Lessons from NARC: After all the noise, Ruto's Plan needs a pathway – The Standard

Every person looking forward to predictable “business as usual” from President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza administration needs to smell the coffee.  Particularly in these early days when our new Cabinet Secretaries are enthusiastically bedding themselves into their ministerial tasks. 
There is an obvious reason for this view.  For the 7.1 million Kenyans who voted for this new administration, they were basically voting to uproot the established status quo. A sober reading of this disruption would lead us to better understand the hustler agenda as both a means and an end.
There is a related, and less obvious, reason.  The Kenya Kwanza administration seems to be betting on the idea that the path to a politically stable, socially inclusive and economically successful Kenya counter-intuitively begins from a radical discontinuity where change is a constant for now.

Whether or not the removal of presidential term limits and search for monolithic political parties is the path to the political kingdom that Kwame Nkrumah espoused is a question that must exercise our minds, and demand our vigilance.  These are “trial balloons”, not wild shots in the dark.
Yet, on the economy, this administration appears to have premised its policy thinking on the path to shared and inclusive prosperity on the deep-seated structural reform – think financial sector reform, parastatal privatisation or pro-poor market development – that Kenya has long avoided.

A key underpinning of this ostensibly unpredictable, but irrationally rational, approach to fixing the economy lies in what Kenya Kwanza believes it inherited.  To begin, a country teeming with poverty in the outcome, inequality of opportunity and injustice in treatment as its theoretical baseline.
Rear-view mirror
In the reality they communicate to Kenyans, they see a country run down by State capture, crony capitalism and “madharau” government leading to, in their words, “a dilapidated economy”.  Do not be surprised, therefore, that every minister is probably working with a communication brief on “fixing the dilapidation” through “wild” pronouncements that throw us out of our comfort zones.

For the benefit of those of us behaving like strangers in Jerusalem, this is not new. Before President Kibaki’s 2003-2007 Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS) was established as Kenya’s pathway out of the economic depths to which we had sunk, most Narc ministers were all over the place; stopping one thing, pronouncing another and generally looking busy. Kenya was in veritable bull in a China shop territory.
An abiding memory for me was an ERS meeting called by current Kisumu Governor Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o (as Planning Minister) in February 2003, a month or so after Narc’s victory. 
Initially slated as a quiet retreat involving 40 people (mostly expert researchers and technocrats), it ended up as a mega-summit with over 200 self-invited attendees drawn from the Cabinet, private sector captains, civil society leaders and the donor community. 
It was unreal seeing Narc ministers chairing group discussions even as we imbibed the heterodox economic thinking offered by the likes of Sundaram and Mkandawire. The Bretton Woods guys watched in bemused silence. In the end, after lots of dialogue and debate, it all settled down with the ERS launch in June 2003.
There is a sense in which the Kenya Kwanza administration views this as a similar moment, and no, I am not aware of any retreats or summits they might have planned. The difference might be that today’s moment is less popular or inclusive than 2003, and today’s economy is more unstable than it is stagnant.  The other difference is that this administration seems to be spending far more time looking through the rear-view mirror than Narc ever did. These two points might be related. 

Yet the one thing you can be sure of is that our highly communicative Cabinet Secretaries will not have been reigned in at the administration’s first Cabinet meeting held this week. With, as suggested before, most policy thought now seeming to be emanating from our “fully presidential” State House, there might be a cold and calculated method to the apparent madness we observe.
This is my working theory, and I am sticking with it. Of course, by this theory Azimio, like Kanu in the early days of Narc, is struggling to play catch-up. Now, with the fourth IMF loan instalment pretty much agreed on and primed to sort out current cash flow difficulties, some stability might emerge once Kenya Kwanza settles on its socio-economic policy agenda and first two Budget interventions (2022/23 Supplementary Estimates, and the 2023/24 Budget for which the Budget Policy Statement should be ready soon). 
Hopefully the age-old adage, “it doesn’t go wrong; it starts wrong” is at the back of their minds.
This takes us back to Cabinet activism and this week’s big stories. The eloquent Transport CS Kipchumba Murkomen offers a useful case study for our current observations of the Cabinet. The headline news this week concerned documents on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) as well as arguments around the pilots’ strike at Kenya Airways. Naturally, we read politics as usual.
Underlying commercial contracts
But let us go deeper, starting with CS Murkomen’s recent statements. He says that he has inherited a Ministry of Roads and Transport that is the “captain (did he mean, capital?) of State capture”. He had earlier described the SGR as a 100-year project with a 20-year loan, although he has somehow also suggested in public that it will now be extended from Naivasha to Kisumu.
His portfolio includes the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and thousands of kilometres of incomplete road works inherited from the Uhuru and Kibaki administrations. With KQ’s restructuring on the cards, his work is cut out before adding the other acronyms– KAA, KCAA, KENHA, KERRA, KFS, KRB, KURA, LAPSSET, NAMATA, NCTTCA, NTSA — in the super-ministry he heads. 
In true rear-view mirror style, he has pointed us to the SGR documentation. Unsurprisingly, the disclosure offered was an appetizer rather than the main course. In the public domain are three financing agreements, though the press has accessed and shared some of the saucy detail in the underlying commercial contracts. Although this still isn’t the full data set, two big points emerge.
First, from a backwards-looking perspective, what is the full story behind what began as a sensible Kenya-Uganda leadership agreement in principle in 2004; later framed regionally in 2009, which then become fully Kenyan – feasibility unclear, framework shift from BOT to EPC, contracting without, then with, values in 2012, financing in 2014 and 2015, completion in 2017 and 2018/9, foreign-operated since 2017 and repayable well into the 2030s?
This is a best-seller in the making. How must Parliament reflect on its predecessors’ work? We have a 2014 “go ahead” report by the Transport Committee versus the Public Investment Committee’s 2022 “what’s going on?” report.
Integrated air transport
Second, looking forward, what are we to do with what we find? Contract cancellation for non-delivery to specification?  Contract renegotiation towards a longer extended repayment term? Mothball the SGR for now?  The hornet’s nest has been stirred, and questions will need answers.
The real challenge, going back to the beginning, is this is where the cacophony ends. Taking the transport portfolio on its own, there are more pressing legacy and visioning issues to address. Starting with the long-overdue national transport strategy envisioned under Vision 2030 to integrate roads, rail, ports and air transport, plus non-motorised transport, starting with traffic demand projections. Before smart traffic and automated fines.
We also need answers to dark and clear questions. What was the logical thinking behind the South African Transnet-like integrated transport and logistics network that was so quickly reversed by this administration? Equally, what about the pan-African airline discussions between KQ and South African Airways that have gone dead silent? 
Or the controversial integrated air transport idea shot down by Parliament that would have merged KQ, KAA and lucrative JKIA into a nationalised entity to accord with the similar arrangements that offer a competitive advantage to profitable Ethiopian and Emirates Airlines? Or the idea of a rebranded KQ as a low-cost, high-efficiency budget airline in line with our Kenyan “no frills” tradition of smart, quick and efficient before the glamour and glitz?  Or the battles around private motives and public interests concerning financially juicy container terminal operations at KPA? Beyond transport as a noun, where is our national logistics strategy that is the real link to markets?
While we’re at it, what would a “digital” transport agenda look like, or a “green” one?  In a world turned upside down, digital and green are the futuristic “clusters” around which sectors and industries must now align and mainstream themselves!
This is not about CS Murkomen’s chops for the job; similar questions could be asked in even more detail of every other Cabinet Secretary on their own portfolios. And it is eminently true that those who do not learn from (bad) history are bound to repeat it. But here’s what NARC’s heady days will always remind the Kenya Kwanza administration. Behind all noise, there must be some nous. 
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