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Like its football team, Kenya is failing to qualify

Nov 22, 2009 Strategy, Sunday Nation

I was an angry man last weekend. The ill temper was sparked by a football match. I watched Kenya lose 2-3 to Nigeria at Kasarani, and in the process fail to qualify for both the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations.

That in itself was not news, and should not have made me anything other than mildly irritated. Kenya’s football pedigree is nonexistent these days, and we would be lucky to win against a ladies’ netball team trying their hand at soccer. No, what was annoying was listening to so many commentators saying after the game that “plucky” Kenya had “put up a good fight.”

People, no one gets any prizes for trying. You get rewards for trying and winning. And I am fed up to the gills with our acceptance of mediocrity. Kenya played this game without its German coach, Antoine Hey, who had absconded in a fit of pique. The Prime Minister, who had been instrumental in forcing through the appointment of this laughably unqualified coach, sat in the stadium cheering “our boys”.

The high priests of football in Kenya must also have watched Kenya fail to qualify even for a continental tournament, let alone a global one. Having presided over an administration that would make circus clowns look organised, did they feel any shame? I doubt it very much. It’s just another failure, another blot in our copybook. We laugh it off and we move on.

My mood worsened as the weekend went on. First, I unfortunately started looking through the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2009/10, which gave me the news that Kenya is now 98th in how it competes internationally. We have dropped places again. Who is ahead of us? Oh, just countries like Senegal, Gambia and El Salvador. Who is breathing down our necks and likely to overhaul us soon? Tanzania and Uganda. No one to worry about, really.

Some more numbers for you. Did you know that we are about to fall out of Africa’s Top 10 in terms of nominal GDP? That Angola and Sudan have overhauled us, and Ethiopia looks like it will do so soon? Did you know that when we look at nominal GDP per head, Kenya features 27th in the continent, behind Chad? And that our national income per person now lags behind the average for Sub-Saharan Africa?

And yet this is the country that thinks it sits on the top table, whose ministers can only drive the world’s most expensive limousines, and which trades insults with the world’s most powerful nation.

What is it that’s knocking us down into the basement of the world economy? Oh, that’s easy. Endemic corruption, utterly inadequate infrastructure and institutions, inefficient government, and crime and violence. That’s our daily diet of junk, causing our malnutrition.

This stuff matters, Kenyans. At the end of the day, economic advancement is all. We can’t sit around amidst the world’s failed states as our neighbours race ahead. Other people are getting it while we sit around in a stupor. And as our peers are investing in all the right places, what are we arguing about? Kadhi courts, VW Passats, foreign coaches and an election three years away.

We are still having the same arguments about land and its boundaries that we did in the 1960s. We still have pastoralists driving cows onto the highways of our capital cities. We still can’t supply water or power or basic healthcare to most of our people. We are still arguing over forests and rivers. We are still waiting for rain.

Does any of that matter for the future? Not a jot. Our economic future lies not in how many goats we have, but in how many connected computers. We should be arguing about how to build international brands, not about constituency boundaries. The future is in the hands of those who can make the best use of knowledge, not of rain. Those who own expertise, markets and global supply chains are going to make that future.

Yet here we sit, unable to organise a national football team let alone a national strategy. Take a hard look at Harambee Stars, Kenyans: they are a metaphor for the nation. Their reference point is the past, not the future. They are administered by thugs and comedians, and coached by third-stringers and mercenaries. They are in a continuous state of argument about stolen money and political positions. Their best players have long lost faith in them, and make their living overseas. Their natural talent is stifled by the nonentities who lead them.

If we are not careful, our country will soon fail to qualify just as our football team did. We must stop revelling in non-news and arguing about non-issues every day. The real game is being played in other stadia, by people who have the right managers, the right knowhow, the right arguments and the right priorities.

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