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The myths and half-truths of the election campaign

This general election campaign sometimes sounds like the innumerate in conversation with the illiterate. The level of discourse is plunging fast, and we have yet to find the bottom. Half-truths are tossed around with abandon; myths and stereotypes rule the day; brainless accusations are made daily.

We know the electorate is mostly unschooled (that’s the way leaders like it); but where exactly did some of our politicians go to school? For your delectation, I gather today some of the more bizarre assertions that have made the headlines in recent days.

Myth 1: Opinion polls tell us nothing. There are many reasons given for this, but a popular one seems to be that opinion polls are useless because they measure the responses of just a few people, not all the voters. As one Nairobi die-hard politician asked at a rally recently: “How many of you were interviewed by Steadman? None? You see!”

Amazing stuff. I seem to remember being taught in secondary school that you did not have to measure the characteristics of a whole population in order to arrive at meaningful conclusions. A sample of a certain size and structure is a perfectly acceptable way to poll a population, I recall hearing. Perhaps all the young politicians missed class that day. Perhaps they were attending a rally.

In any case, if the opinion polls favour you, then the people of Kenya have spoken and pollsters are top professionals; if you find yourself at the wrong end of the results, then polls are “mere opinions” and pollsters are mercenary agents planted by foreign powers to foment discord.

Myth 2: This government has achieved nothing. I realise that opposition politicians (though everyone seems to be in opposition these days, as there is almost no-one left in ‘Narc’) traditionally have to belittle the incumbent government. But could they not be a little more intelligent about it? Has this government, for all its flaws, really achieved nothing? We are very quick to forget the quagmire from which we emerged – the ruthless hand of government, the wanton plunder of the economy, the mindless destruction of our competitiveness as a nation – in 2002.

This government has missed many opportunities, but Kenyans have a great deal to be grateful for. Six per cent economic growth is now dismissed as too little, but it’s not that long ago that the economy was actually shrinking every year. Every business person in the land is grateful for the recent boom in trade, across pretty much every industry. That took competent management of key institutions, and intelligent opening up of market space. Any government wishing to take up the reins of the economy had better be at least as competent in economic management. Kenyans will demand nothing less.

Myth 3: Any change will be bad for the economy. This is the one coming from the government side. No gentlemen, change is not bad for the economy: messing up the economy is bad for the economy. It is cynical to shake up the markets with loose talk, and smacks of desperation. We wish to compare economic manifestos, not listen to tribal talk. You don’t have to hail from a mountain to be good for the economy: you have to understand economic fundamentals.

Kenya’s economic growth comes from the people of Kenya. It does not come from mandarins at the Treasury, or from foreign assistance. We often forget that politicians and civil servants can only create policy environments; they can’t create wealth itself. Only businesses create wealth. What thoughtful leaders have to do is craft a set of policy measures that incentivises growth and sparks the spirit of enterprise. And then get out of the way, and let Kenyans get on with their work.

Myth 4: Ten per cent annual economic growth is a piece of cake. Talk of ten per cent is the vogue now, as though it is the minimum to be offered to Kenyans. Really? Yes, ten per cent is eminently possible: but it will require a massive mobilisation of ideas and investments. Few countries in world history have pulled it off for a sustained period.

Ten per cent is very different from six per cent. We achieved the latter by simply doing some basic economic housekeeping well; we will only achieve the former by engaging in transformational thinking, and by building a truly participative economy at all levels.

If politicians stopped trading in myths for just a while, they might realise that the way forward for Kenya involves stable fiscal and financial management. It also involves, somewhat paradoxically, a willingness to be radical and address some key challenges: infrastructure, insecurity, and corruption. A government that combines stability with boldness is the one that Kenyans ought to vote for. The next government must be sensible, but it must also be audacious.

If we can get a government that does that, it matters not a jot whether it hails from mountain, lake or ocean. It should hail from Kenya, and transform the lives and livelihoods of all Kenyans.

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