Si Si Wakenya?: The World’s Most Important Election Belongs To Kenya

Posted In Business - By admin on Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 With No Comments »

debatersIf there were a single country in Africa I’d offer as a microcosm of the continent’s effort to find a balance between growth and redistribution it would be Kenya. The nation of 41 million each day performs a high wire tight rope walk in between tradition and modernity; informal and formal economic activity; and collective and individual identity. As I have previously written at Forbes its dynamic approach to building a property rights regime upon the economic essence of marriage is uniquely impressive.

From that lens, Monday’s national election is less about the vision offered by colorful leading candidates – a sitting Prime Minister Raila Odinga and an opposition candidate under an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta.  As political platforms go, neither offers much policy innovation– as is always the case with a post-liberation nation where the emphasis on political ideology and survival crowds out the brutal honesty and the long-term vision required to unwind a colonial economy.  That opposition and ruling parties in developing nations play little more than a game of musical chairs – where political ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ merely fight over who grants the license, obtains the franchise and controls borders in an export-driven economy, is an inglorious fact indeed.  And no politician in any developing or developed nation – including Kenya’s favorite son, the current President of the United States – will ever tell the electorate how little power they actually have to change things, until they are out of office.

So I never would expect any of Kenya’s leading candidates to explain to the electorate that it is not an accident that multi-lateral assistance disbursements match the central bank’s shortfall in foreign exchange reserves regardless of who is in office.  Nor do I expect them to detail that in the Summer of 2011 the Kenyan shilling was falling not because the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) was ‘independently’ targeting an inflation level or an exchange rate but rather because it was actually following a mandate contained within a Letter of Intent signed between the Government of Kenya and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The shilling fell because the central bank had to mop up dollar liquidity in order to hit a target set for it by the IMF as a condition to receive $500 million in ‘assistance.’  Elaborating on how such back-door agreements deprive elected officials of their policy space is not the kind of thing a charismatic leader runs on and certainly not Mr. Kenyatta who actually signed the agreement.

This detail, and other uncomfortable facts like: 1) it is European-based Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) who are financing efforts toward the economic integration of Kenya and East Africa 2) it is U.S. military advisers (sent by Kenya’s favorite son) coordinating potentially destabilizing military operations in the region 3) it is a Russian investment bank – Renaissance Capital – financing the largest urban development project in all of Africa right outside of Nairobi 4) a growing sense is emerging that Kenya’s high profile push into mobile technology, positioned as world-leading by Western financial media, will ultimately serve Silicon Valley more than the indigenous tech-savvy hub of app-making entrepreneurs – could all be used to paint a picture that belies the sense of empowerment and optimism which many Kenyans genuinely feel on the eve of national elections.

No, simply telling Kenyans that as they prepared to watch their presidential candidates debate on live television for the first time in history, that the IMF was in Nairobi for 10 days eroding the decision-making authority of their next President would be too easy, too pessimistic, too inappropriate and well, too 1990s.

It also would miss the underlying common thread of this election – the tense conversation Kenyans are having with one another – and not the world – about what this election means for the future of Kenya.  This election, it may come to the surprise of the rest of us, is not a referendum on policy, sovereignty or any personality.  It is a defining moment on whether a kinship-based society, dominated by tribal, religious and ethnic loyalty has reached a level of critical mass sufficient for national unity.  And only with national unity, Kenyans have formulated, can a foundation be laid for everything else.

While the business community purchases political risk insurance and regional neighbors develop alternative trade routes to move material goods, the Kenyan electorate places its hopes in the only true foundation of economic development – the social capital of trust in one another.

To walk the streets of downtown Nairobi is riveting experience to me – not only is the energy vibrant with an almost orange-bronze to jet black mosaic of human beauty on full display – but the spectrum of opinion, characterized by a no-holds barred media which embraces taboo subjects as tightly as any loved one, lies at one’s fingertips, newsstand after newsstand. Read anything #Kenya on Twitter and you can get a sense of this hypnotizing rhythm.  Whether one vicariously reads a few posts, or the comment section of a few articles in the popular Daily Nation or just tunes in to the popularHomeboyz radio station which brilliantly marries Kenya’s social culture with the energy of Black American urban music; it becomes instantly clear that this election, despite superficially being about everything, ultimately only boils down to one thing – unity or not.

As I read and listen to Kenya, it appears that the electorate is not only voting for Kenyatta or Odinga at a polling station but also having a referendum on a larger question, which could be written in Swahili as “Si Si Wakenya?” or “Us, Kenyans?”

It is not hard to understand why.  The wounds of the 2007 election marred by violence are not only fresh but unhealed.  A reported 600,000 persons were displaced or fled their homes temporarily and over a thousand were killed with reparative compensation packages for victims widely seen as inadequate or biased.

Although grievances have not been addressed some are confident that essential lessons have been learned.

Ibada Ahmed , a career commercial banker and microfinance expert based in Nairobi and Johannesburg, South Africa, feels the electorate has already divined the costs and benefits of the election believing the state apparatus is both incentivized to avoid and prepared for a worst case scenario, “Owing to the current lucrative economic condition not to mention the skills and manpower available, Kenya pivots heavy investments from various global heavy weights in service and manufacturing sector.  So March 4th will be a great test for democracy and our international reputation as an economic hub.  Our regional status as a safe haven for investment hangs in the balance.  A capable Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is now in place and with Dr. Willy Mutunga at the helm of the Supreme Court, the Judiciary is prepared to resolve any dispute that may arise.  The Kenyan police and all other forces of the law are also adequately equipped.  This is great progress when compared to our 2007 preparations.  The expectation and attitude of every Kenyan is ‘never again’ to the atrocities that were committed.”

Yet anxiety permeates the atmosphere, giving this election an aura more tied to prayer, than policy. Anyone who listens to a Kenyan who longs for cohesion and peace knows this yearning comes from a place far deeper than partisanship.

Kenya’s superstar male vocal group, Sauti Sol, known for their social consciousness as much as their talent, conveyed to me the nervous optimism, dripping with frustration that is common among many “The forthcoming elections to us are very different but still very much the same. The more stuff changes the more they remain the same. We probably now have the best system in Africa to stem election rigging and other mal practices. [But] with all the changes and positivity Kenya is [still] more tribal than it was the last election.  Its like a freakin’ virus and our politicians really help in fueling this as it gives them an edge over the candidates who talk about issues. In Kenya if you campaign on issues without talking about ‘your people’ you’ll go nowhere.  On the contrary Kenyans are peace loving, we’re scared of war and unrest but are very good at instilling fear. Everyone is predicting we could experience our worst unrest yet. Some people see ‘foreigners’ leaving the country and businesses closing up. Right now it’s wait and see and cross fingers. But we have pledged to keep the peace and even our politicians [have done] the same.”  The latter point made, is a hopeful reference to a recent unity rally between competing candidates that featured embraces and pledges to accept post-election results.

The nightmare scenario envisioned by every Kenyan to whom I have spoken makes clear that the candidate on the margin is Uhuru Kenyatta.

He is as complex as his country – the son of Jomo Kenyatta the first Prime Minister and President of Kenya – currently serving as Deputy Prime Minister.  Ironically and simultaneously he is described as both the more ‘corrupt’ and stronger of the two candidates on economic issues – whose family’s massive holdings of arable land are cause of controversy and influence.  One Kenyan actually told me “I am afraid if Kenyatta wins because Kenya will fall apart but if he were victorious it would also be better for the economy.” Just as many have told me violence will erupt if he loses.

I don’t see split views of Kenyatta as confused or schizophrenic but rather a reflection of the realization of many Kenyans that their economy currently suffers from both the choices of its current leadership and unbridled external influence which may produce the most uncomfortable of 2013 scenarios for many – a sitting President Kenyatta put on trial by the ICC, charged with committing crimes against humanity during the 2007 election.  Regardless to whether peace or violence accompanies a Kenyatta victory there is no way to dismiss what his enormous popularity much less electoral success represents.

A sitting President convicted of atrocities said to have been committed during the election that immediately preceded his victory would be part symbolic, symptomatic, and an odd form of domestic and international consensus regarding the state of Kenya’s evolution from colonial economy to self-determining nation.  A Kenyatta victory may remind some of WashingtonD.C.’s sober re-election of a mayor previously convicted and imprisoned. The result could not be labeled irrational and would be as hard to ignore as the presence of a democratically-elected Hamas in Palestine. One man’s ‘terrorist’ is always another man’s ‘freedom fighter,’ if we care to look more deeply.

Understanding this, a shrewd, if not innocent Kenyatta is ready to call the ICC’s bluff and place the West in the valley of decision.  If President Kenyatta wins in a violence-free election accepted by Mr. Odinga, would the West really be willing to go as far as to pursue his arrest and threaten sanctions on Kenyaas it has done with President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan? A Kenyatta victory could expose cracks in the edifice of the Western multi-lateral network.  How could the same democratically-elected man leading a sovereign nation and signing agreements with the IMF in its name, be put on trial with the ICC?

Perhaps the wisdom of the Kenyan electorate evolves into an international referendum on meddling in the sovereign affairs of nations. Maybe not.

So, tempting, for myself and the rest of us living outside of Kenya to contemplate these questions as central to the March 4th election, but although not ignored, Kenyatta’s ICC issues are not the highest concern for a nation simply struggling to establish a sense of ‘us’ or ‘we’ or  ‘si si’ which has eluded it. The excessive focus on any leading personality – whether Kenyatta, Odinga or others – actually enables distraction away from a collective Kenyan identity and toward the further exploitation of everyday Kenyans, in the thinking of some.

This concern was articulated to me by media professional Tim Waindi who sees the election as capable of either aggravation or solution to an underlying economic and cultural problem, “The huge socio-economic disparity that exists between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ has created an environment that has ignored the merits of civic education and waylay-ed the rights of the common Kenyan for purely capital gain. We look forward to a time when basic amenities such as food, education, shelter and health shall be a right to every citizen independent of tribe or culture, but have learnt harsh lessons from experience – more often than not it appears that the most cunning candidate gets the cake. Let us hope that Kenya is evolving rather than following a familiar pattern, but stretching to embrace a new democratic era.”

Again, March 4th depicted as a litmus test not only on wealth distribution but a transcendent national identity.

Sauti Sol put it beautifully telling me, “As a people we have hope and believe.  We’re still one of the most optimistic nations in the world as was the case back in 2002. It’s an uphill task but we can come out stronger with a free and fair election with leaders and the world respecting the decision made by the Kenyan people. We look forward to a time when elections will just be an event, a formality that does not affect normalcy and our economy and when politics will be issue-based.  Then we will all look at each other as Kenyans while appreciating our diversity!”

May the same be said one day for the rest of us.

Here’s to Kenya leading the way.-FORBES

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