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Challenges for Kenya's next president

The next president in Kenya will have to be a reformer, economist, engineer, financier and mentor to the people.

Last Modified: 02 Mar 2013 14:57
Mugo Kibati

Mugo Kibati is the Director-General of the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat.
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Kenya's presidential election on March 4 is the most important and complicated in the country's 50-year history [AP]

Kenya has its fair share of challenges, but also an endowment of opportunities. The most important advantage is the Kenyan people. Unlike many of its peers, Kenya has not relied on oil or mining to develop. It remains one of the most diversified economies in Africa [PDF], with a well-educated, enterprising population, a capitalist tradition, and a GDP that straddles agriculture, tourism, communications, infrastructure, services and increasingly natural resources.  

The country's development blueprint, Vision 2030, seeks to consolidate and exploit these advantages to make Kenya a solidly middle-income country as soon as possible. The plan identifies several flagships, transformative projects ranging from a new constitution to the ambitious port/rail corridor from Lamu to Ethiopia/South Sudan. These will accelerate progress towards the prosperous and just society that Kenyans have worked for since independence in 1963. Many milestones have already been met, but the next president must now build on the achievements that have been made up till now.

The first priority will be to consolidate far-reaching legal reforms already underway to turn Kenya around. From bankruptcy and marriage to education and land, radical modernisation has begun, most of it rooted in the new constitution and other radical legislation. The constitution itself demands plenty: the police and judiciary are being completely revamped into well-resourced services, shedding their original repressive role under colonial rule. All this will require firm leadership from the new administration. The hearings currently before the International Criminal Court, seen by some as a crucial forum to address the post-election violence of 2007/8, will also need careful handling.

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A larger challenge still will come from devolution, a central plank in the new constitutional dispensation. In Kenya's original structure - also a relic of its colonial past - all resources and activities of government were concentrated in the centre. The national government alone had the power to set priorities and deploy resources. The fall-out of this has been that most economic development follows the trail of the Mombasa-Kisumu Railway, the focus of British infrastructure and investment, leaving more remote areas marginalised and often destitute. Now significant resources are being decentralised into 47 new counties, each of which elect its own leadership and set its own priorities.

Managing the devolution process will be a mammoth task. On one hand, the public have lofty expectations, expecting speedy results from nascent county administrations that require significant investment in capacity and infrastructure. On the other, the Transitional Authority, tasked with coordination, will need much more time and resourcing if it is to deliver as needed. The sheer cost of adding an entirely new layer of government will also put pressure on existing projects, including those under Vision 2030.

While all this is advancing on the political front, the new president will also need to give the economy close attention. Kenya inherited an economic system that must be urgently restructured. For one, a feudal architecture remains that placed a small aristocracy of landowners and a slightly larger stratum of merchants and professionals as overlords to a large population of peasants. While inequality starting out may be a fact of life, under that system, social mobility - even for those with potential - was tragically constrained.

Vision 2030 envisions diverse avenues for opportunity where hard-working Kenyans can change their station in life if they wish to. Much of this will be accomplished by ensuring high-quality, accessible education and health for all citizens, but also by allowing multiple second chances through vocational training and affordable credit for small businesses. But most critical will be job creation. Kenya, like many African countries, has a very high proportion of educated youth. Many of the country's challenges - from poor health indicators and petty corruption - will be addressed if the new government can execute the plan to generate dignified work for them.

Closely linked to this, of course, is ensuring the investment climate is improved, especially for small businesses that employ the bulk of Kenyans. The new regime needs to reduce red tape in starting and running a business and deepen infrastructure, including internet bandwidth and stable electricity. It also must guarantee safe, reliable transport for people and goods as Kenya integrates more deeply into the East African Community.

These same infrastructure investments will go a long way to address Kenya's second structural challenge. Our economy was originally designed as an outpost to supply cheap raw materials - cotton, tea, coffee - to the British industry. The new president must implement the Vision 2030 Industrialisation Policy. The policy comprehensively addresses the need to develop a strong manufacturing base that can add value to Kenya's raw products and export them finished and packaged for overseas markets.

The good news is that sustained investments under Vision 2030 are already bearing fruit. For instance, Kenya has seen a major expansion in ICT access and affordability. The rural electrification programme has connected all district headquarters on the grid. While 70 percent of roads were in disrepair in 2003, now less than 30 percent are classified as such. New multi-lane highways are being completed across the country. Free primary education has produced a grade-school enrollment of over 90 percent for both boys and girls and now free secondary education is being rolled out.

In addition to reformer, economist, engineer and financier, the new president will also need to be a compassionate mentor to the people. He has to balance urgency and industry with patience and pragmatism. Kenya is undergoing dramatic transformation and the pace of change can be dizzying as the population matures into greater affluence, urbanisation and democracy.

If these changes are to be deeply rooted, our "software" - cultural norms - must also evolve. After decades of civic education, Kenyans articulate their democratic rights forcefully. But in the next decade, we will need to shift our focus towards responsibility, discipline and enterprise.

Kenyans are already known for their excellence in athletics, telecommunications and wildlife. In the next decade, we expect to contribute even more to the global community. As a popular song goes, "When Kenyans run, we run for gold."  

Mugo Kibati is the Director-General of the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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