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Bold actions to transform Kenya

Jul 08, 2007 Strategy, Sunday Nation

I have no idea who the next president of Kenya will be, and neither do you. Given that our politicians are driven by the overwhelming need to take office rather than stick to principle, anything is possible. Anyone can yet team up with anyone else. Any number of permutations can emerge.

I find all of that singularly uninteresting. The important thing is not WHO takes power, but WHAT he (it won’t yet be a she) does with it. There are some fundamental things that need to be done to Kenya if it is ever to join a different division in the league of nations. All presidential candidates have caught the ‘vision bug’: but for their grandiose goals to ever be realised, some very basic, very difficult, very politically uncomfortable actions need to be taken. Without these actions, we are whistling in the wind.

So, next president of Kenya, can you find the guts to do the following?

First, cut your own powers. It will take an unusual person to do this, but a true visionary must see that giving one person, no matter how brilliant, the power to appoint and sack every senior person in government is a critical flaw. The enlightened leader will hand a proportion of power back to the politically independent institutions of the land.

Second, sack every single person in the civil service and start over. The good people in Kenya’s civil service say this themselves: this animal cannot change itself. There is absolutely no hope of incremental change, of marginal modernisation. Only a revolutionary paradigm shift will do the job. The old way – rigid bureaucracy, secrecy and fear, files piled to the ceilings, corrupt cabals – must go in totality. We have to create a lean machine that wields the latest technology, that is obsessive about its own productivity, that automates most transactional work, and that utilises modern management methods to provide careers that attract top talent, not dregs. Good performers in the current system will provide the core of the new one. But you can’t put lipstick on the old bulldog and put it in a new race; you have to bring in a greyhound.

Third: Put every senior position in the country on performance-based pay. No more salary for just showing up at work; let’s pay people when they deliver the right results. That’s how the private sector does it: it sets targets, deploys talent – but only pays when the cash registers are ringing. All senior figures, including the president, cabinet ministers, and permanent secretaries, should be given a basket of measures and a performance contract that is written around it. Their remuneration should be modest if they fail to deliver, and enormous if they achieve great things for the country. If they deliver 10 per cent annual growth, higher standards of living for everyone, and more equal access to services and opportunity – would anyone begrudge top reward? At the moment we offer great pay without any pressure to perform. The results have been before us all these years.

The fourth challenge for the fearless leader: break the shackles of tribalism and ethnicity once and for all. At the moment we are a ‘pretend’ nation: we are a bunch of tribes and races pretending to have a national cloak around us. It’s all a hoax: in our minds we are as the colonialists found us – a group of fiefdoms led by chieftains, all believing in our own superiority and ready to fight over cattle and water. These days we fight over cabinet posts and budgetary funds; little else has changed. A bold president would appoint widely and deeply on merit; would spread development investment far and wide; would maintain a circle of advisors of all backgrounds; and would demonstrate a global vision to the nation that cannot be trivialised by something as irrelevant as one’s home town. If Citizen Number One mocks tribal caricatures and shows us that they retard development – we might just believe it.

Finally: Send some big people to jail. There is no shortage of candidates: the number of senior looters who have fed at the taxpayer’s trough is huge and varied. If we want to end the cancer of corruption that has so weakened the national body, we must deploy the scalpel. Send a clear message to the whole country: corruption has a downside. When you plunder, there is a price to pay. It does not matter how many thousands of unemployed illiterates you can gather from your village to lend you noisy support: if you are caught looting, you must inhabit a correction facility for many years.

Will any of these things ever be done? I forgive you for laughing. Ridiculous, naive and utopian, you chuckle into your cornflakes. No recognition of the political realities of Kenya, you say sagely, slurping more coffee. Such a leader would never be elected, you shout with certainty. Yes, that is all true. It is also true that if we never do these things, we will still be having this discussion in 2030.

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