The promises that President Kenyatta made at his second inauguration seem hard to argue with: Universal healthcare? It would be a relief to an enormous number of people if falling ill no longer meant bankruptcy, or avoidable death. Home ownership? Building assets is fantastic. Expanding the manufacturing sector? Industrialisation and local value addition are important for the growth and the diversification of the economy. And cheaper electricity for industrial clients? We take it. Operating costs in Kenya are high enough. Improving food security? Hell yes.
And yet I couldn’t quite get excited about this. For one, I’m not really sure where the government will find the money for this. In principle, this would not be an impossible thing to do: Kenya is not a poor country. But Mr Kenyatta’s administration has not proven so very careful at financial management over his first term: Massive fiscal deficit, a worrying surge in public debt, external debt being refinanced with more expensive debt. I am not sure how the government plans to turn this around: There will have to be some fiscal consolidation, but the country also needs to nurture its growth rate. The interest rate cap may keep borrowing costs conveniently low for the government, but it has also choked off lending to the private sector and therefore affected growth and revenue collection.
So where’s the slack? It’s in the fact that Kenya is not a poor country. Just most people are poor because so much money gets stolen. And this brings me to the second commitment that Mr Kenyatta made: that things will ‘not be business as usual’ and that ‘every shilling of Kenyans’ tax payer money must be fully accounted for’. I can’t see on what basis he made that commitment. It is often argued that a president can make more unpopular decisions in his second term when he (or sometimes she) no longer needs to worry about getting re-elected. But that would, I think, at the very least require that in his first term, he would have been less, say, indulgent of corruption cases that made AngloLeasing look almost cute. If hands were tied before, how are they going to be untied now? What is different?
If you steal a phone, you may well get beaten to death. If you steal a couple of hundred millions, you get to run for public office. That has not changed, and I doubt this will change. And that’s where a lot of the spare cash for a lot of useful things is. The Auditor General has pointed this out many times over, and usually just gets harassment for this. Plus ça change.