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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Thoughts ahead of the 2016 State of the Nation Address, Kenya, 31 March 2016


This blog draws on the points made on Citizen #Cheche breakfast show, 30 March 

The President’s State of the Nation address is not just a constitutional requirement under Art. 132. It is a moment of accountability and call to national action. The power of the address flows less from the words. Any decent speech writer can find and use words like rebirth, renewal, transformation and hashtags like #TransformKE. The power come in our listening that the speaker is honest, sincere and committed to results. There has to be space therefore, also for a President to say we were wrong, we didn’t meet our own expectations and we will do better.

The 2014 and 2015 addresses are still present for the millions of Kenyans. 2014 addressed devolution, security (nyumba kumi/CCTV), reducing cost of living and the promise of the Youth Fund and National Youth Service. 2015 addressed the attainment of middle income status, an apology for historical injustices (TJRC report and a restoration of fund of Kshs60 billion), the cancer of corruption and the 179 names on the list of shame.

The 2016 address must revisit these policy choices and commitments. We have seen a Cabinet reshuffle, new laws enacted, asset seizures and pressure on law enforcement agencies to prosecute the corrupt. All this gives substance to the words of the President in 2015. Given that this happened after strong public demand for #FagiaKE, the public can draw satisfaction that their voice and agency has been heard. The establishment of specialised criminal courts to expedite the 350 cases before the courts is also very welcome.

Yet, the absence of convictions, continued appointment of public officers not based on merit, competitive appointment or the spirit of Integrity Chapter 6 and the reluctance to subject all Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and Directors to life style audits is worrying. The staggering amounts lost to the tax-payer in the National Youth Service, Eurobond, Youth Fund and other scandals since his speech last year has left public servants and the public shocked.

Returning to the historical and I believe, heartfelt apology for human rights abuses, much has not happened. The Kshs 10 billion restoration fund is still not established and the TJRC report remains stuck in the National Assembly. Listening to human rights victims and survivors of injustice many of them women as far back as the sixties last week (#TruthJusticeDignityKE #WagallaMassacre), I am struck how such an important issue for national cohesion has been handled so ineffectively by the Office of State Law, Treasury and the National Assembly.

Looking forward, the President could address four issues that threaten our national values. They are inequalities, corruption (again), negative ethnicity (again) and the looming electoral crisis (new).

#TransformKE claims that we are the fastest growing economy and third best improved country for doing business. Our triumphalism that we have attained middle income country status needs to be tempered by the reality that we are using half chicken economics. A few people have four chickens and the majority none, so by average we all have half chickens. Growth is not shared.

The Mathare Legal Aid and Human Rights Awareness Advocacy speaks of unemployed youth who turn to crime dying in a hail of bullets by other criminals or the police within three years. They speak of homes that survive on a monthly rent of Kshs 1-2,000 shillings and Kshs 3,000 for food. They and their rural counterparts can be forgiven if they are growing increasingly impatient with these announcements.

When asked why the Tunisian revolution took place at a time that all the indicators pointed to a growing economy, the former Minister of Planning and Tourism once said, “Seems the people in the streets didn’t bother to read our analysis”. The President’s speech need to challenge this more rigorously than the Ministry of Planning and Devolution has done in the past.

Government statistics need to be challenged more. It is not that the economy is not growing or that infrastructure, maternal health access and other services are not improving. All this, thankfully is happening. It is that corruption threatens this growth directly. We may be improving the ease of doing business in the world, but we are only 34 countries ahead of Chad in this respect. Further, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers, we are now the 3rd most corrupt country.

The scale of recent scandals, the reluctance to appoint or dismiss people based on their integrity and the awkwardness of unlawful administrative actions struck down by courts have to be transformed if Kenya is to move forward. Here the President could communicate the principle of command responsibility across his administration. If it is proven that a senior official knew a crime was committed as was the case of the Kenya National Examinations Council, that official goes as well.

The issue of negative ethnicity stalks us still. Dr.David Ndii’s “It’s time to divorce” and the subsequent social media #ArrestNdii #Kikuyus discussions inform us that labelling and polarisation still frames the national question. While I believe most Kenyans believe in the unitary state and are enjoying the benefits of devolution, our individual safety and dignity is still subject to ethnic coalitions and not our constitution. We are not far enough from persecution and extermination ideologies.

The last issue we must address is the looming electoral crisis. We turn to the season that typically leads to intolerance, violence and the loss of 2% of our GDP without an acceptable IEBC as referee and Judiciary as arbiter. The increasing securitisation of media and civic spaces contribute to the precipice we lean over. The President could boldly step into this space and establish a mechanism for all the political parties, observer and election management bodies to agree ground rules for a fair, non-violent and meaningful election. The President could also signal the commencement of the Public Benefits Organisations Act 2013 and the value of independent, factual and investigative journalism. The abysmal turn out at the voter registration this month is a sign that the electorate is slowly turning away from the fundamental pillar of democracy, the ballot. What would be next?

The last word is to the President as he faces this constitutional moment. Two empowering quotes can help ground him. They are Andy Stanley’s “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say” and Elbert Hubbard’s “The proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” Leadership requires an inability to listen to all views and a recognition that power is not controlling everything in the republic. Ultimately the strength of the republic lies in its people speaking and acting to breathe life into the constitutional promises. The role of the Presidency is to respond swiftly, decisively and champion these constitutional promises. The four areas above would be places to start.


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