Can Uhuru initiate a transformation this time around? Sadly, not on past form

Five years in power were reminiscent of the Kanu kleptocracy.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, flanked by his wife Margaret, and Vice-President William Ruto, flanked by his wife Rachel, hold certificates during the inauguration ceremony in Nairobi, on November 28, 2017. AFP 

IN SUMMARY

  • After five years of his administration, Kenya remains dogged by the same problems that dog a Third World country – poverty, high unemployment, ethnic strife, gender inequality, poor healthcare, etc.

Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in for a second five-year term on Tuesday.

Will he transform Kenya from being just another failing or failed African state? Or will he squander the opportunity like Mwai Kibaki did?

I start the comparison with Mwai Kibaki because before then, presidents did not really care about their legacy. All they wanted was to rule and accrue the personal benefits that came with absolute power.

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In a real sense, legacy – and the idea that leadership should be linked to outcomes beyond megalomania and self-enrichment – is a product of the reform movement of the 1990s.

So when Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002, there was expectation that he would totally change the narrative of failure that had become associated with Africa since Independence. And Kenyans, just like at Independence, were ready for change.

In her book, It’s Our Turn To Eat, which narrates the great expectations and failures of the Mwai Kibaki regime, Michela Wrong recounts an experience at Kibaki’s inauguration at Uhuru Park.

Fearful that her handbag would be snatched, she tucked it tightly under her arm. A man walking beside her noticed her precautionary measure and told her not to worry because they were now a changed people and country. And indeed in the following weeks, there was a palpable energy in the air, a shift in our national psychology.

The country was ready for a new beginning. We were ready to jettison the Third World mentality that led us to expect little of ourselves, that made us to accept low standards of performance from our leaders, and that saw nothing psychologically crippling with our success being inferred by comparison with failed states like the DR Congo or Somalia.

Throughout history, a characteristic of leaders who transformed their countries is the ability to recognise or bring about the psychological shift described above in order to inculcate in the populace a new sense of national purpose, a radical redefinition of the possible.

Thus John F Kennedy could inspire Americans to believe that their wildest dreams were possible. Lee Kuan Yew could, in one generation, transform an impoverished backwater into a First World country. For these leaders, their sense of personal triumph and prestige was inextricably linked to their county’s transformation.

But Africa, it would seem, is cursed with a leadership incapable of seeing beyond megalomania. The Mwai Kibaki regime not only failed to recognise and, therefore, take advantage of a moment of destiny, but fell back on the same habits that defined his predecessor regimes.

Instead of bringing into its fold young, imaginative people who had a progressive and unselfish view of the future, the regime surrounded itself with carryovers from the Ancient Regime, men whose imagination was circumscribed by the habits, limitations and prejudices of old.

Anglo Leasing and other mega corruption scandals happened. Ethnocentrism returned. Lethargy once again defined the civil service. Comparison with failed states returned as our measure of success.

No doubt the Kibaki regime was an improvement on Kanu. But, surely, is that our measure of success?

In 10 years, Lula da Silva transformed Brazil from being a perennially promising country into one of the richest in the world with matching diplomatic power to boot. In his first 10 years in power, Mahathir Mohamad put Malaysia firmly on the trajectory of real progress.

Granted that in 2013, when Uhuru Kenyatta assumed power, the country was not in a moment of destiny like in 1963 or 2002, it was still possible to bring about such a moment by totally casting aside the habits of thought engendered by his political education.

Instead, his five years in power were reminiscent of the Kanu kleptocracy. Corruption became so blatant, public money was carted off in sacks at night. Grabbing public land returned, exemplified most gruesomely by the gassing of primary schoolchildren when they protested the grabbing of their school field.

Tribalism worsened. His Cabinet of so-called technocrats became as lethargic as Cabinets of old. Opinion polls consistently showed that people were pessimistic about the future.

After five years of his administration, Kenya remains dogged by the same problems that dog a Third World country – poverty, high unemployment, ethnic strife, gender inequality, poor healthcare, etc.

So, Uhuru Kenyatta has a Herculean task in the next five years. He must engender a national sense of renewal and fight corruption and tribalism. He must exemplify and demand from the Cabinet and civil service a culture of performance to the highest standards. He must inspire a new vision of endless possibility, and craft the means to achieve it.

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