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Let’s put leaders in their proper place in history

by biasharadigest
Ideas & Debate

Let’s put leaders in their proper place in history


It is a crying shame that, only two days after former President Daniel arap Moi passed on, media headlines have returned us to wrangles within the ruling Jubilee party, this time over who’s in charge of the funeral arrangements.

If true, one hopes that this week’s US National Prayer Breakfast, at which both President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga were present, spared a couple of prayers for Kenya.

For the most part, Mr Moi has been eulogised and celebrated, chiefly by the political class, for his overall humility, utmost discipline, boundless energy and single-minded decisiveness.

Referred to as the “Professor of Politics”, he clearly mastered Kenya’s “winner takes all” political scene. On one TV talk show this week, a veteran journalist called him “a real President” before quietly adding “except for the bad things”. That’s the puzzle in the riddle.

My own sense is that Mr Moi was a “high touch” (as opposed to “high-tech”) President, guided by a real desire to relate with the ordinary mwananchi on the simple things in life. Simple doesn’t mean simplistic; as a former teacher he was clearly adept at playing political “wild cards” with a cunning sleight of hand. Ask any minister or public servant of that time about the highly-prized radio that was an essential part of the office fixtures and fittings.


Endless “peace, love and unity” anecdotes have been offered by those with whom he interacted. An avalanche of ad-hoc analysis has been offered by our TV “talking heads”, and column-inches have not been spared in our dailies. That’s before we get to social media.

Some will recall the “dark days” of political repression, or the ethnic clashes that blotted our first two multi-party general elections. Others will decry the “growth” of corruption, forgetting that it started in 1963, not 1978. The flip side will argue for Mr Moi’s interest in education, and the political stability of the time that is a far cry from today’s cacophony.

Yet, beyond oral tales and folklore, we fail to reflect on Mr Moi’s influence on our present and future. This is Kenya’s trouble; a reluctance to delve purposively, not one-sidedly, into our leaders influence on the “Kenyan project”.

It strikes me that there might be something to that BBI idea about the need for a “proper” history of Kenya, if not an official historian. In the way we need banking, if not the banks.

Back to our departed leader, whose informal comments in Kiswahili were more popular than his official English speeches during national days and other events. His particular style was to ask questions, often as rhetorical statements, rather than give answers.

On our “economic history”, two phrases have always intrigued me; one more than the other.

His observation on “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life i.e. socio-economy) is interesting for our present times. More intriguing was “KANU ina wenyewe” (KANU (possibly equated with Kenya at the time) has its owners). There isn’t enough space in this column or newspaper to decipher that one.

Since we’re talking economics, let’s look at a couple of numbers using the World Bank Development Indicators database. We do this noting that there is no Kenyan publication or database that contains over 50 years of our data in one place – history, please!

When he rose to national leadership in 1978, Mr Moi presided over a 15 million population. By the time he departed in 2002, we were 32 million. During this 24-year period, per capita GDP (in constant Kenya shillings) fell from Sh65,625 to Sh62,861 (Kibaki raised it to Sh77,674 by 2012, and it was Sh93,297 in 2018). Ok, we don’t eat GDP, and indeed, I have been surprised by the number of people who this week told me times were better then.

There’s a particular nuance to these data. If we think of the 24 years as four years before the 1982 coup attempt, ten years to 1992, and a further ten multi-party years, here’s what we find. 1982 per capita GDP was Sh67,342 (growth), 1992 at Sh67,116 (stable/stagnant for ten years) and 2002 at Sh62,861 (secular decline – “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”?).

From 1978 agriculture share of GDP was 32 percent, this dropped to 26 percent (mainly offset by growth in services) in 2002, the same proportion we ended up with in 2012. Today, we’re back to agriculture at 34 percent. Manufacturing at 11 percent in 1978 fell only slightly to 10 percent by 2002, before rising back to 11 percent in 2012. Today? Eight percent. What’s the storyline?

Here’s a final one for numbers buffs. Using the CPI as an indicator of how living costs have changed over time, a Sh1,000 “purchase” in 1978 would have cost Sh5,889 in 1992, Sh18,249 in 2002, Sh58,258 in 2012 and over Sh80,000 today. The Sh7.74 US dollar in 1978 was Sh78.75 in 2002 and exceeds Sh 100 today. Beyond numbers, what’s the back story?

It is proper that Kenyans condole with President Moi’s family on his passing. In this sombre moment, it’s also right that we better understand our leaders and their place in our history.

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