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New public appointments should not perpetuate culture of ‘our turn to eat’

Tuesday April 2 2013



I am looking forward to seeing the new government move quickly to put in place a core economic management team composed of people from both the private and public sector.

With the new constitutional dispensation giving the President leeway to appoint people from outside  the politics, President Kenyatta has the opportunity to bring in private sector people with proven expertise and skills into the public service.

However, the long-term objective should not be to sideline career civil servants. As a matter of fact, some of  the best economists and administrators I know are civil servants.

A leader can achieve a great deal by merely shuffling them around, putting the skilled ones in the right places and increasing their freedom to question and redesign policy.

Where Mr Kenyatta could make the biggest mark is in making deliberate efforts to start moving the country away from old-fashioned patronage politics.

If you asked me to name the biggest cause of bad governance in Kenya, I would say — without hesitation — that it is patronage politics.

Here is how the system works. In hungry Kenya, the State is analogised as food. That is why we always talk  about “sharing the national cake”.

Within many communities,  there is  a popular saying to the effect that “a goat eats where it is tethered” and it has been used to imply that grabbing of public wealth by civil servants and ministers is normal. Michella Wrong, a writer, captured  this phenomenon aptly in her book on John Githongo, Its Our Turn to Eat.

Often, when we elect a leader, it is so that he can win access to state resources to share with his tribesmen and cronies.

Public officers appointed on the basis of political patronage operate as if the only thing that matters is pleasing their godfathers.

They neither obey superiors nor respect hierarchy. Neither can you hold them to account. The system breeds incompetence and a poor work ethic.

What we call political parties in this country are but mere structures created by political elite of ethnic communities to capture state resources on behalf of their tribesmen and allies.

Patronage politics is why we hardly get outraged about corruption. Instead, we get more outraged when one tribe is ‘eating’ more or when  a perception is created that elite from our ethnic communities are being excluded from ‘eating’.

With the new Constitution having introduced checks which make it more difficult for a president to play patronage politics, the new administration holds  the best opportunity for starting to move the country away from the dysfunctional political system leaders have been practising since independence.

Which is why I get frustrated when I hear names of politicians who lost in recent elections being floated as among people being considered for Cabinet appointments.

I have nothing personal against the likes of Mr Chirau Mwakwere, Prof Sam Ongeri, Mr Joseph Nyaga, Mr Najib Balala or Mr Danson Mungatana.

But the new administration needs to reflect change and  demonstrate that only people with fresh ideas will have a place in the lean Cabinet it is about to unveil.

Then there is the issue of dealing with the county governments.

Mr Kenyatta should be well-advised to avoid the dismissive approach which the Office of the President has adopted with regard to relations with county governors.

Last week, the Office of the President put out a statement in the newspapers informing governors to keep of national government assets.

Governors have also been warned against flying the national flag on their official cars.

If the central government continues with this approach it will soon find itself facing seccessionist tendencies.

With devolution, we will soon witness a new crop of leaders who will want to develop careers out of anti-central government posturing.

If you stop them from carrying national flags, are you suggesting that each county should fly its own flag?

I predict that if attitudes of Nairobi-based bureaucrats don’t change, and with the discovery of oil in the North, we will soon be hearing about “Turkana si Kenya”.