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Good governance is the measure of our civilisation

Feb 23, 2003 Leadership, Sunday Nation

A new song is on every politician’s lips these days: good governance. Every minister, every permanent secretary, every technocrat, in the new government can be heard singing it for the cameras. The president even made it the cornerstone of his address at the state opening of parliament, and announced the creation of a special department in his own office to lead the return to good governance. Before the catchiness of the tune infects us all, however, let’s pause for a moment.

What is good governance? A system of governance is the complex web of laws, rules, regulations, norms and codes of behaviour through which a society governs the activities of its people. It is the chronicle in which a community lays down what is acceptable by way of behaviour, and what is not. It is the means by which those who are entrusted to act on behalf of others, and in the common good, are held accountable for their actions.

Is it really that important? Emphatically, yes. Put simply, good governance is the measure of civilisation.

One of the fundamental requirements of a governance structure is a strong system of property rights. The concept of property rights is at the very core of governance, and it is therefore important to understand what it means. Property rights are not limited to land alone, but to all resources: the apartment you own in Kilimani, say; the money in your bank account; and indeed your human labour.

The point is that a system of rights must exist, and it must be enforced. Study after study of economic development has shown that those economies that suffer from the most retarded growth are precisely those that have the most poorly defined systems of property rights. Indeed, it might be argued that an effective governance system is a more important pre-requisite for economic growth than even an abundance of natural resources. One need only look at the relative economic positions of Japan on the one hand, and Congo, say, on the other in order to see this.

Why this emphasis on the sanctity of property rights? Essentially, because productive resources are scarce. The fundamental purpose of property rights is to eliminate destructive competition for control of economic resources. Ill-defined and unprotected property rights weaken everyone’s incentives to strive for success, and promote ‘grabbing’ over ‘acquiring’, ‘force’ over ‘free will’, ‘robbery’ over ‘hard work’. This leads, inevitably, to reduced production, saving, and investment, and to lower living standards for all. Even for the coercers themselves.

The Narc government is already under attack for not respecting the sanctity of property rights. But let us not forget one thing: it is not the title deeds themselves that matter; it is the principles that underlie them. A property right acquired by fraud or coercion is not worthy of respect; one that was obtained via a legitimate transaction between a willing buyer and an agreeable seller, on the other hand, should be protected at all costs.

The Nation has been busy in recent weeks uncovering many a failure in governance. Over the past two decades, it seems that some of our leaders took the easy routes to economic success – coercion and theft. They plundered public coffers, grabbed land they had no right to, snatched businesses from those who built them. In doing all this, these individuals did more than just execute a temporary transfer of wealth; no, their legacy is more far-reaching and invidious than that. For, to facilitate their extra-legal activities, they weakened the very system that underwrites our national livelihood: the system of governance.

Those institutions that are at the very heart of governance – the judiciary, the police force, local authorities, regulatory bodies – are precisely the ones that lie in tatters. The effects of this degradation will be felt for a long, long time to come. A whole culture has taken root: a culture of short cuts, loopholes, kickbacks and extortion. These became the paths to success.

Now, it is time to resurrect an almost mythical figure: the honest, hard-working, enterprising Kenyan.

It may prove harder than we think, for the rot is everywhere. On any given day, you and I can observe a dozen failures of governance. When a speeding matatu overtakes using a footpath, and a policeman observes with indifference. When a manager is appointed because he is from the same obscure village as the managing director. When you pay taxes and duties in full, but your competitor doesn’t. When you know the road outside your house will only last until the next rains. When a shopkeeper invites you to avoid paying VAT.

A governance system, when faced with the calculated assault on its values that ours has been, unravels pretty rapidly. The transition from a ‘relaxing’ of controls to outright criminality is often frighteningly sudden. And as the public loss of confidence in the system gathers momentum, a particularly vicious cycle is instigated: I act in my own interests because I do not trust the system; and the more I choose to ignore the rules, the weaker the system becomes.

As the system degenerates further and further, savagery is just around the corner. Last week’s opening up the Nyayo House dungeons should have told us just how close we came. But let no-one imagine that this was the work of a few morally aberrant individuals; we all knew those hellish catacombs were there, we’d all heard the stories. We all chose to ignore them, to look after ourselves, to act in our own interests. We are all culpable. This stain is imprinted on our collective psyche.

But fear not, Kenyans! “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world”, said Vaclav Havel. All is not lost. The mammoth task of reconstruction of our governance system, however, is the responsibility of each and every one of us. We must not pass the buck upwards to our new government. We will not reform because of the structures around us; we will reform by rediscovering our essential human values.

We must practice ‘zero tolerance’ ourselves, every day, in every way. We must neither give nor take a bribe, ever. We must stand up and speak against that which we know to be wrong. We must not sit quietly at the sidelines. We must never pick up the first stone, nor rush to condemn. We must help the helpless. We must accept all around us, and protect their rights. And we, the tainted, must teach these values unceasingly to a new, unsoiled generation.

Then, when our ethics are healthy and our ideals are noble, the foundation will have been re-laid. Our institutions will become robust again. Our leaders will be, as they have always been, the reflection of that which is in our hearts. We deserved the leaders who designed torture chambers. Someday, slowly, we will deserve better.

Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o recently referred to the need for ‘moral rearmament’. If ever there was a call to arms that should be heeded, that is one. It is the first step on the road to recovery.

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