Alphayo Otieno: Urgent priorities for Kenya's excessive new government

AS ENGLISH WRITER ALDOUS Huxley once famously asked: ‘‘When does a group become a crowd?’’

In the book, The Doors of Perception, he answered himself: “Jesus had only 12 Apostles. Ten is the number for a Communist cell. Eight is the perfect number for a dinner party. In armies, the smallest unit is about 10. The witches ‘coven’ was a group of 13”.

Our 42-member Cabinet does not fall into any of these groups. It more resembles Noah’s Ark, in which two of a kind of all species were invited aboard by the patriarch.

We are told this Cabinet will serve us effectively. This reminds me of the words uttered by former President Ronald Reagan: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is also a government big enough to take everything you’ve got.”

Yet it is now illogical to complain over the size of the Cabinet. Kenya is not alone in this dilemma. All politicians want big government, the difference being what it is they want the government to do.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO TELL THE LEFT from right in the US when it comes to an ideal government size. The most confusing blurring of differences in the US Congress is the ideal size of government.

After the naming of a huge new Cabinet, Kenyans are asking some important questions. Will it present a qualitative change in policies rather than the so-called continuity that has failed to deliver? Will it tackle inflation, the energy crisis and the growing current account deficit?

Will it improve the style of governance? Is it able to perform magic on low agricultural productivity, narrow tax and export bases, trade policy distortions, and big government’s non-development expenditure?

Rebuilding our tattered economy must be at the top of the agenda for this Cabinet. Kenya stands at a cross-roads — stuck in a circle of economic stagnation with low growth, low investment and unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment.

No government can deliver to the people on the back of an ailing economy. Investment is needed, both by the State and the private sector in those areas of the economy that have the potential of generating the desired growth.

Substantial populations of our people live in rural areas. This Cabinet must strive to keep them there by providing them the means of earning regular incomes.

This means investing in the rural sector is the only way to redress the income disparity between the rural and the urban communities.

But investment will not materialise, particularly in urban areas, until investors feel they can invest without risking their assets.

The Cabinet must burn midnight oil to restore investor confidence particularly through good governance, financial prudence, political stability and respect for the rule of law.

In achieving political stability, the Government should put on hold all controversial legislation that will create instability and division within society and undermine investor confidence.

The Cabinet must, therefore, prioritise the opening up of available land for commercial agricultural activity on terms that will inspire confidence and provide long-term security, both to landowners and to tenants.

It is no use for police to provide us with statistics on where Kenya stands in relation to criminal activities in other countries. The point is that Kenyans must feel safe at home and in public.

Special emphasis needs to be given to rural development and the development of depressed regions such as the North. It’s good we have a ministry specifically set up to take charge of developing that huge area.

HOWEVER, THE GOVERNMENT’S ‘‘Look North’’ policy lacks the drive and vision to revitalise business in this depressed region.

Kenya is faced with collapsing exports, particularly coffee and tea. Add to this low investment, high cost of public utilities, a growing budget deficit, unemployment and critical level of balance of payments, and you have a pretty gloomy picture.

To rationalise the fiscal regime, the Government must allow duty-free import of all food items to lower inflation as a short-term measure, and make raising crop yields a priority. Taxes on non-productive areas such as import of cars should be raised considerably.

To win investor confidence, the Government must cut taxes on productive areas like manufacturing to boost production and exports.

Mr Otieno is director of AlphoNan Communications and a journalist based in the USA.

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