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If we want performance, we must value ability

Jun 22, 2003 Success, Sunday Nation

Are we serious about becoming a ‘performance-orientated’ nation? Do we mean it when we say we’re looking for results? The president has taken a strong lead in the matter: he’s exhorted us to roll up our sleeves and get working. He’s warned us that there are no more handouts. He’s asked us to take charge of our own lives, and stop waiting for jobs to arrive on silver platters. He’s even taken the (very refreshing) step of telling his Nyeri constituents not to expect any special consideration from State House; they too have to work hard.

Very good. But it’s a tricky thing, this focus on performance. It will take some doing. For one thing, it places great emphasis on skills, qualifications and expertise. If the economy is to go places, we must be very sure that we have the right people in key positions. Striking the ‘right’ balance means using competence as the yardstick. It does NOT rely on considerations of tribe and region. It does NOT reward loyalty and longevity.

So I get very worried when I see rabble-rousers climbing to the rooftops to complain about their tribe and their people not getting ‘enough’ positions in government. If we listened to these half-wits, we would have precisely all the wrong people in place to guide us forward. We would see nothing beyond ethnicity. We would ignore skills and experience. And we would remain exactly where we are: poor and hopeless. So we must shout our opposition to them; the time for keeping quiet at the sight of imbecility in high places is gone.

In fact, this focus on ethnicity is one of the biggest impediments to our progress as a nation. Kenyans seem to revel in tribal categorisations, based on the most vacuous stereotypes. We seem to be unable to come to any judgement regarding a person until we have understood where they hail from. And then the silly labelling starts. Kikuyu? Must be very money-minded, probably criminally so. Luo? Must be pompous and arrogant. Coastal? Has to be lazy, probably an idler. Kalenjin? Definitely incompetent, probably benefited from patronage in the previous regime.

This rubbish seems to enter our heads very early in life, and then stubbornly refuses to leave. We may spend our lives meeting many industrious Coastals, humble Luos, and highly skilled Kalenjins; still we persist with our inane stereotypes. Unfortunately, this has real consequences: our minds remain closed to an objective appreciation of competence. We wallow in biases, even as we remain mired in poverty. Will we ever wake up to the fact that a human being is something more than a label? Will we ever learn to look at a Kenyan’s abilities, rather than the tribal baggage we think he or she carries? If prejudice from the past is to be our only guide to the future, then we might as well give up now. I guarantee we won’t make it.

Because we give such importance to tribe, we use it as a guide in making some very weighty judgements. When we survey a cabinet line-up, for example, all of us make implicit calculations of tribal balance. We tot up numbers and construct mental pie charts. If our tribe got more than its ‘fair’ share, we nod in satisfaction. If we were short-changed, we grumble incessantly and agitate in community halls and bars amongst our tribesmen.

Let’s get one thing clear: if we are really serious about getting results in this country, it should not matter to us if each and every cabinet minister came from just one tribe – provided they had the best skills for the job! Delivery of results must overwhelm every other consideration. A cabinet minister is a very important person indeed. This importance comes not from the status or the big car with the fluttering flag. It comes from the fact that these people (now) wield immense power; they can change the fortunes of each and every Kenyan with the decisions they make. Value is created or destroyed for Kenya every time a decision is made at cabinet level. Can we really afford to have the wrong people making them?

It gets worrying when newly appointed ministers start proclaiming that they ‘deserve’ their positions because of their loyalty to the president, or because they delivered so many votes for the party, or because they come from an important tribe. For goodness’ sake, something as important as a ministry is not a reward to be doled out to sycophants, activists and tribal chieftains! It is a position that demands knowledge, skills and great application. It is ministers who must work hard and get results, first and foremost. If they fail, the country fails. We can no longer afford even a single minister who, upon taking office, orders a new limousine and refurnishes his office before falling into deep slumber. By clamouring for ‘our’ folks to get these positions, we are sending in people armed with only half a toolbox. We are consigning ourselves to eternal poverty.

How indeed does a tribe benefit by getting handouts and receiving patronage? The gain is very short-lived indeed. If your people mess up ministries and parastatals, is your community not tainted in the eyes of Kenyans? If you are used to getting something for nothing, how will you ever develop your own abilities and expertise? For any community (be it tribe or nation) to make real progress, it must show a single-minded determination in developing skills. When all is said and done, your expertise talks; all else is hot air.

If we persist in measuring the wrong things, we will be doomed to being ruled by dullards. A change in mindset is needed: Kenyans must learn to value and appreciate skills and competence. We must elevate knowledge and know-how in our society. We must applaud and reward those who deliver results. We must stop tolerating mediocrity and start searching for excellence. To do this, we must take off the spectacles of tribal outlook: they are making us very short-sighted indeed.

Indeed, if we think of the truly great heroes in our history, all are remembered precisely because they were able to transcend narrow tribal agendas. They managed to represent and work for all Kenyans. They saw a bigger picture, and worked on a broader canvas. Tribal overlords are remembered only by their own tribes.

The new ruling party has a very important role to play here. If our rulers engage in tribal politics, so will Kenyans. If our leaders form regional cliques and mafias, so will Kenyans. If, however, our leading lights embrace all communities and emphasise higher things, so, ultimately, will all Kenyans. Our president, by demonstrating that he is above petty regional considerations, is setting an excellent example. Other luminaries must do likewise. We cannot afford even the perception of tribal bias in top appointments. The government is young, and still repaying political debts. For now, we must tolerate a certain number of incompetents in prominent places. Let’s not do it for too long.

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