This article was written a week before Kenya’s 50th anniversary

The Cabinet Secretary of the National Treasury, Mr. Henry Rotich, in a speech read on his behalf by the Central Bank governor Mr. Njuguna Ndungu, expressed optimism with the Kenyan economy citing a double digit growth rate by the year of our Lord 2017. A 1% increment in 2013’s economic growth was also mentioned up from 2012’s 4.6%. This was at a key note address by Mr. Ndungu at the annual meeting of the Association of African Development Finance Institutions in Mombasa; mid-November.

Hardly a month later, on December 3rd, headlines in the local dailies read in bold: “Cost of living set to go up as new power tariffs take effect” ; courtesy of an upward revision by the Energy Regulatory Commission.  If you ask this writer, this sounds like one set of eyes reading from parallel scripts at the same time! Unless the government’s grand plan is to achieve a double-digit economic growth rate by draining Wanjiku’s, Nafula’s and Atieno’s pockets to the very last cent , then someone please help me make sense of this situation.

You see, in my assessment as a due Kenyan citizen, the thing about all these economic terms such as “contained inflation” ,and upward projections of the economy is that to the “Mwananchi” of modest means or far worse, they that barely eek a living below a dollar a day, the mentioned remains a bunch of meaningless words and numbers. If economic growth cannot translate to food on the table, affordable quality housing or healthcare, then these lofty announcements as it were, made from lofty beach hotels and spas, might as well be reserved for the ears of the lofty.

At some point between 2002 A.D -2005 A.D, the government of Kenya stumbled upon the realization that infrastructural development was key to driving the economy at a relatively faster rate. Kenya’s roads have witnessed a bee –hive of activities since then, the infamously annoying and time consuming traffic snurl-ups notwithstanding. Fast forward to December 2013 and the talk now is about the Mombasa-Malaba standard gauge railway line alongside expansion of the arrivals and departure terminal at the JKIA dubbed “Project Greenfield”. Noble as the idea about the railway line and company may be, my concern is with what most Kenyans do not know, or rather, choose not to know.

China’s generous commitment to fund 85% (289Bn) of the railway project, among others, has sent the country’s public debt soaring to historical levels. Barely two months into office, the new regime’s resolution to “look East” saw it preside over a 2.3 trillion public debt; alarmingly equivalent to between 53-55% of the domestic GDP as of May 2013! Your guess is as good as mine on what the figure stands at 7 months down the line. Serious questions then begin to be raised on the country’s capacity to service these loans as economy experts do what they do best raising the red flags. Furthermore, in an apparent absolute ignorance of its own public procurement policies, the government went ahead to single source a Chinese firm to oversee the railway project. A classic case of scratch my back-I scratch yours. Indeed ethics remains but a matter of choice.

On December 12th, 2013, post- independence Kenya becomes a quinquagenarian. This presents an opportune moment of reflection on the state of the economy at 50. Agriculture remains the backbone of the economy contributing an estimate 24% to the national GDP. Yet I do not hear of revolutionary plans to revamp the sector with a focus on value addition, incorporation of technology and marketing of produce. The government has largely prioritized ICT and infrastructure development with so much aggression forgetting that almost half of the country remains food insecure the most vulnerable being the urban slum dwellers. 46% of the country’s 40 million live below the poverty line. HIV prevalence lingers at a disturbing 6.1 % for the economically productive 15-49 age group, according to UNAIDS. It’s worthy of note, however,that this is quite a remarkable decline from the 12% prevalence rate in  2000- 2002.

At 50, Kenya must surely realize that economic progress for its people eventually comes down to life’s support system: Food, shelter, healthcare, quality education and security. A grandmother in Northern Kenya or a youth in Nairobi’s Kibera will not feed on tarmac for dinner and a chunk of standard gauge railway for dessert while a cattle raiders’ and an armed robbers’ bullets are lodged in their skulls respectively. Meanwhile, their leaking roofs could use some fixing and the grandmother’s grandchildren could use some quality in their education.. Food comes first, the roads can be made good use of later. Democracy must not be a lie in Kenya, and the freedom of expression must be protected at all costs. Let the government not place the cart before the horse here.

…by Nyawara Felix

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