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Friday, August 19, 2016

A Tale Of Two Highways

In July, on a short visit to the UK, I took a 200 kilometre drive on the M40 from London to Birmingham. Travelling through the English countryside, one is treated to lots of greenery but not much else. In fact, for one used to Kenyan roads, this is perhaps the most remarkable thing about travelling on the motorway. For two hours, apart from my fellow motorists and their passengers, there was little sign of life. No towns, no cyclists, no bus stops, no pedestrians strolling beside it or trying to cross it.

Last weekend, I had occasion to use another “superhighway” this time, back in Kenya. The experience was quite different. It took about two and a half hours to cover the 126 kilometres from Nairobi to Karatina, just under half of which is on the famous Thika Superhighway, the signature infrastructure project of the Kibaki administration. Massive tailbacks are a feature at the regular bumps erected to facilitate pedestrian crossings along the busy and populated areas the road rumbles through. In addition, 18 footbridges span it and another 10 are planned. Matatus are constantly stopping to (mostly illegally) pick up or drop passengers. It is a road that is full of life.

It is also a road sadly filled with death. According to the National Transport and Safety Authority, it is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week.

Why are so many dying and being maimed? The NTSA says the 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians. In fact, the 2014 Senate committee report indicated that nearly 800 pedestrians had been arrested for attempting to cross from undesignated areas. The remaining fifth of crashes were attributed to mechanical condition of vehicles, weather and the state of the road itself.

This understanding has informed the measures undertaken to tackle the problem. From increased enforcement to the erection of bumps to slow down traffic on what was touted as an expressway, to building more footpaths and erecting barriers to prevent unauthorized crossings. Yet, few eyebrows were raised 6 months ago when Transport Secretary, James Macharia, announced the government’s intention to remove the existing bumps, which were themselves said to be a safety feature. It was an indicator of where the problem truly lies.

To understand why, take a look at Sweden. In 1997, the country, which has one of the best road safety records in the world, adopted a radical Vision Zero policy, which seeks to not just reduce, but eliminate deaths and injuries on its roads. The main pillar of the policy is that those who design, maintain and enforce the road system and its rules are ultimately responsible for the level of safety within it.

In essence, it is not enough to simply point the finger at errant drivers and stupid pedestrians. Road crashes are also a function of the design and rules of the road. In fact the policy puts the onus not on users but on the designers. The late Donella Meadows described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior.

With this understanding, we can begin to see that the difference between Thika Superhighway and the M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly the such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behavior on them.

To explain its projects and well aware of Kenyans’ deep acquaintance with empty promises of “development”, the government has been wont to use a single word – inajengwa (it is being built). And indeed, for many citizens, the fact that after decades of getting nothing for their taxes, the fact that something, anything, is erected is a cause for celebration. But such joy is, as we have seen, bound to end in grief. Inajengwa is the reason why few questions were raised when scammers were irregularly paid KSh791 million for a road in Kibera. Inajengwa is why we are today spending Ksh400 billion to build a railway line next to an existing one and getting, according to one consultant, “a third-rate railway for the cost of a very expensive one”.

It is time we said inajengwa is not enough.

Friday, August 12, 2016

No More Partying At State House


Earlier this week, President Uhuru Kenyatta summoned the press corps to State House to relay a message to the nation. However, he was addressing Kenyans, not in his capacity as the country’s CEO, but as a leader of one of 14 political parties affiliated with the Jubilee coalition.  The big news was, of course, that the parties had agreed to merge.

The choice of State House, the seat of the Presidency, as venue for what is plainly a partisan event was alarming. The constitution describes the President as “a symbol of national unity” but Kenyatta appears to be stretching the limits of this beyond what is acceptable. Party unity, even within the governing coalition, is clearly not national unity.

On the contrary, what the event highlighted is the creeping capture of the state by the party and the blurring of the lines between the two. And this is just the latest episode. The frequent and unseemly exchanges between the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy on the one hand and the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit on the other are legendary. They aptly demonstrate the latter's propensity to see themselves as more than just as civil servants working within the Presidency, but also as partisan agents of the Jubilee coalition.

One could also point to the curious case of Interior Secretary, Gen (RT) Joseph Nkaissery. I8 months ago, he was an opposition MP, having been elected on an Orange Democratic Movement ticket in 2013. Yet following his appointment to the Cabinet, he has been traipsing around his former constituency, pretending to be a member of the Jubilee coalition. So far, it seems, no one has asked whether he resigned his membership of ODM. It is almost taken for granted that going into cabinet automatically translates into joining Jubilee.

But why should this be of concern? Some on social media have suggested that the raging questions over the use of state assets were little more than just a storm in a teacup, a petty fuss over the use of microphones and presidential daises.  However, such thinking is dangerously ignorant of the lessons of Kenyan history. One of the reasons why the State House event left a bad taste in the mouth is the memory of the consequences of the fusion of the party and the state during the KANU era. That merger, which begun in the 60s under Uhuru Kenyatta's father and was completed under his successor, Daniel Arap Moi, was the foundation for a half century of abuses. As loyalties within government were steered away from serving the people and towards the party and its leadership, the state itself and the goods it held in trust for the people of Kenya were transformed into the personal property of the President.

In a very real sense, the cult of personality and the concentration of power in the person of the President that was engendered by Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and to a lesser extent, Mwai Kibaki, was essentially built on this fusion of party and state. Its legacy lives in the present day, when even nominally independent officials are loathe to go against the governing party line. The clearly partisan behavior of the police is a good example.

Further, as they say, the fish rots from the head. Other public officials will take their cue from the President. During the Al Shabaab attack on Garissa University, in which 148 people were killed, the elite GSU Recce Company was delayed in Nairobi as the police plane had apparently gone to Mombasa to fetch relatives of the Airwing commandant.

Separating the President’s personal and party affairs from that of the people is therefore no fickle matter. When asked about the appropriateness of hosting partisan political functions at State House, the President’s men are wont to point at US President Barack Obama's similar use of the White House. But while true, they neglect to mention that his party actually pays the US Treasury for the privilege, just as Obama pays for the daily meals, groceries and toiletries that he and his family get and use at the White House. Further, federal law prohibits federal employees and even elected representatives, admittedly excluding the President and Vice President, from conducting partisan business such as making fundraising phone calls, inside government buildings.

The Americans are certainly clear about the privileges their potentates are entitled to and go to great lengths to ensure public resources are not expended on party business. It is time we in Kenya followed suit.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Kenya's Greatest Gamble Yet


Last Sunday, the Daily Nation bravely shone a spotlight on the gambling craze that is sweeping the nation. Sports betting has taken the country by storm. Since 2013 when the first online sports betting company, SportPesa, was registered, the Betting Control and Licensing Board has awarded similar licenses to nearly 30 other bookmakers. The industry today has a turnover of Ksh 2.1 billion which is expected to nearly triple over the next three years.

Yet, as with all gambling, this is not just a good news story about company profits. The fact is those profits are made on the back of broken dreams and crippled lives. While the touted image of gambling is the beaming face of a winner holding his big cheque, rarely seen are the millions of losers and the toll the gambling addiction is taking on families across the country.

In February, the director of communications at SportPesa, Kester Shimonyo, told the Nation that people “should bet for fun but it should not be taken as a fulltime economic activity”. However, taking a chance on the wheel of fortune has been a national activity for a long time. As government has been turned into a looting machine which has destroyed the meritocratic basis of our economy through skewed appointments to office and dubious awards of dubiously inflated tenders to politically-connected individuals, the utility of education, skills and character as guarantors of success has been severely undermined.

Today what matters is the lottery of who you know, rather than the certainty of what. In today’s Kenya, where your last name can, in the words of Kalonzo Muyoka, “betray you”, and where values can be a liability, what does it matter the qualifications you hold, or knowledge or integrity you have?

The declaration earlier this week by Commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission that they were willing to resign office was also the culmination of yet another a high stakes gamble of the sort that all too frequently seem to be the preferred way to run public affairs. It has been obvious to anyone who cared to look that public confidence in both the Commission and its Commissioners, the bedrock upon which any credible and peaceful election would rest, had long since eroded away. Opinion surveys have shown that citizens across political and ethnic divides had an increasingly dim view of the IEBC with nearly half of respondents in one survey saying the body could not be trusted to handle the 2017 election.

Yet despite this and through weekly public protests called by the opposition beginning April in which several Kenyans died or were brutalized at the hands of the police, and in which many businesses were looted, the Commissioners sat put and refused to budge. Talk of their resigning was peremptorily brushed aside even when the inevitability of their removal became plain. It was clear, like the many other Kenyans staking their lives and fortunes on the turn of a soccer match, the IEBC commissioners were betting on the outcome of the political match between the ruling Jubilee and opposition CORD coalitions.

Like their fellow gamblers, they do not see their future as dependent on their personal performance (already soiled by the failures during the 2013 election), or on their integrity, but on the games played by politicians.

Now following their resignation, Kenya will now embark on her greatest gamble yet. For 3 years, we have ignored the need to comprehensively reform our electoral system, to fix everything from ensuring everyone entitled to vote can acquire a voter card; to cleaning up the voter register; to fixing the petitions system and especially the Supreme Court; to acquiring the requisite technology and making necessary changes to the law to avoid the failures of 2013; to policing party nominations and regulating campaign finance. Now, with a year to go to the 2017 polls, we find ourselves forced to make fundamental changes. It is doubtful that there will be enough time for anything other than “minimum” reforms followed by a roll of the dice and many prayers for peace. 

This nation of inveterate gamblers, which has since independence placed similar wagers with disastrous consequences, will once again stake its future, not on its skill and knowledge, but on the games played by its politicians.