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Why do we keep messing things up?

Mar 23, 2008 Management, Sunday Nation

If you didn’t know where “Muthurwa” was in Nairobi, I guess you do now. Recent goings-on around that part of Eastlands have all of Nairobi in a spin – and a completely unnecessary one.

First we had the fiasco of the new hawkers’ market. The people who perch on pavements and alleys in the city’s business district, selling shoes, airtime, underwear, toys, snacks and anything else, were all shepherded out to a spanking new covered market, created just for them.

Of course nothing is quite that straightforward in Kenya. The hawkers arrived to find an unfinished market with daily stall charges twice as much as the norm. They found tiny stalls that were not allocated for any period longer than a day – with no facility for overnight storage of goods. And they found a place where it was far from obvious where the customers would come from.

The answer to that came within a few days. A decree was issued forbidding matatus from proceeding in to the city centre from Eastlands. They would now have to end their journeys at the new terminus at – you guessed it – Muthurwa. The aim: to reduce congestion in the central business district.

The rest we all witnessed on our TV screens all week. Hawkers rebelled first, rejecting their new home and returning to the city centre. City council askaris did what they do best, wading into the hawkers with violent purpose. Perplexed commuters found that they suddenly had to walk the final kilometres to their place of work – every morning. The new terminus seemed to have no capacity whatsoever to deal with the vehicular and human traffic now engulfing it. Huge traffic jams ensued.

The anger also mounted. Matatu owners blocked the roads in protest. Commuters found they had to add an extra hour to their journeys to work, as if commuting in Nairobi was not difficult enough already. The ‘leaders’ and ‘planners’ (I use the terms loosely and with reluctance) who were responsible for the chaos went underground and refused to address the public outcry.

The question is: why? Why do we have to do things THIS badly? This column has decried the management deficit in public service many times; but sometimes the immensity of the shortfall is enough to make you stagger.

Was it so difficult to complete the construction of the hawkers’ market before taking its new denizens there? Could the issue of daily charges not have been thought about more deeply – particularly as they were brought down eventually anyway?

Was the travel chaos that ensued from the matatu decision so difficult to foresee? Was it not utterly obvious to even the most casual observer that that terminus was not fit for purpose? Was the misery that was about to be inflicted on long-suffering passengers not even considered?

Indeed, there are two deficits at work here: one in basic management skills; the other in leadership. The first is the direct legacy of two decades of populating important public bodies with outright incompetents called “friends, relatives and tribesmen”. The second is the more tragic one: that people with no concern for their followers, no sense of their needs and tribulations, are happy to call themselves “leaders”.

Sorting out mass transit in Nairobi and elsewhere is going to be a critical plank in our future economic growth. So will our ability to organise small-scale enterprise. These things are far too important to be handled in such cavalier fashion with such little concern for the consequences visited upon the common Kenyan. Who, after all, are we doing it all for? These things have to be designed by planners who can walk in the shoes of the people they are planning for, so that they understand the context and consequences of their plans.

For as long as we have leaders who become leaders for all the wrong reasons, we will keep getting these fiascos. Leadership is a far greater thing than we allow it to be in Kenya. A true leader is focused on one thing only: improving the lives of his or her followers. That is something entirely unfamiliar in Kenya, where we spent decades under the yoke of a colonial government whose true subjects and interests were elsewhere; followed by decades under successive self-determined leaders whose interests did not go beyond their personal bank accounts.

If you were a true leader, you would never permit gross incompetence under your watch. You would ensure the right skills were present in your organisation. You would not sleep at night if you had caused misery to your people. And a crisis would be the time you would engage most with your public.

It is difficult to sympathise too much with matatu owners and crews: if they were not so ill-mannered and unruly, they might not need banning in the first place. But there can be no excuse for messing up the lives of commuters and entrepreneurs. Those people are actually the backbone of the economy. They deserve better.

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