Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Our Leaders Do Not Know Us

By Adongo Ogony

I finally figured it out. Now I understand why the wananchi are getting nowhere and the leaders are doing just fine. Our politicians do not know the people of Kenya. The worst culprit is President Kibaki himself. Kibaki for all practical purposes could be an alien from outer space as far as the lives of ordinary Kenyans are concerned. Mzee has no clue who we are. Yes Koigi was very right, Kibaki is not only the president for the rich, he genuinely doesn’t know how we live. In fact I doubt Kibaki has even traveled that much around the country. Even before he joined politics I doubt Kibaki ever crossed Nakuru. Obviously now he is too busy to sit under a tree with a villager in Bar Opuk and have a chat.

Let me tell you how I came to this conclusion. The president went to North Eastern Province, recently. The trip was his maiden tour of the province since becoming the president and was the occasion to launch the much heralded North Eastern Province Economic Recovery Plan. The plan itself is nothing new and since it has passed through the hands of competent people like Prof. Ayang Nyongo I am sure it has some good intentions and achievable goals. The trouble with all the Economic Recovery Plans of Kibaki is that nobody intends to implement them. Does anybody think the Treasury has allocated any of the Kshs10 billion to start practical work on the plan? I doubt it. Mwiraria is too busy giving waivers to his buddies. By the way how funny is it that Mwiraria claims he gave the tax waiver to his friend Mr. Ndwiga the Minister for Cooperatives to create jobs. I was wondering, how many watchmen does Mr. Ndwiga intend to employ to guard his farm? Now back to NEP.

In a huge baraza in Mandera Kibaki shocked me when President Kibaki kept urging the herdsmen and peasants gathered to listen to him to pay their taxes so that development can be brought in the region.

“Lazima mulipe ushuru ndio tuweze kufanya maendeleo katika mkoa huu” Yes. That is the president speaking to a gathering of peasants and herdsmen.

I was wondering, does the president know whom he is talking to? Most of the folks don’t even have a bank account. They live from hand to mouth. The last they heard about taxes is when the wakoloni used to round people up to pay all sorts of taxes or risk imprisonment. Actually I witnessed one of the later tax raids during the Kenyatta era. It was quite a sight.

I was at the market. My beloved Bondo market no less. Then I realized all the men were taking off in all directions. People were jumping on bikes and literally running over others in a mad rush to get out of the market place. I saw one of my uncles moving at a lightning speed. I asked him what the heck was going on and he told me almost breathlessly that the police were arresting people who had not paid taxes. I found the whole thing hilarious. I mean grown men running amok in the market place is not a common sight. Now to realize they were running from the taxman in the form of police officers sounded almost unreal. Well at least in those days all you needed was your legs to evade taxes, now I am sure you need much more than that, ask Minister Ndwiga.

Well after reading the bizarre episode of Kibaki pleading with peasants to pay taxes, I decided to look deeper into the matter and find out what is going on when leaders have no clue who their people are. First of all let me say Kibaki doesn’t have to be poor to at least champion the needs of the poor. The chances of a peasant or even just a regular worker like say Lula of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela being at State House anytime soon are remote so we might have to do with tycoons like Kibaki being in the State House for some time, hopefully not for long. The least we ask them, is to first acquaint themselves with the realities of life of the ordinary Kenyans before they can address them.Which reminded me of another thing.

A while ago during a visit to Nyeri the president was faced with the usual begging and pleading that local leaders do when the big kahuna is in the house. Of course in Nyeri the locals felt a sense of entitlement, after all their own son was now snoring in the big house. Why not get something in return. Kibaki told the locals to borrow from the banks and build the working nation. Good advice, except once again to the wrong audience. Can the average farmer, peasant, worker really hope that the banks will provide the path to their future prosperity? If they could we would be all millionaires running big companies.

Now was Kibaki being malicious telling folks to get loans and prosper? No. The simple fact is that in the world in which Kibaki lives that is how things are done. People go to banks, get big loans, buy big sambas and run ranches. By the way before I forget, is it true, like Koigi said in an article appearing in the dailies that Kibaki actually keeps his workers in “hovels” in his ranches in Nakuru area? If it is true then the good news is that all the president needs to do to get acquainted with the reality of poor folks(the majority of our population) is to spend some time with his workers at the ranch, chat with their kids and visit the mmm “hovels” and hang around for a while. The bad news is that if it is true that Kibaki treats his workers that way, why the heck would he worry about other poverty inflicted persons. Don’t ask me.

What I am trying to say is that the Stone Age conditions in which millions of Kenyans live is completely alien to our national leadership and that is why the have no solutions for us. It is not just Kibaki. Take the case of Raila Odinga. He is my neighbour. He lives literally a stone throw away from my home. I can assure you that the hut dweller who lives right outside Raila’s gate at Opoda farm doesn’t have electricity, doesn’t have running water, often has no food and probably can not take their children through secondary education.

Amolo travels first class across the globe, he visits the best hotels and resorts in the land, lives large in Nairobi and is generally having a good life, which he deserves. Now the problem here is that Raila and the hut dweller next to his gate could very well be living in different parts of the globe. Their world never meets and yet the hut dweller is hoping that one day Raila will make his or her life better. How is that going to work folks?

At least in Raila’s case, he is known to go where normal people congregate. He used to frequent Kenyatta market where ordinary folks hang around and do business. He is known to spare time to chat with wananchi, but as we are learning slowly that is not enough. Unless these leaders identify with issues affecting the lives of ordinary Kenyans, we are in trouble.

This brings me to one thing that has been bothering me. This is about Nyanza MPs and I include Kisii folks. Nyanza is potentially a very rich place. We are blessed with the lake, which despite our best efforts to kill it with pollution is still supporting millions of Kenyans. Our land is not that bad. We have good rain except we don’t know anything called water harvesting during the long rains. By the way when is the annual flood in Nyando? Does the government has the date marked somewhere? I don’t mean the date to build dams and harvest the water, but the date to start moving people in the higher grounds. I am telling you, we got problems.

Now my issue with my Nyanza compatriots is when are our MPs going to actually join hands work together with the locals people and civil servants and seriously formulate a workable plan to lift the area from poverty. I swear to God the next time I hear about reviving the molasses plant I am going to throw up. Kenyans are getting sick and tired of reviving this and reviving that. In the coast they will never stop talking about reviving the cashew nut industry and nothing is on the ground and there are a million other things people can do with the right resources and make a living. But because we have leaders whose mindset is stuck in the sixties and seventies they keep yapping about the past endlessly with no plans for the future. In Kisumu, development starts and ends with the molasses plant. And now that the Kibaki government has decided to kill the mitumba industry they are soon going to start talking about reviving KICOMI.

I read about the plan to build massive road works from Budalangi to Osieko beach. The plan also includes rural electrification to help local folks preserve fish and get better value for the products. My problem is it sounds too good to be true. We can’t build the roads we have now which have gaping holes all over the province how are we going to do this huge project? Please.

How do we develop Nyanza? We start with what we have in plenty. No that is not fish. I am talking about human beings. We have an excess of idle young men and women dying to improve their lives and their communities. This army of unemployed and desperate people is our trump card if we could only figure how to use it. The only way to build a working nation is to get people to work. I have told Raila many times to design road-building mechanisms that will maximize labour from the local communities. People need money in their pockets and they needed it yesterday.

Secondly we need viable electricity in the whole province. It is not a matter of Tuju, our so called development man in Nyanza, doing something for Rarieda and Oburu trying in Bondo and Omingo Magara and company battling for Gusii land. It should be a matter of strategic development plan coordinated properly and building on advantages from one region to the next. In fact if we know what we are doing there would be no problem even coordinating how we use the Constituency Development Fund strategically for each constituency to help the other. If we are going to use this money to set up bursaries for kids who will never get jobs after finishing school we are going nowhere.

By the way when are the Nyanza MPs going to put there collective feet down to get Kibaki and his people to seriously do something about cotton production in Nyanza. I hear a lot about coffee, tea and the dairy sector, but cotton is dead in the water. Why? How the heck are we going to benefit from the AGOA plan when the country is importing cotton? Have the MPs even bothered to look into the problem to help the government figure out how this critical sector can be jumpstarted? What is wrong with the industry? Is it the luck of cotton mills? Is that the farmers are demoralized? Is it luck of initial capital? Is it marketing? Or all of the above? How do we address these problems?

And then the fisheries. Can someone get Munyao’s ear to help develop fisheries business for the local people. The locals can’t make it unless we bring in ways to assist people obtain fishing gear in an affordable fashion. Then we have storage problems for small scale fishing folks, leaving this huge industry to the rich folks with money, you remember those loans. How about working with the ministry of cooperatives to help the fishing groups build viable coop units to enable them compete with the big guns. What I am saying is that apart from the new constitution, Kenyans also need food on the table and we expect our MP’s to do something about it.

Finally let me touch on the final straw of why I am convinced Kibaki and his entire cabinet don’t give a cent’s thought to the plight of the poor in our country. This is the mitumba story. Many Kenyans have been angered by the decision by the Kibaki government to triple the duty on mitumba. There is an estimation that about 10 million Kenyans work in the mitumba business one way or the other. If this is true and I suspect it is, this means half the population of Kenya somehow benefit from the mitumba industry, not to mention that just about everybody is decked up in mitumba stuff. The government has given some bizarre explanation about the EAC treaty which is hogwash because when issues like that arise there has to be mechanisms for negotiations and amicable resolution otherwise those who negotiating these treaties are sleeping on the switch.

The plain truth is that if this was something affecting rich people even if they were only 10 people and not 10 million poor souls you can be sure the government would not only have consulted them and found ways out, but there would be negotiations on their behalf for years. Did you see what they did with the Health Insurance Bill because big insurance money bags were involved? But because this affects the usual Kinyangarika that politicians despise except during elections they made the decision without even a second thought. And if we can’t stand up to these people, then we fully deserve their contempt.

The mitumba business is a very complex business. The rich and the contemptuous see it as some second hand rubbish being sold in the dusty streets. Kibaki probably has never been to Gikomba market or any other mitumba depot like the legendary Kibuye market in Kisumu. Of course the MPs regularly sneak at the mitumba joints to grab those Nike shirts and sneakers. Personally I had already told my wife to stop shopping for me whenever I am making my trip home. I can find the hippest shoes and stuff all in the mitumba shops.

When I say the mitumba business is complex, first you have to understand it within the context of the global economy. In fact it is part of the global economy that tells you that the rich north (North America and Europe) with excess consumption of everything including clothing are prepared to dump their waste (our gain) in the south. Now if we were to take a simplistic argument we would say well these people are killing our textile industry and we are walking around in their underwears. I personally advice people to keep away from the used underwears. In fact some of our gullible MP’s are already preaching how doing away with mitumbas will help revive the textile industry. That is rubbish. There will be no KICOMI with or without mitumba. If we want to revive the textile industry it is a complete new ball game. Nobody needs those polyester pants, but we need blankets and other things. This idea that we can revert the country back to the sixties and seventies is not grounded in reality. This is the 21st century we need new solutions.

As far as the mitumba issue goes, I think it is grossly inhumane to put the lives of millions of Kenyans at risk in such a callous manner without even the benefit of consultations. So far only Norman Nyaga has protested against this nasty move by our government. Where are the other MPs whose constituents are being killed by this decision? When is the nation going to hear from you?

Let the folks, mainly women who survive on these products earn their living if the politicians don’t want some serious fallout from the wananchi. The very least we owe Kenyans is to approach things that affect their lives in a responsible and fair manner. But then again the moral of this story is that our leaders have no clue about the challenges the poor majority in Kenya faces on a daily basis. We the Kenyan people must change that attitude by holding politicians accountable come voting time. If we are satisfied with sugar, a little cash and other crumbs they throw at us during elections we are doomed as a nation for a long time to come. The poor majority in our nation must understand they hold all the powers in their hands and they can change things dramatically. Look what they are doing in Venezuela. I will talk about that next time.

The writer is a human rights activist

No comments: