot in bed if he tried to extend his term. The charge of treason, the crime of betraying one’s country, has been a constant threat against outspoken opposition MPs since independence. Whether applied in 1971 or in 2018, this weighty threat is still firmly in place.
The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
You’ve heard both phrases lately, and you will hear them again. These are what the academic Joyce Nyairo calls “the grammar of the state”. The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
Tyranny of the accursed
In many ways, the last decade has felt like a marathon through the first 30 years after independence. The son wants to eradicate the same things that his father promised to focus on 55 years ago. Detention without trial is back. We have launched wars on human rights, a new constitution, devolution, and Somalia. The concerted effort to reset to the KANU code is in full gear. We are back to essentially a one-party state with a growing greed and hold on all arms of government. We have the makings of a Sun King who can do no wrong, and in whose wisdom and undying love for our wellbeing we must trust.
There’s a tough-talking Interior Cabinet Minister with a disdain for the law and basic decency. Our maize scandals are now an annual thing and pilfering from the state is now a legitimate way to join the upper ranks of society. A fake political rivalry continues to eclipse real social and economic issues. Politics has become entertainment in all but name, an expensive escape from realities. We are now numb to theft of land, taxes, and even borrowed money, in this dark comedy.
This reality is not accidental; it was the entire purpose of the creation of the Kenyan state. In his treatise on this, Darius Okolla says that this founding ethos of the colony never went away. In fact, in the last sixty years and four presidents later, it is even more entrenched. Now as then, the needs of a few appear as the needs of the many, as do their problems. “Personal problems” are not the same as the “you” in “security starts with you”.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it. The problem is their myopic view of what the Kenyan state could be, as becomes clear in Ndegwa’s memoirs. The men around Jomo deified him, and even when he was senile and dying, shielded him like one would a monarch. It wasn’t Jomo the man, or the icon, that they worshipped, but the head of this zombie elite. He wasn’t just actively refusing to build a formidable Kenyan state; he was leading the way in destroying it.
A constant argument I’ve heard is that it was important for Jomo and Moi to rule as they did because they had inherited a traumatised society. The argument is that such a society is fragile and needs a firm hand to guide it through the healing process. It is the dangerous justification for “benevolent dictatorship”. That firmer hand promised repeatedly by Jubilee mandarins before and after the last election is a slippery slope. It is the same one with which the opposition handles its internal elections. This argument is back in our news diet, based on the same laws and ideals. What’s missing from it is that this “firmer hand” traumatised society in more ways than the colonial unit had, more so because the black aristocracy had no direction or plan beyond acquisition.
Publicly, and in such personal records as memoirs, this elite class continuously pretends it worked for the good of the country. But it turns out that our definition of country differs. For them it was a running plantation that requires little or no input, where a slave working class is either a vote, a weapon, a taxpayer, or all three. To keep this intact, the greatest inheritance Uhuru’s fathers left him was an assortment of oppressive colonial laws. They retained that same colonial attitude to dissent, peasant revolutions, and oaths. Laws on treason, sedition and secession remained untouched. Some were even shored up and legitimised as necessary, such as the Emergency laws.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it.
Inherited from a monarchy, these laws were designed to protect and deify the throne. They protected their perceived God-given right to rule, and fenced off the rituals, like oathing, that even attempted to challenge this. For example, the law used to arrest Miguna Miguna was passed in 1955 to fight the peasant irredentism that was the Mau Mau. Another interesting fight in the last five years was whether governors could fly official flags on their cars. In a pseudo-monarchy, the symbols of power, such as flags and oaths, must be protected to legitimise the power of the few, even among themselves. Yet that legitimacy remains shaky at best.
The identity problem
Two significant events will take place between now and 2020. The first is a census, in 2019, that will no doubt be assessed more for its political meaning than its socio-economic importance. We will be on the upper layers of 51 million people by the end of this year, with a net gain of one person every 25 seconds. Most of this population is under 25, and with a life expectancy of 62 years, is not even halfway through its lifespan.
Yet, given our deliberate and structured apathy to the destructive parts of our history, it will not be a surprise if the same conversations are still around in 40 years. Then, on June 11, 2020, most of mainland Kenya will mark a century since it was carved out as a colony. The 12-mile coastal strip will follow two months later, and the north five years after that. With that, the entire patchwork that is the Kenyan state will be a century-old. But the Kenyans within this boardroom experiment will still be struggling with what exactly it means to be Kenyan. Kenyanness is still a weapon, as shown by the cases of Ernsteine Kiano, Sheikh Khalid Balala, Miguna Miguna and Mohammed Sirat. All four found themselves “unKenyaned” for their personal and political stands, as if being born in a particular place (or married in, in the case of Ernsteine) should not be the foundation of all rights and inheritances.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things. It is a blood relative who, after years of self-imposed exile, returns to the family fold when he’s diagnosed with a terminal disease. His reason? Because he needs his people to bury him.
In Ndegwa’s book, there’s a way he talks about the Shifta War that is both condescending and revealing. First, the state of emergency that allowed Jomo and Moi to rule the North-East by decree was illegal. Ndegwa says as much, but cheekily defends it as a necessary breach of the law. Second, there is an appalling distance in the way he talks about an attempt to deport all Somalis from Eastleigh, and his failure to follow an order from his boss in a related event. The worst thing about this “othering” is that it is not unique to him or to the Jomo administration; it is a tool used by politicians even today.
The future of the Kenyan experiment
There is no Kenyan identity to reclaim. It has never existed, and there’s a possibility it might never exist. There are layers, yes, between officialdom and what we actually are and want to be.
I encountered this properly when I wrote “Nicholas Biwott was Not a Good Man” in response to the flurry of hagiographies that followed his death. The things in that obituary were common knowledge, but they were missing from the most read obituaries. My article was followed by statements like “Africans don’t speak ill of the dead”, which is a lie. My subject had himself been obsessed with his legacy, probably being the first among Kenya’s elite who paid to have the Internet scrub off any bad stories about him. If anything, Biwott epitomised the murk of the zombie elite. For him, the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t contrite about the lives he had ruined in his quest for wealth and power, but how history remembered him. He escalated (and demanded) the official silence we somehow now believe was a precolonial thing. We collectively censor “bad” stories about public figures, in much the same way that sexual predators roamed Hollywood for decades, unpunished.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things.
But the problem is that when official histories are written, people like him will get away with their contribution to the stagnation of the Kenyan state. Their concerted efforts to keep our identity in stasis, by both feeding off the land and actively trying to shape how such stories survive, will be lost in the threads of history. The elite of the day will actually promote this, not because of any other reason but a desire to sustain this destructive form of memory. It will still permeate through our social networks as if death, by itself the only certainty, somehow cleanses one of all the evil one has done.
In The Burden of History, American historian Hayden V. White wrote that “…we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.” There’s nothing like an objective history, White argued, because while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. And societies are built on stories. If you control a society’s stories, whether through censorship, tyranny, litigation or official narratives, you control its future.
Here, the resurgence of the KANU state is not as scary as it should be because we are eternal optimists. Because in the way stories are distilled, present-day problems are new and the solutions for them haven’t been tried before. Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation. We have learnt to accept the dichotomy between what makes it to official history, which includes media and eulogies, and what we discuss outside of it. This allows us to live double lives, and to drive our society further up the pedestal from which it will eventually collapse.
Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation.
In a discussion I had about Ndegwa’s memoirs, an acquaintance told me I was being harsh on the old man. I offered that the purpose of memoirs is not just to tell one’s story for one’s legacy, but to fit it in a slot in the sands of time. Its purpose is to invite us into a journey that is not our own, to see and experience a different life. It is not just that we might learn something about the author, but that we might also learn something about ourselves. What I learnt about us from that book is that we are stuck in a cycle that can’t be sustained.
That was primarily why Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles pissed me off so much. In Ndegwa’s boastful stories about how he and others deliberately undermined devolution, subverted the constitution and ostracised entire regions, I saw the men and women around Uhuru Kenyatta today. When they are aging and obsessed about their legacy, they will try to justify turning Kenya into the tyranny it is swiftly becoming. Memoirs will speak of the common good that is national security, and why ignoring court orders was the only choice. They will celebrate the handshakes and the failed projects. People who are actively destroying this society today will become “statesmen” and “stateswomen”.
And the taxpayers in this jua kali nation will let this be. In the coming years, they might even replace them in the list of great nation builders.
But will history absolve them?
HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?
In January 2018, at the annual Makerere University Tumusiime-Mutebile Centre of Excellence (TMCE) Business Dialogue, the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda, stated that Uganda was now in a position to finance 70% of its budget. However, despite the rosy declaration by the National Resistance Movement stalwart, all indications point to an economy in free fall and one not poised to make major economic breakthroughs.
Basic healthcare remains a serious challenge: despite a commitment made with several other African countries to allocating 15% of their budgets to the health sector, Uganda allocates less than 10% (just over 6% this year) of its budget to health. A cholera outbreak in western Uganda in late 2017 signaled yet another drug stock-out. There were reports from the central region of a lack of drugs to treat hepatitis-B. A major drug and consumables (e.g. gloves) shortage was also reported in Mbale in eastern Uganda in January 2018. The Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a catchment area of four million people, had received no drug consignments for two months.
Then in February this year, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee announced that a loan taken in 2016, in part to pay for drugs bought by the National Medical Stores, was not in fact passed on to the organisations for which it was borrowed. The Speaker of Parliament ordered a special audit to establish the use of the money.
At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
The Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, has so far explained that the funds were used for general budget support required in the last fiscal year: to plug a UGX 288 billion revenue shortfall, supplementary expenditure of UGX156 billion, and to substitute more expensive domestic borrowing amounting to 280 billion Uganda shillings.
Parliament is up in arms because when approval for the loan for budget support was first sought, it was rejected. Following a revised request emphasising the need for essential drugs, the request was approved. However, Parliament says it was duped as the beneficiaries were never advised about the arrival of the funds.
Muhakanizi is adamant that the money was banked in the government’s consolidated fund, along with all other sources of funds, and disbursed in the usual manner. One source says it is clear from the loan documents that it was never tied to the purchase of drugs. Furthermore, it appears that Parliament approved the loan on verbal presentations as to its usage, not on the loan documents. If this is so (the Auditor General is still investigating), then Parliament has revealed itself to be negligent in scrutinising and approving loans.
The underlying problem appears to be that, even with the PTA loan, there were simply insufficient funds for government business and the Treasury was unable to disburse all the money required by all sectors, even for essential expenditure like drugs. (Non-essential expenditure seems easier. It will be remembered that in 2016 a gratuity of UGX6.2 billion was paid by the President to 42 celebrity public servants as a reward for carrying out their ordinary duties. The Secretary to the Treasury was part of this privileged group.)
Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans.
The cash crisis persisted in 2018. At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
This is not surprising as there has been a shortfall in expected revenues of UGX300 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija. The shortfall is expected to double by the end of the year. By way of explanation, Kasaija claims that the budget estimates for 2017/1018 were wrong in some cases and there have been unexpected expenditures in others. The upshot, says Kasaija, is that ministries, departments and agencies have put in requests for an extra UGX2.3 trillion. This is needed for salaries, pensions, security and social assistance grants to low-income households, energy, as well as for the development budget. So far, only 38% (870 billion) of the excess expenditure has been approved in supplementary budgets.
Speaking of energy, Uganda is also experiencing a shortage of petrol. As with all fuel shortages, explanations include the refurbishment of infrastructure for the storage and transport of fuel, limited international supplies, delays in the construction of a pipeline from Kenya to Uganda, Kenyans, and myriad other excuses. What is not clear is why Uganda’s statutory fuel reserves are not replenished and in fact reserved for such emergencies. Why are the fuel reserves sold on the open market?
At the time of writing, news of the Uganda Police’s budget woes broke. The latest quarterly treasury release of UGX137 billion is sufficient only to fund operations at the Inspector General of Police’s headquarters and in three administrative regions, namely, Kampala Metropolitan, East Kyoga, Sipi and East Rwenzori. This means other operations, including criminal investigations and intelligence in Northern, Central and much of Western Uganda, are not funded. The Inspector General of Police has explained that operations will be rotated i.e. the next release will be used on operations in the areas that lost out this time.
Even though food is provided for, the association of police suppliers has suspended supplies while it demands payment of UGX 33 billion in arrears. This figure almost exactly matches the amount the police expects to spend on tear gas alone in a year. Total police arrears amount to UGX125 billion or a quarter of the annual budget. Suppliers have claimed that they are often threatened when pushing for payment.
The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
Primary health, education and transport – all designated as priority areas for development – are affected by what can only be the slow-motion collapse of the Ugandan economy. Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans. Foreign exchange fluctuations and further falls in commodity prices could make the situation worse.
Konkola, Hambantota and other stories
The trouble with loans to administratively weak countries and to full-on captured states is that they are irresponsibly used and are unsustainable. It is also public knowledge that significant portions of public funds, which would include loans and grants made to the government of Uganda, if not squandered are stolen outright.
Unsustainable debt will eventually lead to a loss of Uganda’s ability to even generate income. Prime examples of this dynamic would be the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia, Hambantota Harbour in Sri Lanka and Mozambique’s liquid natural gas deposits.
In 2014, under pressure from the World Bank to repay its debt, the Government of Zambia sought to sell Konkola, Zambia’s largest copper mines. The price was set at US$400 million, presumably after professional evaluation of Konkola’s potential revenues. The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
He then found himself in the presence of President Mwanawasa and later the Zambian Parliament, being hailed as a great man. Addressing an investment conference in Bangalore in 2014, Agarwal boasted that Konkola had earned his company, Vedanta, between US$500 million and US$1 billion annually since he bought it – more than even its original sale price.
Another example is from Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which derives from an ancient civilization noted for its irrigation and prosperous salt production industry. The harbour is the site of a port built in 2010 with a loan from China. A feasibility study for international ship-building, repair and freight services looked good on paper. However, like Uganda’s budgets, the feasibility study did not pan out and Sri Lanka defaulted on the loan repayments. Under the terms of the agreement, the harbour became the property of China for the next 99 years. There was an outcry, of course. Issues such as the initial viability of the loan were raised. Readjustments followed and now the harbour is a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka. Joint ventures managed by economic predators are no more profitable than unsustainable loans.
The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour.
More recently, in 2017, Mozambique lost future revenue from newly discovered natural gas deposits when the government defaulted on secret loans of US$2 billion. There too, a dodgy feasibility study showed that the loan was sustainable but it turns out it will take Mozambique ten years and most of the gas income to cover the loan and penalties for defaulting. The military and fishing equipment that it was ostensibly used for was being searched for by an international audit firm. The fishing fleet bought with some of the funds was rusting in dock as the business proved to be a loss-maker from the start. The government admitted that the fishing project was, in fact, a front for military acquisitions.
Of the many accounts of the Mozambican debt crisis, Ugandans and citizens of other developing countries should at least read the one by Bodo Ellmers of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, if only to form an idea of how our own oil discoveries could be squandered even before commercial production begins.
Naturally, after following developments in Zambia, Sri Lanka and Mozambique, one becomes nervous about Uganda’s situation. The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour. Chinese extractors are already mining the Lweera Wetland for sand at an industrial rate. The question is, could this official departure from national environmental policy be part of a secret concession sold to the Chinese by the usual suspects?
Is there a danger that title to or rights in other state assets will be or have been transferred to someone like Anil Agarwal or the Guptas, now that the latter have been flushed out of South Africa? It is a reasonable question, patriotic even, given that Uganda is a veteran of cartoonish business deals.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated.
A recent Department of Justice statement revealed the modus operandi for looting state assets employed by predator “investors” and their local agents when it charged one Patrick Ho with bribing the Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, in return for assorted business favours for a Chinese state entity. These costly concessions included, but were not limited to, direct access to the President (resulting in) extended tax holidays, free land by the square kilometer, forests, transfers of public machinery and plants on promises of future payments after they become profitable, and so on. It is in the public interest that Parliament investigates the sustainability of Uganda’s entire debt burden and what the country stands to lose in the event of a default.
Restitution of control
The process of recovery from this parlous state will not be easy. Taking South Africa as an example, a state under the control of regime stalwarts and foreign divestors – the Gupta brothers – it took the constant coordinated efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters to oust ex-President Jacob Zuma by: a) keeping the public informed about the inner workings of the regime; and b) naming the perpetrators. Working within the law, the EFF rejected attempts to normalise state capture by repeatedly bringing government business in Parliament to a halt. The resulting international spotlight on South Africa made Zuma’s position untenable. He resigned days after he was unable to make a last State of the Nation address.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated. Increasingly elaborate state functions, like the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation address and Independence and Heroes day celebrations belie the desperate realities.
Meanwhile, envoys from complicit countries continue to make high-profile visits to Ugandan government officials, even those implicated in financial scandals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund churn out evaluation reports deliberately fabricating achievements and downplaying the impact of failures in administrative and economic reforms. Concrete examples can be found in the evaluation of the Economic and Financial Management Programme, the Public Service Performance Enhancement Programme and the Education Sector Adjustment Credit. 
Until the Ugandan Parliament recognises the capture of the state for what it is, and by whom, and becomes serious about scrutinising public debt, Uganda is going nowhere.
 For records of misleading World Bank reports on Ugandan projects, see Mary Serumaga, The case for repudiation of Uganda’s public debt, 8 December 2017 by Mary Serumaga published by the Committee for Repudiation of Illegitimate Debt.
WADING INTO TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth
*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.
An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.
The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.
Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.
In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!
The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.
How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!
This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.
Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.
Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.
There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”
A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.
Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.
Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.
In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.
But can we rely on the youth to deliver?
Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:
The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.
Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing. He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.
We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”
According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute, Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi. Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.
It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.
The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.
In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu. But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.
Where Are Those Songs? Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:
Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […] Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.
Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:
Chilled body but not my soul…
We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.
I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.
Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.
Let us demand the dreams of our children.
Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.
Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA
Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.
Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337
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