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Before exploiting oil wealth, put equality debate on table

Friday August 23 2013

Workers on one of the oil rigs at Ngamia 1 in Turkana County. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI

Workers on one of the oil rigs at Ngamia 1 in Turkana County. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI NATION

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Kenya’s newly discovered mineral wealth offers a way out of endemic poverty.

This fact, however, should not make us gloss over the problems that sustained, rapid growth, driven partly by natural resources, may create.

In a piece published on these pages a fortnight ago, Nic Cheeseman and I examined the significance of the oil discovery in Turkana and some of the possible political and diplomatic outcomes of a shift northward in Kenya’s economy. Our arguments were largely drawn from the experience of other oil-producing countries. But if we think about economic growth as being about more than just oil, then some lessons from Kenya’s own history are worth remembering.


History tells us that benefits accrued from economic growth are unevenly distributed breeding inequality and political instability.

Discussions of inequality have concentrated on the that between ethnic groups. Devolution’s champions hope that the new counties and mechanisms, such as the Equalisation Fund, will address this problem. But it is also true the wealthiest counties at present have the greatest capacity to exploit their tax-raising powers.


Class tensions within ethnic groups are seldom discussed. Local and foreign commentators see Kenya almost exclusively in ethnic terms, which blinds us to other important social divisions.

When class politics makes it to the front pages of the newspapers and into the evening news broadcasts, as it did in the early stages of the election for Nairobi’s governor, it seems startling. But the importance of inequality – the gap between rich and poor – to Kenyan politics over the past half century cannot be doubted.

Although separated by half a century and different in so many ways, Mau Mau and Mungiki remind us of the devastating consequences for society as a whole when its poorest and most marginalised members are denied a voice.

Successive regimes have not dealt well with such challenges. At its most benign, the government’s response to inequality has been to either tell the poor to be patient or to introduce token, populist measures. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the frustrations of the poor have been channelled into ethnic chauvinism.

Worse still, the State has used violence and coercion to silence demands for social equality. This violence and coercion has at times been directed at individuals, such as, to take a few from the elder Kenyatta’s presidency, J.M. Kariuki, Chelagat Mutai and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

This is not a question of morality, but of politics and economics. We know inequality will worsen with economic growth. We know too that inequality causes political instability. And we know from 2008, to close the circle, that instability can, in turn, jeopardise growth. So what is to be done? If wealth cannot to be redistributed, then opportunity should through education.

Enormous strides have been made in recent years to improve access to education at every level, but questions remain regarding quality. Using data collected by a group of donors and other interested organisations, Mwangi Kimenyi of the Brookings Institute and Ritva Reinikka of the World Bank recently argued that there is what they term a ‘service delivery failure’ in education provision in Kenya.

What Kimenyi and Reinikka mean is that the quality of education given to school pupils is not improving in tandem with increases in spending on schools. As they point out, although there are many more pupils in primary schools today than ever before, just a third of those in Standard Two have basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
Unsettling picture

Based on their data, which paints a similarly unsettling picture of healthcare provision, Kimenyi and Reinikka conclude that “a modern economy such as the one laid out in Kenya’s Vision 2030 cannot be propelled by just a few, with the majority left behind. All households must be healthy and well-educated for Kenya’s future prosperity and sustained economic growth.” These are words worth keeping in mind as plans are made for spending the royalties from mining, oil and gas.

As Kenya begins to consider what to do with these new found riches, it could do worse than to think first of its poor. For an opposition bereft of a purpose or message, that would seem to be as good and important a cause to take up as any other. It is certainly a better use of time than tilting at the windmill of the tyranny of numbers.