When it dawned, the 21st century was celebrated as a momentous epoch. Most citizens of the world’s nations were more knowledgeable.
We were in the middle of the “information age”, and “knowledge economy” was the phrase gilded economists bandied around.
It was the era of enlightenment all over again, this time characterised by high literacy levels, information, knowledge and skills.
Hardly two decades into the 21st century the world is more uncertain than during the destructive 20th century in which two world wars erupted, followed by a Cold War that was no less destructive.
Now economies are fraught with uncertainty, fuelled by several factors. First is the rise of political extremism and political instability.
Even the Western world, the erstwhile bastion of tolerance, is seeing the effects of political polarisation. In Asia, political polarisation occasioned by North Korea is high. The threat of nuclear war is more real today than ever before.
ECONOMICS IS BORING
Other nations, notably in the Middle East, have amassed destructive military arsenals that can destroy the world in seconds. In Africa, leaders are forcing the abolition of constitutional term limits and clinging to power, even as their economies collapse. The number of disenfranchised people as a result of political polarisation keeps rising in virtually every continent.
Another factor powering uncertainty is the rise of natural disasters. While drought in Africa has been uncharacteristic, hurricanes are pummelling the Americas, flattening entire islands and coastal areas. According to research by the University of Louvain, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides and avalanches have become more frequent in the last two decades.
Since 1990, natural disasters have affected about 217 million people every year. These two factors are closely related, considering that natural disasters are partly due to climate change. Poor political policies adversely impact climate, leading to the disasters we are witnessing today. Politics, therefore, does cause economic failure.
In our context, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) announced that Kenya’s prolonged electioneering has cost the economy Sh700 billion. Politicians did not even bother to respond to KEPSA’s assertions, since they are well aware that economics is a boring subject in our extreme, ethnically driven politics.
Now, the country faces more economic loss as some politicians lead a boycott of products and services from certain private companies, which raises an important question: How is it that the 21st century world, with more educated people, is less inclined to reason than the world at the beginning of the 20th century?
In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama predicted we were approaching the “End of History,” where liberal democracy would prove the final form of governance, embraced by all mankind. In the Obama era, Fukuyama’s predictions looked real but the rise of extremism and anti-environment rhetoric did not take too long. Today, it is apparent that the more knowledge we gain, the more retrogressive political decisions we make.
Perhaps we are indeed at the beginning of history, where we are likely to destroy ourselves out of narrow thinking occasioned by the academia’s abandonment of the political class, unlike the 20th century when the academic elite was instrumental in developing new ideologies.
We are, once again, facing political uncertainties in Kenya due to our high-octane, sometimes irrational politics. Just when we have started implementing devolution and a raft of social welfare programs targeted at the vulnerable in society, including cash transfers to the elderly, free maternity care and free education, we have decided to intensify hateful politics in complete disregard to these progressive steps. That is irrational.
This is not to say that Kenya is a perfect society but to acknowledge that Rome was not built in a day, and that progress is achieved incrementally. The era of “let of there be and there was” ended in with Genesis, and the rest of us must acknowledge that peaceful change is gradual, unlike most revolutions, which tend to be sudden and disruptive. We must, like in every situation, assess the current mess for opportunities that we must exploit.
DEFEATIST AND SELFISH
First, we must leave no one behind in the face of our own political extremism. We must immediately acknowledge that perceptions of exclusion breed dissatisfaction, and therefore, build more inclusive governance.
To cure this problem, we must leave the politics that exploits misery and accentuates the negative and ask ourselves why marginalised communities in different parts of Kenya respond differently to the challenges they confront. Why do the poor in Isiolo, Tharaka Nithi or Makueni react so differently from the poor in, say, Migori?
There must also be a concerted effort to create Kenya’s first amendment to the 2010 Constitution, to address perceptions of winner-take-all. We can borrow from countries like Switzerland, which accommodate all ethnicities that make up the country.
We must continue the journey we have already begun, devolving more resources to the counties as a strategy to enhance inclusivity and equality. Any other strategy we are seeing at the moment to force change is defeatist and selfish. Destroying first so you can build later is convoluted logic. We must acknowledge that change in virtually everything takes long.
Some change strategies fail, but the power of change lies in how fast you rise from one failure to another. We must always look to the future and make it better, by taking small steps that ultimately add up to great progress we can all be proud of. Change of the kind we envision is cumulative, not instantaneous.
AWARD THE CONTRACT
We have less than five years to address current issues that may bring conflict in 2022. It is in the interest of all protagonists in this year’s plebiscite to look to constitutional review to remedy our points of disagreement.
The emergence of the digital age has made knowledge universally available. One can virtually make anything by leveraging connectivity. If we made sure our youths exploited the emerging opportunities, we could change the world.
Extreme politics produces dependence in young people and equips them with the false belief that politics could serve their entire short and long-term needs if a messianic figure were to arrive on the scene. Unfortunately, politicians always abandon them, and many end up in crime.
We must declare war on unemployment, develop incubation labs, help youth develop new products and assist them to market them to the rest of the world. A good start might be to absorb thousands into the National Youth Service (NYS) and have them build the oil pipeline from Turkana to Lamu.
After all, we have the engineering capacity and the plans all drawn up. Now we are waiting to award the contract to a foreign entity. Take other large Vision 2030 projects and implement them with project managers working with the youth.
Emulate the Asian Tigers in building industries, beginning with textile, leather and light electronic products. In the service sector, we must intensify work around the growing opportunities presented by ICT.
Political polarisation effects economic progress negatively. When we fail to manage our politics and mitigate climate change, we create uncertainty, pushing people onto a cliff. No one should die because of politics or manmade disasters. All we need to mitigate climate change is to tolerate one another and protect our environment.
Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York said:
We may not always agree with every one of our neighbours. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognise that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbours in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.
We must learn to live together as Kenyans and to tolerate one another. Above all, we must cultivate a civic culture that respects the rule of law and values political stability.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito