Wycliffe Muga: Why Kibaki is not a smart economist

What would you say the US President George W Bush, and our own President Mwai Kibaki have in common?

Well, one thing certainly do have in common is that the newspapers in their countries are full of articles on the president’s legacy, as well as reports of the efforts being made in various quarters by ambitious politicians determined to succeed him.

What is odd about this is that whereas President Bush has only six months to go in his second and final term in office, President Kibaki who is also on his second term, has no less than four and a half years to go, and has barely got started on his second term.

I have often wondered what the president thinks now that some of the very politicians who should be working to make his final term as president memorable full of many outstanding achievements are instead busy cutting potential rivals, as they embark on the race to State House, four years before the official campaigns can begin.

Still, since everyone seems to be so keen on passing judgement on the Kibaki presidency this early, why should I be left behind? So here is my assessment of the Kibaki legacy as it seems to be at this point.

Let’s start with the political: While the president may have shown statesmanship in agreeing to enter into a power-sharing agreement, it will long be remembered that he had to be arm-twisted into this by the US government as personified by the Secretary of State, Dr Condoleeza Rice. It was not a step taken in a generous spirit, and the President did not exactly bend over backwards to save the county from descending into anarchy.

Ultimately, the blame for any man-made catastrophe in any nation must reset with the president – and that is as true for George W Bush and the Iraq war, as it is for Mwai Kibaki and the fatally flawed December 2007 presidential elections.

So if President Kibaki’s long-nurtured reputation as a democrat and a statesman went up in flames in the first two months of this year, along with the house, cars and farms burnt over this period, what of his long-standing reputation as a brilliant economist and a reformer?

In this, there no glaring flaws. You cannot really say the Kenyan economy has been incompetently managed, or that the President when confronted with blatant cases of corruption early in his first term, did not act by demanding resignation from the ministers who had been mentioned in the Anglo-Leasing scandal.

But there is still a problem. It has been common in Kenya for media analysts to point out that economic growth during the final years of former President Moi’s tenure hovered around 1 per cent and 2 per cent if it did not sink down to zero.

And that under Kibaki, the economy grew by between 5 per cent and 6 per cent as he headed toward the end of his first term.

What is overlooked by such analysts is that Kenya’s economic growth during these periods – the Moi era and Kibaki’s first term – were both unspectacular if viewed in a bigger picture of sub-Saharan African economies.

During the 1980s and 90s, most African countries in the sub-Saharan region experienced very little economic growth, if any. The average growth for most of the region was between 1-2 per cent.

But on the other hand, over the past few years – the period coinciding with the Kibaki presidency – the average sub-Saharan economic growth rate has been 6 per cent. Yes, that very 6 per cent that the president and his supporters presented to the voters in the campaign period last year, as something of an economic miracle.

It is worth bearing in mind that few African countries have their own independent economic policies. In general, they follow the prescriptions laid down by the World Bank and the IMF: And sometimes those policies work, and sometimes they do not. The point here is that President Kibaki’s reputation as a brilliant economist is pure myth. His performance at all times has only been average, not exceptional.

But if the president has done nothing exceptional either in the political or economic fields to warrant future generations recalling his presidency with respect and affection. However he still has four and a half years to go. A lot can be done in that time. And he is now in a position to make difficult decisions to move the country forward.

What places the president in a position of great strength is that he does not have to worry about re-election: one way or the other, five years from now he will be playing golf, not struggling with the demands of high political office.

So it’s really much too early to make any definitive statements on what the Kibaki legacy will be.

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