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A very special cabinet meeting

Aug 01, 2004 Leadership, Sunday Nation

The government had been in power for exactly two years. The President had convened a special cabinet meeting to commemorate the event and to reflect on the highs and lows of the tumultuous past 24 months.

He looked around at the men and women sitting around him, and leaned forward to speak. “Ladies and gentlemen”, he said, “two years ago we were swept into power on a tidal wave of voter sentiment. I recall my first cabinet meeting with you, where I said that whatever we did next, we could not let the voters down. We held their trust and their hopes in our hands. We had taken on the biggest responsibility of our lives – to deliver this country from darkness into light.”

He continued: “Most of you who were present at that first meeting are still present today.” The assembled ministers look around, smiling at one another. “Yet some had to leave. A few ministers sought to put themselves and their own greed before the nation. As you can see, they are not with us today. Two are currently in prison. When I said we would not tolerate corruption, you know I meant it.”

The President sat back and clasped his hands together. “For those of us still here around this table, this meeting gives us a chance to reflect on our key achievements in these two years of power. What have we delivered to Kenyans? Are they happy with us? Are we on the right course? Do we need to adjust our direction? These are the things I wish to discuss today.

I laid down three themes to guide us back in 2003: one, a working nation: two, self-reliance; and three, accountability to the taxpayer. The idea behind this thinking was simple: that we must get the people of this country back to work; that we must develop the skills and competencies that will enable us to shake off the shackles of dependency on outsiders once and for all; and that we must at all times live up to our fiduciary duty to those who put us in office.

The first step was to announce a three-year period of strict austerity for the entire nation. When our Minister of Finance took office, he saw the true extent of the rot that had gone on in Treasury before we arrived.” The man to his left shook his head with a wry smile. The President continued: “In a couple of weeks we had ascertained that the country was, quite literally, broke. And when you are broke, the last thing you do is go on a spending spree. We also discovered that our predecessors were spending 85 shillings out of every 100 on recurrent expenditure – on a bloated civil service and on servicing the massive debt burden they had placed on Kenyans. In short, this country was merely running on the spot. There was no investment in the future.

And so we made some quite difficult pronouncements. One, that all spending by ministries on non-essential expenditures was frozen; two, that we would have to engage in the very difficult and unpleasant task of reducing our civil service by 30,000 people over two years; and three, that all “leakages” in the system must be plugged immediately.

You will recall the paradox that faced us: that we had to cut costs to the bone, but at the same time invest in our future prosperity. Our infrastructure and our institutions were in tatters. We realised, sitting at this very table, that we had no choice but to go to our development partners to fund our economic recovery strategy. But you will recall the actual path we took, after getting the best minds to advise us: a 3-year aid package from a consortium of donors, focused entirely on education, infrastructure and health facilities. We were quite clear with our friends: we need you to help us now, but we have no wish to depend on you ad infinitum. Give us a package of aid that lasts for only three years. We don’t want any more. We know very well that no country, no corporation and no individual has ever succeeded in this world by relying on others. Your own countries never did, so why should we?”

He smiled. “You will recall the surprise this caused around the world.” The others nodded. “But the hesitation was short-lived. After evaluating our economic recovery plan, and seeing that we were targeting their funds towards high-impact activities, our friends opened up the aid taps. We were promised a remarkable total of US$ 10 billion in grants and loans for the three-year period. Today, we have used up 7 billion. We must ask ourselves: have we used it well?”

The President looked around. “I know none of you has been able to get a new car or refurbish his or her office in these two years. But our predecessors had over-compensated in that regard, so we have not exactly been suffering!” Laughter rang out around the table. “We passed a resolution to freeze our salaries as ministers for two years. We undertook to focus money on development activities. Did it work?

Well, we can point to a number of things. We made free universal education a pre-requisite – and have spent amply on extra classrooms, facilities and equipment. We have grown the road network by 30 per cent, and have upgraded 50 per cent of existing roads. We achieved 5 per cent forest cover in just 18 months, after a very determined and passionate nationwide campaign by our formidable environment minister here.” Her cabinet colleagues applauded as the minister took a bow, smiling.

“We have succeeded in involving the private sector wherever possible. We licensed a second national fixed-line operator and third mobile operator in year one – and we have seen a dramatic increase in services. Fixed-line connections in rural areas have doubled. Our corporate sector in the towns now enjoys super-fast connectivity on fibre-optic networks.

Critically, we did not ask the poor to get to the back of the queue. We have built business parks with sanitation and electricity in every major urban area. We have provided new feeder roads to every significant agricultural production area. We have revived the agro-processing sector to provide a market for this produce. And last month we noted that an additional 700,000 jobs have been created since we took power – and that tax collections from new taxpayers have increased 300 per cent. The nation is working indeed!”

The President sat back, and his face broke into a big smile. “I don’t think we have done too badly. Many said I was a naïve politician, that austerity, downsizing and the sacking of powerful politicians would spell the end of our fragile coalition. Well, I notice that the latest opinion poll shows that Kenyans think otherwise. We have approval ratings higher than when we took office! He stood up. “I will be making a recommendation to the new public remuneration body that each and every person sitting around this table deserves a very handsome pay rise. You have saved Kenya.”

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