Thoughts on the Uhuru Kenyatta Administration in 2016

This is from Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, addressing the president:

We acknowledge the fact that it has been a tough year for leaders across the world — what with global economic upheavals and terrorists wreaking havoc everywhere.

However, we reject the almost criminal resignation and negligence with which your government has responded to our national crises this past year. We need not recount the number of lives lost, the losses incurred by businesses and opportunities wasted for millions of Kenyans due to the incompetence of the Executive.

With the exception of a few family businesses and tenderpreneurs who raked in billions of shillings — thanks largely to political patronage — everyone is losing money in this country.

More on this here. Read the whole thing.

This is pretty direct, and articulates a narrative of the middle class’ general dissatisfaction with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration.

It will also have very little political impact.

First, the Kenyan middle class (the primary audience of the Nation) is tiny. Second, the same middle class is as much a hostage of identity politics as is the rest of the country (this is true of even for the Nation‘s editorial team) — and on this score Kenya’s demographic profile favors Mr. Kenyatta in the next election scheduled for August next year (All indications suggest that a breakup of the Jubilee Alliance ahead of 2017 is a low probability event). Third, there still exists a wide chasm between the middle and upper middle classes and the vast majority of working class and rural Kenyans (with the former group perpetually wondering why the latter group doesn’t vote for its interests). This is why identity politics continue to dominate even cosmopolitan counties like Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, and Mombasa.

That said, here are some quick thoughts on the Jubilee Administration as it enters its fourth year:

  1. President Uhuru Kenyatta is a politician: That means that he will invariably only take action that is consistent with his perceived political interests — getting reelected in 2017; keeping his political lieutenants and the wider Jubilee coalition happy; taking care of his core base; et cetera. Reformists who imagine that the president can operate outside of Kenya’s political system are bound to be disappointed. And those who equate Uhuru Kenyatta to Daniel arap Moi are missing the point by miles. Moi micro-managed. Kenyatta II delegates (Kibaki and Kenyatta I delegated, but with relatively better monitoring).
  2. The Kenyatta Administration’s biggest problem is too much delegation without sufficient monitoring: Much of the criticism of the Administration tends to be packaged in the language of “political will” — if only Kenyatta REALLY wanted to change things. The truth, however, is that the president faces both political and organizational obstacles to reform. Administrators continue to stonewall reform at will; and the administration remains too top heavy for its own good. What needs to happen is a radical restructuring to empower the equivalent of “mid-level managers” in the Civil Service. This should be accompanied by a shift from an internal police patrol system of monitoring (characterized by an extreme form of siege mentality) to a fire alarm system — Civil Servants should be judged by what the public thinks of their work. And those found wanting should be fired. Incentives matter. Focusing on these administrative and organizational reform agendas, rather than the politics of “political will” might be more amenable to the president (see 1 above) and could yield good results — especially if they come with sufficient political cover for the president.
  3. State House is not focused on any key signature policies: Most governments tend to be judged by a few signature achievements. President Kibaki will forever be remembered as Mr Infrastructure. Thus far Mr. Kenyatta has not staked his legacy on any pet projects or policies — most of the big investments he has made (in rail, roads, and power) are on Kibaki legacy projects. This makes it very hard for him to sell any “successes.” Back in 2013 I proposed housing, agriculture, and education as possible areas in which the president could make significant improvements while building on Kibaki’s legacy. The lack of focus at State House creates the impression of an administration that dabbles in everything but closes on nothing. It also allows Civil Servants to shirk a lot. They are doing everything, but have nothing to show for it. The president would be better served if he told his staff that he will no longer show up at the launching of anything, and instead will only be available for commissioning of fished projects. Incentives matter.
  4. Perception is everything in politics: Narratives matter in politics. They also tend to be sticky and self-fulfilling. It is going to be hard for the president to sell his successes — including in energy and electricity access and continued investment in Kibaki legacy projects — if the public is convinced that his administration is failing on every front.
  5. What is William Ruto’s strategy? President Kenyatta has had a rough three years. By his own admission the war on corruption and malaise in the public service has proven to be a lot harder than he imagined it to be. But he is a Kenyatta, and will most likely be reelected next August. Ruto, the Deputy President, hopes to succeed Kenyatta in 2022. However, Ruto’s electoral success will hinge on the Administration’s performance over the next seven years. Also, Vice Presidents typically take the fall for the boss if things go wrong. It is not clear to me how Ruto would be a successful candidate in 2022 if the Kenyatta II era is judged to have been a failure (especially since it will be judged against the Kibaki era). Given this reality one would expect Ruto to do his all to make the administration work for Kenyans, instead of relying solely on patronage. Kenya has changed a lot since 2010; and will have changed even more by 2022. Performance will matter a lot more then that it does now, even for rural Kenyans. I am constantly surprised that this fact does not seem to bother the man from Eldoret.
  6. What to look for in 2016: The management of Kenya’s public debt (which will impact movements in domestic interest rates, with knock on effects on growth); continued investment in key infrastructure, including transportation and power generation (by year end nearly all primary schools in the country will be on the grid, a pretty big deal); a rebound in tourism (he has his faults, but CS Najib Balala is probably the best man for the job at tourism); and continued growth in construction (which grew by 14.1% in Q3 of 2015). I remain cautiously optimistic about the handling of monetary policy. The Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Patrick Njoroge, is probably the most respected technocrat in the country.

Historically, growth in the Kenyan economy tends to slow down by about 0.5 percentage points during election years. This time is probably not going to be different. That said, I expect the economy to remain on a positive growth trajectory (above 5% growth p.a.) going into 2017.

On the political front, the role of the Governors of Kenya’s 47 counties will the biggest wildcard. Many of these mini-presidents have amassed financial war chests and created networks that will prove consequential in 2017. True to Kenyan form, a number of them are already founding their own parties (the true District Parties are back, with cash). The balancing effects of governors (vis-a-vis established national politicians) creates a reality in which no one is fully “in charge” in the Jamuhuri, a fact that comes with all sorts of frustrations and fears. But sometimes that is a good thing. Especially when Kenyans and their indefatigable biashara habits are involved.

Lastly, expect to see more hard-hitting criticism of Mr. Kenyatta in the Kenyan press in 2016, much of it inspired by Kenya’s deep-seated Tanzania envy. If Tanzanian president John Magufuli maintains his reformist zeal there will be a lot of pressure on Mr. Kenyatta (#WhatWouldMagufuliDo?). Very few Kenyans will care to remember that the two presidents serve under two completely different constitutional and party regimes.

Happy New Year!

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Uhuru Kenyatta Administration in 2016

  1. Balanced….But on the issue of Kibaki legacy projects, the average gestation period for a government infrastructural projects, even in the best of times, is between 5 and 10 years. Given that reality, what choices does he have?

    Like

  2. Good read! Agriculture in particular encases complex challenges that really need to be addressed fast, such as land tenure questions; the lure of the construction industry on our most arable lands; agro-processing industries and employment creation.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Daily Nation suspends editor for strong criticism of President Uhuru Kenyatta « An Africanist Perspective

  4. Pingback: Why Did Nation Media Group Fire Galava? « An Africanist Perspective

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