So Obama came to Kenya. So what?
The visit was epic. As I wrote here last week, US president’s long-awaited visit to Kenya had it all: spectacle, glamour, drama, sensation. New words entered our vocabulary, and even our child-naming lexicon: POTUS, Air Force One, Marine One, The Beast.
And then he was gone. And a thoughtful Kenyan must ask: so what? After all the expense and the preparation; after all the hypocritical beautification; after all the talk and the chatter; after all the speeches and orations – so what? After closing our roads and shutting down our biggest city – so what?
Certainly, we reaped some significant benefits. I discussed last week: the PR gains of being featured in world media for the right things were huge. We also returned to the embrace of the western world, after a couple of years out in the cold. Those things will help, to recover our shattered tourism industry, and to help us fight the scourge of terrorism that has blighted us of late.
And yet, the cynics are out in force, asking whether the US delivered any real “goodies” or whether Kenya is any different after its most powerful relative left. To which I can only say: the messiah syndrome is alive and kicking, all these decades after we became independent.
What did we actually expect Barack Obama to do for us? Can he solve our problems, accelerate our development, dole out largesse? Why do we remain so stunted, that we expect miracles from what was just a visit, a conference, a set of talks? It was a good visit, and some good things happened. That is all.
Indeed, the week after Obama left was a peculiarly bad one. Political name-calling and insults seemed to begin minutes after Air Force One left the runway; there were more revelations of our inability to account for so much government spending; elements of our police force showed again how ready they are to cover up the misdeeds of rich people; and our national airline made a loss so huge it broke all previous records.
I wrote here in 2004 when Barack Obama became a senator: no one “up there” or “out there” owes us a living. We owe it to ourselves. I wrote in 2008, after he became US president, that there would be no “Obama Bonus” for Kenya; no one would come to fill our pockets with aid or populate our beaches with tourists or fund our balance sheets with investment.
So let me write here in 2015 after Obama has visited us: we are perfectly capable of funding ourselves, paying for ourselves, sorting out our own issues. We are not children who should be looking for parenting from the West or the East. We need to have our own development agenda and our own way of doing things. We have to move on from feudal structures, tribal thinking and amoral practices. And do it by ourselves.
There was no Obama Bonus then, and there won’t be now. What there could be, however, is a more grown-up engagement with the US: one based on shared interests and mutual respect, not one based on exploitation and hypocrisy. American companies are looking at us with renewed interest: Microsoft chose to launch its global Windows 10 upgrade right here. A whole host of American companies are paying great interest to our energy, agro-processing and technology sectors. Let us encourage them, not by seeking special favours or granting them, but by making this a good place in which to do business.
All the lofty talk in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit had seasoned Kenyan entrepreneurs shaking their head. The reality of running a business in these woods is far different from the frictionless world of smooth innovation that was described there. Businessfolk here have to deal with a motley crew of extortionists and rent-seekers who are like ticks on their backs. There are people who do nothing but harass, nothing but block paths, nothing but cause delays.
If we really want Obama in Kenya and GES 2015 to count, our task is simple. Streamline regulation, and make it strict but fair. Sweep away all those who seek to block honest endeavour. Support entrepreneurs, not tenderpreneurs. Hardworking Kenyans can do it all by themselves. Just get out of their way.