While electing the Nairobi governor, we need to shun the ‘Kanju’ mindset

Tuesday November 20 2012



Big personalities, no big ideas. That is how I summarise the quality of individuals who have so far expressed interest in the post of governor of Nairobi.

As a society, the standards we have set for leadership are dismally low. We suffer from a culture of low expectations and celebrate mere gestures instead of radical, game-changing policies.

I want to propose that in choosing the governor, we should raise the bar very high. This is an opportunity to make a complete break from the “Kanju” regime.

Kanju”, represents years of poor governance, clueless planning, predatory taxation, brutality and institutional decay.

That is why the requirements and credentials for the post of governor must be beyond the reach of jokers, power-seekers and populists.

We want leaders who are not implicated in the “Kanju” spoils system, who will go in there and break fiefdoms left behind by the out-going regimes.

Why do I say that the job for governor of Nairobi will require men and women of high calibre, knowledge and experience?

It is because our capital city is urbanising in very complex ways. Yet the bureaucracy running the city right now is bereft of ideas and totally incapable of managing and planning the pace and growth at which the city is evolving.

What I want to hear are robust debates on contemporary issues — with the prospective governors presenting clashing views and visions on how to resolve Nairobi’s chaotic commuter service system.

Today, our city is one of the few metropolises without scheduled commuter services.

Granted, the other day, the Kenya Railways Corporation introduced the Syokimau commuter service. But the service has been priced way beyond what the hoi polloi can afford.

In fact, the corporation itself will be the first to admit that the primary objective of the Syokimau train is to reduce traffic jams on Mombasa Road.

Considering the magnitude of the mess in Nairobi’s commuter service sector, the Syokimau service is just a gesture. By any measure, it does not merit the description of a game-changer. Indeed, the only reason we celebrate it is because we suffer from low expectations.

Older residents of Nairobi will remember with nostalgia the days when you would wait at a bus-stop knowing the exact time the bus would arrive. That system worked because the city authority was a major investor in the public transport system. Indeed, the city authority had a big stake in it.

Is it not amazing that long before privatisation and public-private partnerships became a fad, Nairobi was successfully running a working model? We killed it when we made it impossible for the big operator to compete with matatus.

Under the old arrangement, the bus company had to sign service level agreements, committing it to provide services to all parts of the city. It was also under an obligation to follow routes leading to public facilities such as hospitals, schools and churches.

Nairobi needs a governor who will be prepared to take bold decisions even when such decisions threaten vested interests.

I want a governor with a programme for dealing with the matatu chaos and returning Nairobi’s commuter transport system to what it used to be.

I want to hear fresh and researched ideas on how to deal with markets. The markets we have today were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

This situation has spawned the mushrooming of unplanned markets. The hawking business did not just erupt because people like chaos. It is because the city authority has been unable to provide markets.

We must demand fresh ideas about dealing with city dispensaries. Where are the plans for dealing with slums? What are the candidates’ thoughts about Nairobi’s finances and how the city authority can be made to make full and effective use of the taxes at its disposal?

Nairobi requires new ideas, but this cannot come from a bunch of populists stuck to the notion that all that is required to become a leader is to fan tribal sentiments and mobilise ethnic solidarity.