Our leaders just love playing with fire

Sunday January 11 2009


SOMETHING HAS GONE TERRIBLY wrong in Kenya. It is both shocking and frightening to see the political risks the Government has been taking in recent weeks – and just how little they seem to have learnt from the post-election violence of early 2008.

That violence last year seriously damaged the economy, and left many people jobless and homeless – and dead.

Before the country could recover, the world was plunged into a financial crisis whose effects are expected to fully hit Africa this year.

As a result, the hopes that we had banked on tourism pulling the economy out of the hole, especially with the boost Kenya got from the election of  Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, as US president, now seem to have been overly optimistic.

There is anger that post-violence reconciliation, resettlement, restitution and justice have largely been ignored.

Against this background, in Parliament, some MPs had sought to shield themselves against the pain that most of Kenya was feeling, by granting themselves tax exemptions on their hefty pay.

With the news that Kenya is set to have the largest budget deficit in its history, the Government will clearly not have the resources to meet all its rosy promises.

Already, the “cheap unga”  project has fallen on its face, so wananchi will have to endure food shortages and high prices.

High fuel prices had conspired to make life more unbearable. To its credit, the Government moved to press dealers to lower the price in line with the drastic drop in world oil prices.

But the exercise was bungled, so we swung from high fuel prices, to acute fuel shortage — which is actually bad, if not worse.

In the face of a hungry, angry nation, buffeted by bad economic news on all sides, a clever Government would put on a united front, and avoid doing anything that would throw a match into the petrol pool.

Also, it would try and inspire local and international business confidence, to turn around the economy.

INSTEAD, THE GOVERNMENT SLA-pped the country with its worst Bill, the Communications Bill, which would have taken away freedom of the broadcast media in ways that no Kenyan would have imagined in the bad one-party days.

Fortunately, President Kibaki has now taken a broader view and ordered the Attorney-General and minister of Information to work on amendments to review the obnoxious provisions in the Act.

However, the acrimonious dispute over what journalists dubbed the “Media Bill” introduced unhelpful quarrels in the public sphere.

We needn’t have gone this far. This review would have been done when the Bill was in Parliament, and the political fall-out would have been zero.

The tensions brought unnecessary strains on a fragile Coalition Government. As if that wasn’t bad enough, someone in the President’s Office unilaterally reappoints controversial members of the disbanded ECK as a “transition team”.

For the first time since last year, the Coalition Government looks like it could break. MPs had rejected the law to disband the ECK, and both President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga worked hard, often being humiliated by MPs, to get them to pass it.

How can anyone who means well then go back and repeat the offence that nearly destroyed this country by hand-picking some of the same toxic old-ECK members to the team without consultation?

The Government has used up nearly all its good will. The people have their backs to the wall. If they are pushed to the edge again and erupt – especially considering that a teachers’ strike looms shortly -- then we shall never get our country back. Nothing is worth these risks.

Mr Juma is a Nairobi businessman