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Recent Kenyan governments love statistics, and we are paying the price for it.

Late last year, continuous power blackouts got Kenyans talking about our infrastructure development binges. Amidst our collective embarrassment at darkened airport terminals, the energy cabinet secretary suggested that “last mile” electricity connections and the corresponding demand for power had increased beyond the capacity of the existing transmission lines.

That explanation, which is yet to be contradicted, brought me back to the heyday of Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration. At nearly every State of the Nation address or public holiday, the Fourth never lost an opportunity to remind Kenyans about how many homes and businesses his government had connected to electricity. Those connections also provided one of the most enduring memes of his government when Kenyatta stooped to enter a home where electricity had recently been installed. 

Likewise, Kenyatta never tired of reminding us that his government had built ten thousand kilometres of road, far more than those constructed by the Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki administrations combined, and issued more title deeds than previous governments. 

On education, Jubilee promised solar-powered laptops for every child entering Standard One in their 2013 election manifesto and, despite numerous suggestions as to alternatives, settled on those bright yellow tablets that – a decade later – we hear nothing about, lost in the transition to the Competency Based Curriculum.

In addition to statistics, we have large projects that serve as excellent visual campaign aids at election time. The Standard Gauge Railway was built from Mombasa to Nairobi – cutting through Nairobi National Park – at such a brisk pace that Kenyans were heading down to the coast for holidays in little more than four hours, weeks before the 2017 election. Had construction not been completed in time for the president to ride that train with a seven-helicopter escort, had construction only reached, say, Sultan Hamud on voting day, it would have consigned Jubilee to defeat, with no election petition needed. 

In fact, the railway probably played a role in the infamous stadium promises. William Ruto may never live down his promise that “In six months the stadium in Wote will be complete,” (which, by the way, it still is not). Yet you can’t help but think the reason that promise continues to rankle is that many Kenyans believed it even though they’ll never admit it. Delivery of the SGR likely made subsequent promises more believable, because if they delivered that railway, what’s a few stadiums? 

Statistics were so important that in the lead-up to the 2017 election, the Jubilee government set up a data portal purporting to show what it had achieved in its first term, potentially bringing it into conflict with the law.

The disputed election and the 2018 handshake did nothing to diminish the importance of numbers. Soon after Nairobi Metropolitan Services was created, kilometres of footpaths in the city were paved with cabro, more than 100 boreholes were drilled in informal settlements – with Uhuru Kenyatta making night trips around the city to inspect progress – only for Governor Johnson Sakaja to later say the water in those boreholes had fluoride content in excess of World Health Organisation limits. The clinics built by NMS had no equipment and were closed soon after President Kenyatta paid them a visit.

After all these years, it is worth asking what all these numbers mean and whether a slavish adherence to numbers that demonstrate results comes at the expense of more important qualitative measures of development, like whether that thing you built needed to be built, and actually solves the problem the community needed solved, and neatly – not in a crude manner. 

How meaningful is a steep rise in electricity connections if the resulting unstable grid trips at the slightest strain, plunging the country into blackout after blackout? Might Kenyans not be happier with a slower increase in connections that are developed in tandem with better maintenance, upgrades and more redundancy?

The government may have built numerous roads that connect products to market and opened up hidden gems like Mt. Ololokwe to tourism. Yet if they are constantly impassable, flooded, and pockmarked with potholes during the rainy season, with bridges being swept away and travellers getting drowned, should Kenyans perhaps not welcome road building at a less frenetic pace, but with better engineering to withstand flooding and improved design to allow for safe movement by children, pedestrians, cyclists, handcart users and livestock? 

How meaningful is a steep rise in electricity connections if the resulting unstable grid trips at the slightest strain, plunging the country into blackout after blackout?

Drivers may enjoy zooming down Nairobi’s bypasses, but these roads force the communities they pass through to live in newly bifurcated towns and balance the need to cross with the heightened risk of being struck by speeding vehicles, a risk only slightly mitigated by the haphazard installation of speed bumps.

In health, the government famously created the Managed Equipment Service to procure equipment for hospitals around the country, only for a Senate report to show that much of that equipment lay unused because counties lacked specialists, the ministry had not consulted with the counties, or the requisite infrastructure was missing. More consultation would have slowed down the process, leaving politicians unimpressed, but ultimately yielding a system more finely attuned to the needs of the counties. 

Closely related to projects aimed at re-election are the so-called legacy projects, which must be complete before a venerable leader leaves office. The government was in such a rush to have Uhuru Park renovated before President Uhuru left office that nobody bothered to involve the public in the conversation about what Uhuru Park meant to them and how they wanted it to change. Nobody had the time for even a simple design competition which would have engaged Kenyans on the future of a historic public space.

The Jubilee government followed the Moi and Kibaki administrations in trying to clean up Nairobi River, but after the now customary clean-ups of trash from the water, they declared victory and withdrew with no long-term plan to contain the pollution and ensure a sustainable housing and sanitary solution for those living on the water’s edge. Yet serious river rehabilitation projects take significantly longer; rehabilitating the Suzhou Creek in China took more than a decade.

Why this rush to complete projects that can be expressed in numbers or that cement legacies? It may be because politicians have their own ideas about which achievements resonate with voters. Recently, President Mwai Kibaki has been receiving posthumous praise for his handling of Kenya’s economy, yet in life he was called “hands-off, eyes-off, everything-off”. His now-exalted economic stewardship was apparently not enough to earn him a second term as President in 2007 without having to barricade himself in State House for a rushed swearing-in at dusk. 

Clearly, we want a government that is focused on the important things in the long term, that is deliberate in its public consultation, and thoughtful and detailed in its execution. That not only means a healthy scepticism for impressive numbers, but also a need to see through ribbon cuttings, and engage with milestones and processes. 

It means accepting elections will find some long-term projects incomplete, but progressing. 

Clearly, we want a government that is focused on the important things in the long term, that is deliberate in its public consultation, and thoughtful and detailed in its execution. 

Related to this is the need to value the necessary but unglamorous. No politician in Nairobi headlines an election campaign with promises to fix a sewer system, yet as our noses never fail to remind us at Riverside, a sanitary urban life is impossible without it. Kenyans must also temper politicians’ urges to make unrealistic promises and encourage them to revise them downwards. Hindsight shows us that the Narc government that removed Moi from power famously promised a new constitution in 100 days, yet when the post-election violence of 2008 finally focused the minds of Kenyans on this task, it took a year.

Delivery that is driven by political pressure to show performance risks projects that are unsuitable, error-prone and unambitious. Let numbers be backed up by delivery that listens to Kenyans and moves at the pace professionals recommend.