Ever since President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, declared during their campaigns that theirs was a “digital” ticket and promised that every Kenyan child entering primary school next academic year will get a laptop, opinion has been divided.
For every voice that believes they can pull it off, there is a cynical one laughing off the laptops idea as just another “UhuRuto pie in the sky”.
We have seen the same split following their more recent pronouncement that they aim to have an “ICT government”. Both the supporters and cynics are wrong, especially about why the government’s digital dreams might or might not come true.
What has determined African government’s e-success or failure is not money, trained teachers, or tech-savvy technocrats. It is corruption.
An African government that cracks down on corruption can succeed at almost everything, whether it is in the “old” or “new” economy.
We have a few East African examples to demonstrate this. In the old world, before the ICT revolution started to creep upon us, Rwanda was the only East African country that didn’t have a national examinations board.
It only established one after President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front fought its way to power in 1994. The reason is that the pre-RPF Rwanda had a kind of apartheid regime where, through an insidious ID system, the majority Hutu repressed the minority Tutsi community.
Part of that system involved controlling the number of Tutsi who passed national examinations and went to college.
Having a national examinations board and students being identified only by an index number (which helps eliminate exam marker’s bias) would not do, as it would allow more Tutsis to pass than the system wanted. So the exam system was run partly by political operatives.
It was a sectarian agenda, not the technocratic abilities of the pre-RPF Rwandese that made it hard to have a national examination board.
Rwanda also achieved more in the e-government area (a sanitised version of Cabinet minutes are available online a few hours after the meetings, and it’s the East African country which offers the easiest online visa application etc.) than other nations in the region.
It is not because the Rwandese are smarter than other East Africans. No. In fact, when it comes to digital innovation in the private sector, Kenya and Uganda are ahead. However, Rwanda’s is by far the least corrupt East African government.
The thing with technology is that it removes what we might call “extortion toll gates”. If you can get a licence online, it means you don’t have to pay a bribe to the guard at the gate, the secretary, the clerk in the registry, and the chief lands officer to get a service at the Lands Office.
In a system where the folks at the “toll gates” are powerful, you cannot fully implement e-government reforms.
And the recent case of Uganda, a place where you cannot turn anywhere in government structures without bumping into a corrupt official, demonstrates this well.
There was a bid to computerise the national Lands Registry. With that, it meant the various district land offices would be unnecessary. The proposal was to consolidate the records into a few zonal offices instead.
Of course this meant that all those crooks at the district land offices were no longer going to collect bribes for which most are notorious.
It turned out to be a giant battle between the remaining few reformists and the corrupt. The districts and their allies put up a spirited fight, and the exercise resulted in something that has never happened in a country that is not at war.
The Land Registry was closed for nearly three months, so you couldn’t buy or sell your plot for that long. In the end, the reformists won a rare victory.
So if the Kenyatta government wants to give every primary school child a laptop, what it needs to do is to launch the biggest fight against corruption Kenya has ever seen.
If it wins that war, it can afford to give, not only the new primary school children a laptop, but all pupils.
In fact, it will have enough change left to throw in a buttered loaf of bread for every school child at their coffee break.