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Tackle tribalism and ethnicity to attain sustainable development

Monday January 27 2020


President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) chats with his deputy William Ruto during the installation of a presiding bishop at Africa Inland Church, in Nairobi on January 26, 2020. They should tackle tribalism in order to promote growth. PHOTO | JONAH MWANGI | DPPS 

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The United Nations is forecasting, in its report, “World Economic Situation and Prospects”, a moderately positive gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 5.5 per cent for Kenya in 2020.

This is expected to come from rapid urbanisation, private consumption, higher credit growth and rising public and private investment.

To consolidate its gains, the country must address structural obstacles — including infrastructure gaps, skill shortages and low export diversification.

This report highlights the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of economic prosperity and performance for it does not say how income is distributed or even the quality of life in terms of access to basic needs.

It acknowledges a growing discontent with the quality of growth underlying the economic, social and environmental status quo, adding that in several sub-Saharan African countries the number of people living in extreme poverty is rising.



In the absence of steep declines in inequality, it warns, eradicating poverty in countries like ours would require an annual per capita income growth rate of 8.7 per cent — much higher than the 3.0 per cent we had in the past decade.

It says much of the recently accumulated global debt has not improved the real economy for it has largely been channelled into financial assets rather than into raising productive capacity.

Instead of funding employment-creating ventures, enhancing productivity, value-addition and competitiveness, political leaders are pillaging and diverting borrowed funds into private accounts.

President Kibaki masterfully crafted the Kenya Vision 2030 development blueprint and, with a modest loan from China, built the Thika Superhighway as a symbol of the untapped potential of leveraging foreign funding.

Central Bank figures indicate that it took President Kenyatta just six years to triple the national debt from Sh2 trillion to Sh6 trillion.

He also received at least 34 per cent more official development assistance in his first five years than did Kibaki in his final term.


In current terms, the Jubilee administration accessed at least Sh4 trillion in foreign aid and debt as at the close of 2017. How were these funds spent?

The President has cast himself as an anti-corruption champion, pointing out that his administration has prosecuted more individuals than any other.

That may be true, but prosecutions without convictions and asset recovery are worthless attempts.

Luis Franceschi recently pointed out that in 2019 alone, both the national and county governments could not account for almost Sh731 billion.

There are highly accomplished Kenyan scholars at top universities, engineers, economists, lawyers, doctors and managers at home and abroad.


Ours is not strictly a question of skills but a manifestation of a failed job market that is highly ethnicised and tribal, particularly at the top.

Public sector employment, especially in strategic positions, is dependent on political patronage and tribalism, which erodes the capacity of the government to deliver.

The Jubilee regime has, unquestionably, been tribal with key government positions occupied largely by individuals from Mt Kenya and Rift Valley regions.

It is difficult to find people from Nyanza and Western in strategic positions, yet these regions contributed robustly to public sector leadership in the past.

This absurd template is used across the 47 counties, promoting marginalisation with serious long-term effects.

This overlooks talent and merit, impeding innovation and productivity. It also promotes sycophancy, corruption, impunity, marginalisation and a lack of accountability.


It is highly doubtful that we can achieve the growth rate needed to eradicate poverty.

Increased development finance, through borrowing and from partners, is of no consequence if leaders subscribe to the mindset of political patronage and ethnicity more than meritocracy.

The economics of tribalism, though a local and national phenomenon, is a core determinant of social cohesion and sustainable development that must be understood.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected] @kenchesoli