NGUGI: When leaders on foreign trips see order, do they remember the chaos at home?

Tuesday August 20 2019

A Eurostar train arrives from London at

A Eurostar train arrives from London at Rotterdam Central Station on February 1, 2018. When our leaders go on foreign trips and see super highways and hospitals and general orderliness, do they remember with sadness the chaos they left behind? PHOTO | AFP 

More by this Author

Get this: Kenya sent 90 delegates to a legislative conference in the USA! The list of delegates comprised members of the Senate, National Assembly, parliamentary staff, ward representatives, and county assembly staff.

Nigeria, the giant of corruption and wastage, sent 22 delegates. The host nation, the US, sent nine, wealthy Japan sent six and Portugal, a small county with a GDP more than twice that of Kenya, sent two delegates.

Indonesia, with a population of 260 million, which had more or less the same GDP as Kenya in 1963, but which now stands at $1.022 trillion, sent a single delegate. In terms of population and GDP size, Kenya was several times overrepresented.

As this circus was playing out, an Auditor-General’s report revealed that counties spent a staggering Ksh9.4 billion ($91 million) on domestic travel in nine months.

The Executive, Parliament, and the Judiciary also used billions on domestic travel.

Why people for whom the public has provided ostentatious offices would need to travel to leisure resorts to hold meetings defeats even the logic of the most spendthrift among us.


One can only imagine how much is spent on foreign travel, where personal assistants, concubines and hangers-on are included on the global joyrides. Now, remember that these officials are the highest paid state workers, not just in Kenya, but globally.

Keep in mind, too, that the theft of a third of Kenya’s budget every year is perpetrated by these same officials in all three branches of government.

Just to put the wastage and theft in sharper focus, consider the following facts. Last year, people in northern Kenya and their livestock were dying of hunger.

Teachers and nurses are always on strike over poor pay and allowances. The police in Kenya serve under the most horrific terms and conditions.

In 21st century Kenya, thousands of children walk barefoot to school and learn under trees. Most of Kenya’s population lives below the poverty line.

Every year, thousands escape from impoverished villages to eke out hellish lives in slums that daily encroach on islands where the middle class fights in vain to keep the hordes at bay.

Every year, we borrow billions which go into buying mansions and cars and helicopters. Sometimes for a blessing or two, churches get a bit of the loot.

The starving masses, too, get a few handouts if they cheer loud enough.

I recently watched a documentary on the retired president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who built a personality cult reminiscent of Joseph Stalin.

We are also familiar with the megalomania of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, and others. They were, and are, accountable only to themselves. They exemplify, in this century, King Louis XIV’s boast of l’etat c’est moi (I am the state ).

And yet there is a method to their madness, or at the very least, an aim that goes beyond their megalomania.

Nazarbayev aimed to create a modern capital, and a cultural and scientific hub to serve the region and beyond.

Kim Jong-Un aims to make North Korea a great world power.

To what end our greed and thievery in Kenya?

What is the ultimate purpose of acquisition of more mansions and concubines and an ever growing fleet of helicopters?

When our leaders go on foreign trips and see super highways and hospitals and general orderliness, do they remember with sadness the chaos they left behind?

At these conferences they attend, do they feel ashamed when delegates from Europe and Asia make comments about their huge delegations?

An unremarked driver of the spectacular transformation of formerly poor Asian countries was the shame their leaders and people felt about their countries’ poverty and backwardness, no matter if they were individually well off.

These are questions we have not wanted to ask. Instead, we have comforted ourselves with feel-good theories that absolve us of any responsibility for our condition.

As poor Asian countries tightened their belts and used every opportunity to figure out how they could be more productive, more efficient or more innovative, we loved nothing better than to debate colonialism.

As Asian countries rallied their citizens to a different war, a war to catch up with the developed part of the world, we wallowed in fatalistic theories about our condition.

How else would one understand the popular but increasingly redundant Post-Colonial Theory, which seems to say that colonialism occasioned a permanent psychosis?

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.