Kenya: a triumph for the nation

The doom sayers who predicted that last month’s (March) general and presidential elections would end in disaster have been proved wrong. The country’s citizens, who turned out in record numbers to vote, and the business community, which had been holding its breath, heaved a sigh of relief when the polls went without a hitch. Wanjohi […]


The doom sayers who predicted that last month’s (March) general and presidential elections would end in disaster have been proved wrong. The country’s citizens, who turned out in record numbers to vote, and the business community, which had been holding its breath, heaved a sigh of relief when the polls went without a hitch. Wanjohi Kabukuru reflects on the mood post the elections.

Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, the regional operations and strategy director of East Africa’s largest retail shopping firm, Nakumatt Holdings, will never forget Kenya’s 2013 elections. “For many years to come, I will always cherish the fact that I lived to see Kenya’s 2013 General Elections,” Ramamurthy says. “Like any other Kenyan, I had also looked forward to this day anxiously, particularly due to heightened degree of mature political campaigns that we were treated to in the days preceding this watershed poll.”

Coming from one of the major investors in the region with its headquarters in Nairobi, Ramamurthy’s sentiments are no doubt an indicator that Kenya has passed its most crucial test. The adage that if “Kenya sneezes all of East Africa catches a cold” came alive in the muchmaligned and botched 2007 polls, which ended in bloody inter-communal post election violence. At the time, the regional economies were all badly affected as Kenya began a period of soul searching.

It is from this prism that the 2013 elections were being viewed and many did not trust Kenyans to cross this threshold. Fully aware of the stakes involved, and keen to get it right this time around, an elaborate process aimed at rectifying social inequality, political intolerance and enhance a credible justice system was put in place by the outgoing President Mwai Kibaki-led coalition government.

A new constitution with sweeping and broad-based reforms was passed in 2010 and its implementation process began in earnest. The events of late 2007 and early 2008 had cast a pall on the country’s security agencies, judicial system and political class.

For the last five years, intense nation-building initiatives aimed at harnessing communal cohésion and the strengthening of the once-compromised public safety and justice institutions have been the hallmark of the grand coalition government that was crafted in early 2008. The key component of the new constitution was mechanisms to ensure that future Kenyan presidents would presid over representative governments and curtail the bane of Kenyan politics, tribalism.

Under the new constitution, to be elected, presidential candidates would have to win at least 50%+1 of the overall vote and also secure victories in more than half of the country’s 47 counties with a minimum of a 25% winning margin. This compels all presidential candidates to reach out to all of Kenya’s regions and build alliances that will enable the country to not only become cohesive but ensure that the government is not an exclusive preserve of the country’s elite.

It was with this in mind that politicians built cross-cutting alliances. Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance Party (TNA) reached out to William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP), Najib Balala’s Republican Congress (RC) and Charity Ngilu’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to form the Jubilee Alliance.

On the other hand, Raila Odinga joined hands with Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula to amalgamate their three parties – Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Wiper Democratic Party (WDP) and Ford Kenya respectively into the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD).

This constitutional clause has seen erstwhile rival politicians reaching out and sharing a common podiums and cooperating on drafting their party manifestos. The biger picture however is that this clause has finally allowed cohesion to evolve.

It was with these conditions enshrined in a new constitution that Kenyans went to the polls. When the final tallies came in, a staggering 86% voter turnout had been registered. Ramamurthy found the experience little short of ecstatic.

“United by our common aspirations as a nation, it was amazing to see the enthusiasm with which people came out in large numbers to participate in the democratic process,” he says, “Clearly shaming the doom sayers, we also patiently, albeit tensely, waited for more than five days for the final tally of the announcement of the winner in the presidential race.”

After the long wait, results showed that Uhuru Kenyatta had been elected Kenya’s fourth President. He had won the election by beating his nearest rival Raila Odinga in a contest that had attracted eight candidates. Kenyatta received 6,173 433 votes and Odinga secured 5,340,546. While six candidates conceded defeat, former Prime Minister Odinga has challenged the results by going to court, the right and proper procedure – unlike the events in 2007/8, when grievances were settled with such tragic consequences on the streets. It is this facet that must surely rank as Kenya’s biggest political victory. An entrenchment of the constitutionalism and the rule of law has now been achieved by this eastern African nation marking a new democratic paradigm for Nairobi.

“This is the tipping point,” regional business analyst Aly Khan Satchu says. “The tipping point is when an idea behaves like a virus moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. We have finally been infected with the idea that, with peace, we can achieve prosperity.”

Finally, Kenya seems to have exorcised the ghosts of negative ethnicity and embraced diversity in its politics. In his victory speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “Today we celebrate the triumph of democracy; the triumph of peace; the triumph of nationhood. Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations.” He added: “We dutifully turned out; we voted in peace; we upheld order and respect for the rule of law and maintained the fabric of our society. That is the real victory today. A victory that shows finally Kenya has come of age. This indeed is Kenya’s moment.”

Tackling priorities

The newly elected leader had hardly time to savour his victory when three of the most powerful business-related interest groups called with their demands leaving him in no doubt about what they consider their priorities. The trio – the Kenya Manufacturers Association (KMA), the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) – demanded an urgent review of expensive industry inputs such as energy, transport and labour.

“It is the net impact of these costs in reduced sales, or high total production costs, that make goods and services produced in Kenya uncompetitive”, a petition presented to President Kenyatta by KMA read in part. “The cost of doing business in Kenya has continued to rise over the last few years making it difficult for businesses to thrive. The new government should prioritise fixing the Port of Mombasa to unblock the logistics corridor and increase efficiency and productivity. Inefficiency at the port of Mombasa is the single largest contributor to the high cost of doing business in the Kenyan logistics chain.”

Despite the challenges facing the business environment in Kenya, the auguries are good. Communications lecturer Kipkirui Kaptelwa says “Both the President and his deputy (William Ruto) have strong business backgrounds. They approach everything with a business mind. I foresee better times for the business community.”

Kaptelwa, who teaches corporate communications and journalism at the Multimedia University (MMU), says. “The launch of the Jubilee manifesto (Transforming Kenya: Securing Kenya’s Prosperity 2013–2017) was not the usual unveiling of development plans that we are used to. It was more about giving the Kenyan people a workable and extremely ambitious business plan and this largely appealed to the middle class.”

According to an African Development Bank (AfDB) study, Kenya’s middle class is rapidly increasing. This class played a significant role in Kenya’s redefining elections. Indeed, when Jubi lee launched its manifesto in early February, it was clear the Kenyatta-led coalition was reaching out to the business community and the country’s huge youth majority.

“It is now time to consign the days of strife to history. That is why we formed this coalition,” Kenyatta said. “We know that we have created the right team, to not only make Kenya’s Vision 2030 a reality, but also to deliver accelerated economic growth, higher living standards, and more jobs. Most importantly, the coalition is dedicated to radically addressing the inexcusable poverty and inequality that exists in our country today.”

A few days after Kenyatta and Ruto had begun to receive state briefings encouraging economic growth signs began to emerge indicating that Kenya’s $40bn economy is set for rapid growth.

Western threats recede

The World Bank had already indicated that should peaceful elections prevail, the economy was likely to grow by 5.2%. Revised figures based on the weeks after the polls now foretell a 6% growth. The local currency has steadily gained against all major currencies and all the indices at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) have made significant gains. This follows the gains made in the last two years, which have seen Kenya ranked third in Africa as a foreign direct investment destination.

The results of the election have been warmly welcomed by the regional organisations, the East African Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), as Kenya’s economic health is vital to the overall economies of the sub-region.

According to Kenya’s Ministry of Trade’s records, Uganda still remains Kenya’s largest export market, surpassing its trade with the US and the UK combined. Indeed, Kenya has vast investments in the region thanks to its more than 270 companies operating across borders.

Interestingly, the overt opposition to Kenyatta by the US and Britain over the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against both Kenyatta and Ruto appears to have worked in favour of the duo. In the period leading up to the elections, vigorous public debates examined all aspects of Kenya’s political and economic life, including its foreign relations. Some analysts believe that the public perception that the West was once again ‘meddling’ in African affairs and attempting to dictate its choices swung a lot of voters to the Kenyatta camp.

But, despite the belligerent attitude adopted by some Western leaders towards the new government, Kenya remains the most important plank for the West’s economic and political strategy on the eastern half of the continent. Several major Western multinationals, such as Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered, Microsoft, IBM, Coca-Cola, Diageo’s stakein East African Breweries, Vodafone’s Safaricom Holdings and Bolloré Logistics to name but a few, have a serious strategic interest in Kenya. The country also plays as critical role in theUS-led war on terror.

“I remain of the view that realpolitik, security and business interests will temper the current ideological position,” says business analyst Aly-Khan Satchu. “It does not make sense for our Western partners to lose us to the eager clutches of China and India. It does not make sense for us to lose our Western partners. We are better off being multipolar and multilateral in our relationships.” He was referring to calls from some Western envoys to impose sanctions on Kenya over the pending ICC cases.

However, a recent IMF mission to Kenya led by Domenico Fanizza noted that Kenya’s economy is less dependent on the US and the EU and could weather international sanctions easily. This was followed by the World Bank, which candidly stated that it was not going to stop its financial assistance to Kenya. “In general, the World Bank remains bullish on Kenya and East Africa,” Johannes Zutt, the World Bank’s Kenya Country Director, says. “This is the strongest growing region in the world today; lots of things are being done the right way and we are confident that the economy will continue to grow.”

These multiple seals of approval have so far diminished the impression created in the period before the polls, which indicated tough times for the Kenyan economy. It is instructive to note that the open interference and sanctions threat by Western diplomats was condemned not only by Kenyan politicians but that the EAC also took great exception, warning that such a move was likely to compromise essential services in the entire region as Kenyan difficulties were obviously going to be replicated regionally.

After the polls, Kenyan industries are now poised for a major takeoff, having crossed the hurdle that has seen faith restored in institutions and the dissipation of ethnic chauvinism and personality cults. “Foreign investors seeking to enjoy the benefits of an emerging market need to look no further than Kenya as the best investing destination,” Ramamurthy says.

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