Friday, February 23, 2007

The Floods

The rains have arrived, and not a moment too soon either. The famine was one experience that most Kenyans are not likely to forget in a hurry. However, during the course of the famine, when the clamor for the rains had reached a fever-pitch, the ‘pessimistic’ (read ‘pragmatic’) Kenyans were quick to note that
“…during times of drought Kenyans starve, yet even when the rains come Kenyans will still be starving.”

Despite our prayers for rain to ease the current hardship, it is a very well known fact that too much rain (as has assaulted us recently) can be just as bad as lack of it. Whereas lack of rain might stunt plant growth, a deluge of it is likely to kill or simply wash away growing crops. This is the nature of the double-edged sword that is “rain”. However, since we are not exactly privy to being able to control the manner in which rain falls, we do at least have a duty to modify our environment in such a way that the rain causes as few problems as possible.
This is particularly the case in urbanized areas. By their very nature, the developments characterizing urban areas – roads, buildings, walkways and such – give rise to impermeable surfaces that hinder the extent to which the rainwater can infiltrate into the ground. Any responsible urban planning must thus entail an efficient drainage system. 

With all the recent development going on in Nairobi, I wonder if the developers have tallied the exact effect that they will wreak on our city’s drainage capabilities. Needless to say, the drainage needs to be improved, and sometimes the best way to determine what needs to be done is to troubleshoot to find out where the drainage system is failing. For our current situation, such faults can immediately be assessed in terms of things like flooded residential areas and roadways, clogged ditches and waterlogged fields. With the knowledge incurred from this troubleshooting, the relevant official bodies would at least know where to start fixing the problems once the drier season prevails.

The drainage issues in the rural areas pose another problem; this is because they arise from a different set of circumstances. The environment in these areas are less likely to be fitted for flood alleviation, people are more likely to live in the vicinity of rivers, and things as simple as clearing forests and leaving the land bare serve to exacerbate the situation of flooding. In one sense, flooding can be partially be reduced by directly combating these aforementioned causes. However, another potential solution can be found in floodwater harvesting; firstly, rural runoff tends to be relatively less polluted than urban runoff, and if it could be adequately harvested and stored, it could be a vital resource for easing the water shortage issues (particularly considering the fact that this same water can be used - without any treatment - for growing plants). Perhaps, this is the very venue by which a greater majority of Kenyan farmers can be allowed access to water for irrigation.

The whole notion of floodwater harvesting can actually be applied to both urban and rural settings. However, urban usage presents a more complicated problem because a larger amount of toxins are present within the runoff, and this water would require specialized treatment before it could be used for the more delicate forms of human consumption. However, with some minimal treatment, it can still be used for toilet flushing, hot water systems; watering lawns, gardens and playing fields; car washing, fire extinguishing systems and even creating artificial lakes, ponds and other wetlands.

Floodwater harvesting might appear to be an expensive venture initially, but in light of the expenses that end up being incurred due to our failure to preempt the destructive effects of excessive rainfall, it might actually be cheaper in the long run to actually initiate floodwater harvesting practices. It is no easy task to perform, particularly because it is a multidisciplinary approach that will require the input of various professionals. However, we are fortunate enough that some of the initial inexpensive groundwork can be laid at such an opportune time as this. Using Nairobi’s city centre as a pilot test for starters, scientists (or even fledgling scientists in the form of university students) can map out portions of the city and choose specific locations in which to sample and carry out tests on the quality of the water runoff and the variance of its quality within the stages of a storm event; further, they could also investigate the quality of the water left in stagnant pools around the city. If this data is published, it will provide an ideal source of information concerning the level of toxins in the water, which in turn would allow urban planners to specify an appropriate form of remediation to enable the water to be recycled.

It would be wise of us to follow the example of a country like Australia, which is already investing its resources into researching and implementing floodwater harvesting as a means to recycle an important resource as well as to reduce the environmental hazard posed by the discharge of floodwater directly into rivers and other receiving water bodies. I am not insinuating that Kenya’s development is exactly at par with Australia’s; I am, however, suggesting that our development does not have to be at par with a developed country for us to adopt an obviously wise idea that is within our reach. Learning to store water (particularly in cisterns), remediating it and putting it to use are measures that we should look into for our own sakes, and for those who are to come after us.

Everything's in a name

I would like to take this opportunity to poke (already) obvious holes into the flawed essay (“What’s in a name”) written by one Peter Mwaura (Saturday Nation – Jan 7th 2006). First off, he makes the assumption that grabbing names for some material advantage is common the world over; this is sheer lunacy by all means because it is tantamount to claiming that a reprehensible business ethic is allowable as long as “everyone else is doing it.” Next, he proceeds to congratulate the ODM “name thieves” for their entrepreneurial vision – to boldly find a business opportunity where no man has ever found one before. (Sheer lunacy!) The author might argue that the words “orange”, “democratic” and “movement” are ordinary words that are individually restricted from copyright protection, but it is the conglomeration of the words that is indeed something unique; in fact, it is so unique that people imagine a sort of “inspiration” is what drives a person to concoct a particular name from a set of seemingly benign words. Therefore, in direct contravention of another assumption the author had put forward, the Registrar of Societies is DUTY-BOUND to inquire as to which “inspired” individual(s) birthed the creature known as the ODM. In all honesty, if this notion of inspiration was posed by the Registrar to the “name thieves”, it is doubtful that any of them would be able to show any inspiration preceding the runaway success of the Orange team in the constitutional referendum that was responsible for turning the ODM into such a lucrative acronym/name.

As if this wasn’t enough, we are reminded that “name theft” is extremely extensive business – practically global in fact, thanks to the internet; after all, neither President Kibaki nor Mr. Raila Odinga can lay claim to their own domain names. The current law may say that the people who poached these domain names were acting within their legal rights, but I believe it is time for every sane man and woman to stand up and call them out for what they really are: a sad bunch of vultures and hyenas. You do not congratulate such people: YOU PITY THEM!

The “name thieves” may not have broken any laws (in the legal sense), but morally, they broke one of the oldest laws humankind has ever had – that of “reaping where they have not sown”. Instead of Mr. Mwaura advising the ODM politicians to negotiate with the new name owners, he should be advising the infamous trio to negotiate for the use of the name, which already comes heavy-laden with millions of shillings in terms of a countrywide load of advertising and support-raising that they would probably never be able to rack up on their own.

I suppose the greatest damnation for Mr. Mwaura current train of thought should be placed on his blind “adherence” to the law. The law is an explicit guideline for acceptable behaviour that is expected from members of society. However, try as it might, no law can ever completely explicate acceptable behaviour (call to mind the disturbing breadth of the Wako Draft), and this is where, pray, the mature conscience of the members of society fills in the gaps; hence, you should be able to count on people to refrain from committing offences because “it is the right thing to do” and not only because “the law says so”. In fact, when it comes to the internet, it would be rather expedient for Mr. Mwaura to distance himself from that selfsame “righteous” piece of law which allows spammers to fill your inboxes daily with depraved ads for every piece of trash under the sun.

Further, I would like to place another fallacy from Mr. Mwaura on the stake - “…You cannot kill a movement by stealing its name.” You may not kill the movement, but you definitely put a big dent in its integrity. Case in point, the brand name now belovedly known to all as SONY went through a tumultuous battle with regards to its identity when it was but a fledgling company; this was simply because as soon as the SONY name began to gain popularity, there were people waiting on the wayside to cash in on its popularity – in this specific case, it was a food company. In response to this, SONY co-founder Akio Morita (in his book, “Made in Japan”) had this to say,

“A trademark and a company name are not just clever gimmicks – they carry responsibility and guarantee the quality of the product. If someone tries to get a free ride on the reputation and ability of another who has worked to build up public trust, it is nothing short of THIEVERY.”

Fortunately, the Japanese courts voted in SONY’s favour, and the SONY brand today is a hallmark of professionalism. In this case, someone could have argued, like Mr. Mwaura, that the letters “S”, “O”, “N” and “Y” are ordinary letters that people cannot copyright, and neither was the acronym SONY creative; however, the only precedent with regards to the use of the name had been set by Akio Morita, and it wholeheartedly belonged to him and his business partners. Yes indeed, a name matters!

Another of Mr. Mwaura’s faux pas was his decision to paint the splinter group from KANU as “…equally enterprising people”. One does not have to sink to the level of politics to assess this situation – it can be done using common sense, and common sense dictates that you should not lay claim to trademarks of a party that are obviously not yours. The sheer length of the symbols’ use (42 years) totally excludes such an option, not to mention the obvious fact that a splinter group by all means should seek to carve out its own separate individuality. Just look at the case of Ariel Sharon – himself a co-founder of the Likud Party; when he decided to part ways with that party, he did not resort to haggling for scraps of the very party that he helped to build; rather, he sought a new identity for his Kadima Party, which, against all odds, has received an overwhelming amount of support from the Israelis. If our luminaries from the New KANU alliance aim to show us that they are ready to lead this country, then they had better start off by emulating good leadership and not showing us how shrewd and calculating they can be – the “magic” is not in the symbols; it’s in the heart of the party.

The lesson to be learned here for everyone at large is that the higher standard expected of our actions isn’t that they simply follow the law; they must be infused with honour and morality, particularly if they are meant for public consumption. I guess the biggest test for us would be whether we could wholeheartedly and unashamedly teach our own children – in the manner espoused by Mr. Mwaura: that we are within our rights to do things as long as the law does not explicitly proscribe it. God help us all!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Better Earth Essay 2006 Contest (My Response)

Question: How are economic development and environmental quality related? What institutional frameworks will allow individuals in the developing world to solve environmental problems and eradicate poverty?

The clearest relationship between economic development and environmental quality appears to correspond to an inverted U-shaped curve known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This basically stipulates that in the initial stages of development of any economy - that is, the initiation of industrialization – the environmental is likely to be impacted negatively. In fact, this negative impact is such an anticipated factor on the path towards development, such that it steadily rises, achieving a climax, which marks a turning point. The turning point is precipitated by the notion that eventually within the developmental path of the economy, an increase in the per capita income will lead to the reversal of the damage that had previously been meted out on the environment.

Though the concept of the environmental Kuznet curves appears to have gained credence around 1991, its conclusion seems to echo a very basic tenet of capitalism: basically, that social ills (more pertinently in this case, “environmental ills”) will eventually be addresses by ‘marketing forces’, which will seek to put things in working order. However, in its defense, the concept tries to show that the improvement phase in this relationship between economic development and environmental quality is not merely a direct correlation; rather, the improvement in environmental quality is more realistically the result of synergy between raised per capita incomes, the formulation of appropriate policy and the creation of institutions to enforce those policies.

Proponents of capitalism’s ability to bring about positive social change probably viewed humankind’s effect on the surrounding environment as a mere extension of which “class” of the people’s needs was being met according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this sense, you cannot expect someone struggling to meet the very basic provisions of daily food rations to care enough about their environment. Environmental consideration does not factor into their mindsets in the daily scheme of things. However, once people are able to make enough money to afford healthy and nutritious meals for their family, enough to house their dependents, and perhaps enough to educate their dependents with enough left over as some form of savings, then they might be more appreciative of environmental considerations. However, in any such simplification of reality, gross underestimations are usually made, and the biggest factor that is underestimated in such an idyllic supposition is the potential for man’s greed. At its best it is quenchable, and at its worst it is simply insatiable. Thus, it is this greed, the need to maximize profit to the detriment of others (and the environment) that has to be seriously hemmed in by appropriate legislation and enforcement bodies. And, if these measures ‘pan out’, then we are able to realize an improvement in the state of the environment.

At this point, it becomes wise to reflect on the state of things on the ground. Despite the accurate theorizing of the Environmental Kuznet Curve, a vast number of developing nations do not appear to be progressing fast enough towards being able to eradicate the poverty that plagues a vast majority of their masses. In fact, some of this stagnation comes in the wake of various enthusiastic initiatives that have been put in place by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are based in developed countries; the failure of these projects is a frustration that does not augur well for the fate of these countries. The best remedy at this point would be to examine the failures and to determine their underlying causes. I would postulate that some of these failures have resulted from these NGOs trying to apply salve-measures that have worked in other countries, with the impression that they are universal and will record similar successes if they were to use them in other developing countries. One thing is evident though – the levels of poverty might appear similar when dealing with developing countries across the board, but the underlying causes that maintain the vicious cycle of poverty are diverse and hence different scenarios call for different remedies.

One of the problems that is still quite a reality to developing nations is the issue of landlessness. In the article Population & Development, Ronald Demos Lee suggests that the issue of the economic importance of land in the developed world has reduced with the advent of new inputs that have boosted the productivity of the land. The developing world, on the other hand, had not been able to realize these same rates of productivity. In fact, the poverty-stricken masses of these countries tend to place an unusually high economic value on land. To some extent, this problem can be blamed on the unjust system of colonialism whereby the colonialists apportioned the prize lands for themselves at the extent of the locals. Therefore, in this day and age, decades after most developing countries were able to achieve independence from their colonial powers, the issue of land is still very explosive. However, there really is no simple way to fix these problems associated with land. One might argue that re-distribution of the land is the way to go; in fact, this is the very same mistake that Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, made. This is because when it comes down to it, most of the locals to whom the land was distributed turned huge tracts of economically viable land into subsistence land. Without the binding idea of a “captured peasantry”, whereby the locals understand that the productivity of the land exists for the benefit of more people than just themselves, simple re-distribution is bound to be a failure.

Stemming from this issue of landlessness, the issue of land degradation comes into play. This is because so long as people hold a really high value for land and remain locked out of viable ways to acquire it, important resources such as forests and wetlands become fair game; and this is where the Tragedy of the Commons arises. These people convert these precious resources into subsistence land, unaware of the fact that these changes in the ecology diminish the stabilizing effects that the forests and wetlands have on the entire country. The effects that follow, such as eutrophication of water bodies, increased incidences of drought, soil degradation and the reduction of water catchment areas, effectively serve to reduce the value of the land around the forests and wetlands, and even in areas located further away from the immediate sites of degradation.

One might argue that the only long-term plan for dealing with a situation such as this is the education of the people. If, perhaps, they were taught to appreciate the importance of these natural resources to everyone in the country, and the vicious cycles that arise from their destruction, then they might be mindful of the way they use these resources. However, in the short-term, there needs to be a direct economic incentive for them to perceive, such that they would feel the need to protect their environment. An example of this can be seen in the case of how Kenya dealt with the dreaded water hyacinth weed. This weed choked up vast tracts of the Lake Victoria, and because it impeded boating it wreaked havoc on the fishing industry. However, in spite of all this, some innovative people found ways of using the weed to make paper, office ware and household accessories. Unfortunately for these innovators, the introduction of the weevil species, Neochetina eichhorniae and N. bruchi, effectively served to reduce the water hyacinth populations. However, the realization that the water hyacinth weed could also be a money maker is making innovators come up with new ways of putting it to use. One of the most important uses involves the notion of Phytoremediation, whereby the weed is able to accumulate, within its biomass, the vast nutrients and heavy metals available within polluted water bodies. Hence, if this were to be coupled with an appropriate harvesting schedule, this very weed could be used to conserve the environment, and at the same time provide an essential raw material for craftsmen. This is an example of economic empowerment working in tandem with environmental conservation.

It is easier to understand this notion of land degradation when the focus group is poor landless individuals. However, yet another focus group exists when it comes to the issue of land degradation: politically-connected individuals. Early on in the development of developing countries, land settlement schemes were usually set up to address the issue of landlessness. However, sadly, some politically-connected individuals were able to have this land allocated to themselves. Some individuals were also able to degazette forest land, such that they could allocate vast swathes of the natural resource to themselves. This is the case in a country such as Kenya. This, perhaps, is an even harder problem to deal with, because it is usually believed that affluent people who do not have to toil incessantly for their daily needs are likely to be the most educated; and hence, the most likely to be appreciative of environmental conservation. What this shows is that education can give us the ‘chance’ to be appreciative of our environment, but sadly, it might be a chance that some of us refuse to accept. The only remedy for a situation like this is that independent institutions be put in place to check the greed of our fellowmen.

All in all, the enabling environment that will ensure the education of the citizens and will build upon their innovative nature has to be put in place by the government. A lot of the problems suffered in developing countries are very deep-rooted in nature, and it will take a deep-seated political will to fix them. In her treatise, Institutions Matter, Laura Phillips rightfully suggests that, “Many developing countries do not have good institutions, but rather they have predatory ones that increase uncertainty and limit exchange.” The citizens of these developed countries may complain about these very institutions, but they understand that the institutional rot is tied up in political power. Hence, if the political class forgets the fact that it is there to serve its people, this will very well be reflected in its institutional deficiencies. A cultural universal that tends to be displayed by developing countries is the fact that they have very powerful political classes; this allows the people in power to rule with impunity, to the detriment of the very people who put them in power. As these countries continue to develop, I believe their hope lies in the notion that their institutions can be divorced from the current political class of the day. Setting up strong institutions, which are independent of political machinations, will ensure that these institutions can run effectively regardless of political transitions or shake-ups, and this stability would enable them to decrease uncertainty.

In this very same manner, the political systems of these developing countries need to shed the role of managing institutions that they have apportioned to themselves. They need to understand that their biggest task is that of formulating the overarching policy that will ensure that their countries inch closer towards self-sufficiency. A lot of developing nations are playing a deadly game of “catch-up” as they try to formulate policies based on worldwide initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals, which may not appear feasible in the long run. Just like the initiatives set up by NGOs in these countries, such measures are usually doomed to fail because they do not adequately appreciate the situation on the ground. To get these developed countries going in the right direction, their political elite have to commit themselves to a master-plan that is entirely home-grown, with a set number of short term goals and long term goals that they can hold themselves to. The investment of the national resources in these ventures would then be expected to proportionally reflect the political will to bring about this change. One thing that citizens of developing countries consistently call out for is development. They want to have better roads and infrastructure, perceptible results for the vast amounts of money that they pay in form of taxes and a vision of where the country is headed – basically, they want a system that works; and they are more likely to vote into power those individuals that they feel can make this a reality for them. Practically all the wars for independence were fought on grounds of social inequality, and thus far the people in developing countries are still waiting for these problems to be addressed. They want their politicians to prove to them that they can act better than their former colonial masters, and answer the people’s calls of socialism. In this case, the self-interest suggested by Max Borders in his article, Public Choice Theory, will have to be fairly diminished because it is something that the people are already tired of. These people are waiting to see an equitable trickling down of the national resources, as this is the only justification of the huge investment that they put into the country.

The need for homegrown solutions becomes particularly important in the face of globalization that is currently underway. These developing countries will be pitted against their developed counterparts, and without adequate measures put in place to protect them, they will suffer from unfair competition. For these developing countries to expect that their developed counterparts will institute policies to protect them is indeed a “pipe dream”, because these countries aim to maximize their profit. Sometimes this profit-making might very well occur to the detriment of the fledgling industries of the developing countries, most of which are agriculturally based, and which operate more expensively because they use older forms of technology for production. Thus far, it appears that developing countries will not be able to resist being swept up by the wave of globalization, but before that happens, they have a duty to prepare themselves as much as possible. One way in which this can be done is by maximizing the profitability of their industries; these governments should ensure that their people have access to the latest forms of production technology, as well as being able to benefit from the government’s extension services, and be able to acquire loans and benefit from inputs.

In conclusion, poverty eradication can only be brought about via a concerted political will. If people are economically empowered to the extent that they can actually have a stake in nation-building, then there will be a drastic reduction in the rates of poverty that we witness today. The citizenry of developing countries are a useful resource, and if an enabling environment exists to tap into this resource, the gains realized will be massive. I also tend to think that since we can reflect on the examples of developed countries, the developing countries can use these opportunities to steer clear of the very mistakes that these countries made with regard to their environments; hence saving themselves a whole host of environmental problems.

Are there any freebies in life?

I believe in life that there is at least a chance to raise the standard of EVERY individual within that society. This, no doubt, reflects the fact that my outlook on the world is more socialist (African socialist to be precise) than capitalistic. The tenets of capitalism would have us believe that capitalism, as a way of life, will eventually be able to address social ills (mainly poverty) because that is an area that its ‘marketing forces’ cannot overlook; no doubt its founders underestimated the great extent to which profit would be pursued (as an end) by entrepreneurs for generations to come. Therefore, addressing social ills from a capitalistic position has had to take a back seat.

Communism does not offer adequate solutions to the problem either, because it unfairly limits people’s ability to profit from their individual hard labour simply because it tries to place everyone at exactly the same level in life.

African Socialism is the only true way by which poverty eradication (aka wealth creation) can be achieved at the broadest level; this is because it is the median position between communism and capitalism – first and foremost, it seeks out the wellbeing of the people, yet also allows them the freedom to reap the benefits of their hard labor. Once people understand this, as pertains especially to Kenya, leaders and policy makers will understand that it is essential that development be spread out throughout the country such that even villagers are not isolated from its reach. This is the best way to battle congestion in the cities; rural-urban migrations are driven by people’s perceived notions that life in the city is a panacea that will somehow deliver them from the unemployment and levels of destitution experienced throughout the country. What usually follows, however, is the discovery of a severely strained job market that offers few, if any, possibilities; these people find themselves stranded in the city, where they lack even the chance to grow their own food (something that they took for granted in the villages), and without any money to provide themselves with decent living conditions. The culmination of this frustration is the development of slums and similarly affiliated problems (prostitution, increased incidences of crime, environmental degradation and outbreaks of disease).

At least in the aforementioned case, a viable solution still exists. It would involve decentralization of industry, wise development of housing schemes outside city limits (taking care to minimize the usu. skirmishes) and a large amount of pro bono work. This would not all be done for free because in this case we are presented with a bunch of individuals who can reciprocate the gesture by working to “pay back” the generosity they have received; this would be in line with the type of sponsorship whereby someone foots your bills for your further education, knowing that you will eventually work for his company. There is another case that is worth mentioning, however: those people who could have no possible way of paying back the money you would invest in them. People such as severely mentally handicapped individuals, autistic people, the disabled (particularly those that are very old and cannot be taught useful skills)…

If “market forces” were anything to go by, it does not appear feasible to help such people. There is no way to adequately recoup the large amount of funds that would have to be spent on these disadvantaged groups (even the free PR stemming from “Corporate Social responsibility” might not be enough incentive). And in all cases, since these people have probably never put down money in form of social security, all this money would have to be brought in externally. The only outlook that could adequately address such a situation is that of African Socialism; the saying “I am because we are” could never be elucidated much clearer. Stemming from this, the solution appears to be that a lot of this work would have to be done pro bono – for no profit at all – but done for the good of the members in society.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The [Kenyan] Law Process

In these past few weeks, we have witnessed attempts, by all manner of government organs, to bring to book people that are directly responsible for pilfering the public coffers. Had it not been for Kenyans’ experience with previous such failed “attempts”, we might actually have sat down to applaud the newfound fervor with which past crimes are being tackled. 

Experience has taught us that naming a few individuals does not mean that they might necessarily be charged for their crimes. I am not trying to imply that every “mentioned” person is essentially guilty of a crime; in fact, the very task of the law courts is to deliberate over the merit of their cases and submit an equitable judgment. At least, that is how the system is supposed to work.

However, no one ever said the system is perfect. The majority of us laymen would assume that justice would be allowed to take its course, but that frequently is not the case. The lawyers and their clients treat us to a host of legal tricks – injunctions, countersuits, appeals et al. - that serve to unnecessarily slow down and frustrate an already slow process. For the sake of justice, the law process has to be slightly slow to enable adequate time for the preparation of good defense and prosecution strategies; the law, after all, tries to give everyone the benefit of the doubt for us as the old saying goes, “better to set free a dozen criminals, than to send one innocent person to jail”. It is, however, a mockery of the law to slow this ‘sympathetic’ process down even further without just cause. The increased costs and damage to the reputation of the legal system are simply not justifiable.

Many classes of corruption have been brought before the courts recently, but I have chosen to focus only on the class of grand corruption concerning looting of public funds specifically because it presents, perhaps, the best instance in which a quick remedy can be used to alleviate its ailments. Because the use of these public funds is placed in the trust of the people in power by the citizenry, any contravention of this trust should be treated as a gravely unique crime; the rules of simple theft do not apply to it, and as such a new set of extra-judicial rules and mechanisms should be used to combat it. As a first rule, the corruption case, once presented before the courts, should supersede all other pending criminal cases leveled against the defendant. This is naturally in order because the case that bears the greatest impact on the citizenry should be dealt with first. In a nutshell, this would wash away the myriad of useless injunctions that lawyers use to shield their clients from prosecution under the guise of pending cases.

Yet another rule would be that anyone being prosecuted for such crimes should be subject to a mandatory full wealth disclosure. Some believe that this might expose people’s wealth sources and put them at risk of harm from unscrupulous individuals. An amicable solution to this might be that the wealth declaration be made before independently constituted civil society boards; further background searches can be carried out into the lives of the board members to ensure that they do not harbor any vested interests in the defendant’s sources of wealth. This measure would alleviate the current stalemate posed by a case like Dr. Chris Murungaru’s in which a defendant feels he can dictate which sources of his wealth he can disclose. As a public figure granted public trust, should the public feel betrayed, then it is up to that public figure to regain that trust only through a full measure of transparency.

Perhaps, central to this whole notion, since we have identified this as a more serious form of crime, then perhaps we will require a whole new special branch of courts to deal with these cases. This would ease a bottleneck by freeing up the ordinary courts to deal with other less-complicated cases. However, because of the time it would take to set up whole new courts that are strictly dedicated to corruption, this should be pursued as an ideal for implementation later.

These are just a few measures that might prove useful to the already strained legal system. I am sure there is more that can be added to the list, but, as a start, these measures would no doubt show any laymen that the government and the law society are in fact serious about bringing an end to grand larceny. If these measures (and more) are not put in place, then pursuing these cases becomes yet another liability to the public because more tax money is spent than can ever hope to be recovered.


Why is a political leadership role such a thankless position?

One of the reasons for this is the fact that no one ever realizes how good things are until they get worse. Take for instance the case of the Israelites – under both Kings David and Solomon, they experienced a Golden age of sorts; However, they probably only fully realised this after they suffered extreme misery at the hands of successive rulers.

Bringing this context closer to home, we find an ideal parallel in the current Kenyan government. Even in this era, in which people might argue that the current
regime-in-power is better than its predecessor, it is not enough for the regime to be “a lesser evil” than its predecessor; inevitably, a more progressive attitude and display of composure is expected from it. Hence, despite the newly-granted freedoms and reforms in policy, sentiments of anger continue to be expressed by the general public.

Some of the expectations may be a tad exaggerated, and yet others are also justified, because people would agree that any regime that takes over from another has the valuable tool of Retrospect at its disposal. Therefore, the follies of a previous administration need not be revisited upon the innocent citizens; if mistakes have to be made, as undoubtedly they will, let them be new mistakes that we can store in our catalogue of “things that shouldn’t be attempted.” Despite how rarely we take advantage of it, history is a good teacher, and a swift rebuke lies in wait for anyone who tries to disregard the painful lessons that have already been spelled out in humankind’s long history.

Expectation is therefore the bane of the existence for any regime, and generally (apart from a few rare instances) regimes can never fully expect to achieve all that is expected of them. However, knowing that you cannot totally fulfil your obligations is not an impetus to slack off. It would be better for someone to heed the advice of the old saying:

“When you come upon a new place, either leave it better off than you found it or at least preserve it in its original condition.”

However, particularly in the case of Kenya, it is not enough for its leaders to maintain the country in its “original condition.” Kenyans want development and a refinement of the country, for this is the only way in which we can catch up with a global village that will not wait patiently as we try to get our act together.

Therefore, anybody who feels the urge to take up a leadership role should remember that there will always be vicious criticism and there will always be complaints. But, in the long term, if that person has the will to succeed, the necessary vision, and the machinery to bring that vision to fruition, then this nation might one day look upon a glorious past and recognize that person as the hallmark of its golden age.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Matatus: Let’s Stop These Cat-and-Mouse Games

The recent matatu crackdown has been a bumbling debacle. Truly, in light of all the recent accidents that have involved matatus, and their belligerent rule flouting, we understand that stern measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of all road users. But then again, crisis can never be considered an excuse for using irrational behaviour to solve the crisis. What we need is level-headedness, particularly from the authorities, to come up with adequate solutions.

The matatu industry has been quite a thorn in the side of many Kenyans for quite some time chiefly because it is so unregulated; fares are arbitrary, matatus change/shorten routes at their own convenience (goodness! Nowadays, matatus, like 111s can no longer pass for Ngong-City Centre matatus because their itinerary has been shortened to Karen – Prestige Plaza), and this basically opens the common mwananchi to exploitation because, like it or not, they eventually have to take a matatu because they cannot be too choosy – lest they spend a whole night in the city centre.

The games of cat-and-mouse between the police and the matatus are not helping us either. On the one hand, it is totally ridiculous for the police to paralyze the transport industry in this manner (when will Kenyans ever realize that “time is money”?), and on the other, it is ridiculous for matatus to flout rules on a regular basis because they risk the lives of their customers just as much as they do their very own. One would wonder why it would actually seem more convenient for matatus to operate outside of the law; it is a foregone conclusion that their services are needed (and that they will never lack customers), so shouldn’t they at least try to invest something into their customer service? The rudeness that characterizes the customer service in this industry is a testament to the poor business ethic that has been allowed to fester in this country.

Fortunately, a few measures can be put in place to fix some of these problems. One of them would be a lessening of police responsibility with regards to policing matatus. Reflecting on the recent flops of Alcoblow and the speed gun (particularly the rather public fiasco involving The World Bank’s Mr. Colin Bruce), it is clear that it is futile, perhaps even dangerous, to render unto the police a task that they are ill-equipped to handle. What is needed is the development of independent service stations that can service and then certify these matatus as being roadworthy, as per a certain number of parameters specified by a governing vehicle authority. This would also achieve the goal of reducing bribery because the inspection certificate issued would also hold the service station liable to explain any problems that would appear to have been overlooked during any inspection period, particularly if that oversight leads to an accident. Because of the nature of the matatu industry, I believe that at least 2 inspections should be scheduled per year to ensure that the vehicles (and subsequently the passengers) are in good condition.
Now, one might wonder how you would force matatus to go for these inspections, seeing as some owners are content just leaving their vehicles at home to avoid the police crackdowns. This is simple: every matatu plying our roads is already a registered vehicle, meaning that all its details and its owner’s particulars are already contained within a (computerized) government database. Using this information, and a randomized scheduling process, these matatu owners can be served with notices requiring them to have their vehicles inspected, certified, and evidence of this certification sent to the relevant government office in charge of these vehicles. Failure to remit this evidence of certification within a set grace period would hence lead to a speedy (hefty) fine and immediate impounding of the vehicle either if it is found on the road, or wherever it is stored (whichever proves to be the best deterrent).

There are more things that need to be fixed, particularly a regulation and demystification of matatu fares (will definitely require stakeholder - government, matatu associations and common wananchi – input) and a stern enforcement of their routes, but let us deal with one crisis at a time. And speaking of other issues that just irk the common mwananchi, it would be wise for the government to conduct a feasibility study to test whether the seat-belts within 14-seater matatus are actually helpful. I hypothesize that they are an encumbrance, of little use, and might actually preclude the chance of an easy escape for passengers if these vehicles were to be involved in accidents; can someone please prove me wrong!

New Generation ID Cards (& Ideas)

There have been a few very good suggestions made recently with regard to IDs. The first one is the move towards making them machine-readable, a move that would pave way for things like E-ticketing, which would make the hustle of getting airline tickets or tickets for football matches a thing of the past. The only hurdle in this direction is that Hon. Konchellah better ensure that parallel identity theft legislation is passed by his Ministry of Information counterpart, because making ID cards machine-readable exposes people to greater chances of global identity theft.

Yet another wise suggestion was posed by Mr. Maina Kiai – that an ID card should also serve as a person’s voter card. Having recently taken part in the soon to be concluded voter registration exercise, I couldn’t help but feel that the process is a duplication of duties; the only new piece of information contained within a voter’s card (when compared to an ID card) is the constituency in which the person chooses to cast his/her vote. In the name of efficiency and simplification of the whole process, I believe the voter process can be reduced to a mere 2 minutes per person because it should only boil down to ID verification and issuing the person with a reminder of the constituency in which the person registered to vote.

Every Kenyan is expected by law to have an ID, so penetrability of the idea will not be an issue. However, one issue that seriously concerns me is the rate at which Kenyans lose their IDs and the laborious process of acquiring a replacement. The current system whereby a lost ID card is returned to your chief’s location office is highly inefficient, primarily because those details (of location) were simply taken from our Father’s IDs; most youth and middle-aged people today can attest that their lives hardly revolve around their fathers’ place of birth. Hence, I am proposing a different, more efficient approach of recovering lost ID cards that utilizes three important components: The Immigration/Home Affair Department, the Post Office & Public goodwill.

For example, within Nairobi, with all the IDs seen to be littering the streets and notice boards these days, special boxes can be set up in specific places (perhaps even utilizing the current street drop-off boxes that are already in place) where these IDs can be deposited by anybody who comes across a lost one. For popular clubs and night spots, for example The Carnivore, where patrons may inadvertently lose their IDs, the club can sort out these cards from their lost & found pile, and deliver them to the post office during one of their mail runs. Next comes the Post office’s task: they can include these special boxes in their mail pick up routes so as to collect these lost IDs; the IDs collected in this manner and those delivered from other organizations’ lost & found piles can be combined and placed in a special inbox for the Immigration/Home Affair Department, from where they can be summarily delivered to a special office within the department for cataloguing.

With the help of a computer and an up-do-date database to perform this cataloguing, the personal information of the ID card holders’, particularly their email addresses & post office box numbers, can be traced, and from there both an email and a postal letter could be sent out to the ID card owner informing them of their ID’s location & conditions for getting it back (at a basic fee of about sh.100 – via mail order, or tentatively the same amount as is currently paid for an ID card replacement).

I believe this system shows great promise because it targets the ID card holders within their specific localities, and does not try to trace them via their chief, a move that might cause the ID card to be lost within the system. This could technically be put to the test by examining current statistics concerning how effective recoverability of IDs really is, and a pilot study, within Nairobi, to see how effective my proposed system is. Furthermore, I believe that the effectiveness of the new system can be replicated on a large scale, so long as one of the big Nairobi post offices (GPO or City Square) is used as a collection hub.

Truly, if the ID card is as important a document as we claim it to be, then surely we should not allow Kenyans to wallow in misery when they lose their cards; and finally, it would be beneficial across the board if The Immigration/Home Affair Department were allowed to concern itself primarily with the task of creating IDs for those people that require new ones, and not get tied down by IDs, already in circulation, that can actually be returned to their owners.

Trustworthiness in a Kenyan context

First off, I have to put forward a disclaimer: I am very cynical and I love to complain. With that in mind, I would also gamble by concluding that these aforementioned traits characterize the psyche of a lot of my fellow Kenyans. Hence, I pose the question, why is Kenya a nation of complainers? Could it be something in our food, drink, culture, disposition or maybe even something genetic?

I strongly believe that the underlying cause of our discontent is the fact that there is a general lack of trust in whatever mechanism is supposed to propel our ordinary way of life; simply put, ours is a country greatly lacking in trustworthiness. It would be unwise to suggest that this is purely a Kenyan problem; however, the point can be made that within a Kenyan context the problem takes on quite a unique manifestation.

One need not look any further than some of the government parastatals for an example of this mistrust; in fact, Telkom Kenya is probably the poster-child for this lesson. It is common knowledge that many Telkom subscribers were the victims of inflated bills that resulted from the unscrupulous diverting of call charges to their phone lines, some of these charges being racked up even as the phone lines in question remained non-functional. Based on the mistrust that now mars the reputation of Telkom, it is foreseeable that there might not be any corrective measures capable of resurrecting this disappointing institution. Similar mismanagement can be cited in all the cases of government parastatals that have either collapsed or sit on the precipice of collapsing.

Taking these examples a step further, the manner in which our government is run perhaps poses the greatest source of public mistrust. It is becoming seemingly inevitable to Kenyans that no matter which regime we vote into power we are likely to end up with a bunch of self-seeking individuals that will not seek out the benefit of their electors. How else can someone explain the manner in which government revenue – that is directly accrued from the people’s taxes – ends up being flippantly dished out in form of handsome tax-free perks and pay increases to a very select few of Kenya’s population? Even worse is the situation whereby tax money is used to fund government machinery that is clearly unnecessary – the recent allocation of Sh.3 billion in support of the “YES” position in the past referendum exercise is one such obvious situation of extravagance.

Such examples of blatant misuse of the country’s financial resources are a slap in the face of ordinary hardworking Kenyans. Making such a deliberate mockery of the voters’ faith is tantamount to usurping the common person’s ability to bring about effective change in society – after all, whoever controls the finances holds the keys to the country’s future. I would venture that our powerlessness as Kenyans (except during election periods) is therefore the bitter pill that stokes our cynicism and general mistrust. Unfortunately for us, this untrustworthiness seeps into the various levels of society (for example the police, matatus, the city council … to name a few), further compounding an already awry situation.

There are no quick-fixes for this problem; but, I believe that a top-down approach needs to be explored. Our leaders have to start setting examples that are worthy of being emulated by those below them. The time for them to start improving their images has to be now; Kenyans cannot afford to delve in any more cynicism; it is high time that we finally got what we have always dreamed of: a system that works WELL. Take heed of the wise words of Pres. Herbert Hoover (US):

“When there is a lack of honour in government, the morals of the whole people are poisoned.”

Monday, February 12, 2007

Abortion: Let the debate begin.

This is basically a response to the following article by a scholar:

So, it appears that once again someone wants to discuss the abortion debate. Makau Mutua held nothing back in his article “Time to lift the lid on the abortion debate” (Sunday Nation, June 25th 2006), and it appears that he is obviously pro-choice on the matter. Well, in that case, by all means, let the issue be discussed; however, note that some of the untruths and omissions that were evident in Mr. Mutua’s article will need to be spelt out and clarified.

Very truthfully, Mr. Mutua is right in pointing out that, “…The true measure of a civilized society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable.” And his list includes groups ranging from women and girls, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, the weak and the impoverished. However, it goes without saying that he is leaving out the most vulnerable group of them all: THE UNBORN CHILD. What could be weaker than a voiceless creature that has to derive all its sustenance and its initial being from another individual? Very clever omission! I believe that since Mr. Mutua has apparently lived in the USA for a while, he might counter the notion of the unborn child’s rights using the PERSONHOOD argument that seems to have become the rage these days in pro-choice arguments.

It is nothing short of astounding the lengths that people (ranging from philosophers, professors, doctors and a host of others professionals) would go to try to determine the point in time at which a human being acquires its “personhood”, which, hence, is the point at which it acquires its “human integrity” and thus is entitled to human rights. Science might be very advanced in the 21st century, but I would bet that this is one of the great mysteries that it will never be able to answer; goodness, even the provision of an arbitrary point is something that it can never hope to achieve.

Some scholars have tried to make “personhood” coincide with the onset of brain activity. This is why sometime last year the claim was made that an abortion of a child early in the first trimester would be painless for the child because its neurological development at that stage would preclude the sensation of pain. In essence, the argument here appears to be that if the “creature” is unable to feel pain or show brain wave activity then it is safe to dispose of it because it can’t be considered fully human. All the philosophical language in the world cannot gloss that fact over. It is said that Kenya is a third world country, but that is only according to its infrastructure and economic breadth; however, we are a first world country when it comes to issues of humanity, and I hope that no such notions (disguised as scholarly rhetoric) ever seep into our midst either in this century or the centuries to come. It is unbelievable that as advanced as the western world has become with regards to Developmental Biology, it still tries to sell us the idea that the embryo and the foetus are not just as human as the rest of us.

Mr. Mutua’s next line of defense appears to be the new breed of “enlightened” women MPs that have decided to broach the abortion issue (albeit on separate occasions). No less than Honourables Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua and Cecily Mbarire have spoken out on the issue. First of all, the author commits a grave mistake by vesting his argument in the integrity of politicians; their knack for offering quick fixes to endemically cyclical problems is a thing of beauty (remember the rushed Tobacco Ban!) Also, the author seems to forget that politicians are prone to throwing their weight on issues capable of garnering them political mileage; hence, when the author was so quick to believe that Hon. Ngilu faltered under the barrage she received from her peers, perhaps he should also consider that she is a politician, and perhaps just jumped ship before the electorate did away with her (I imagine that does not take a stretch of the imagination).

And kudos to Hon. Mbarire, for showing that we, the youth, are a misguided lot beset by western ideals. Of course abortion is a national epidemic, but even if we “…take the only humane course, that is to legalize and decriminalize abortion…” it will still remain just that: a national epidemic. Whether abortion is legalized or not, it will always suffer from the problem of unintended consequences – if it’s illegal, many young girls and women and ‘children’ will die each year and survivors will be left worse for the wear; if it’s legal, millions of ‘children’ will be killed, and this number will probably be further multiplied by the women who will opt for multiple abortions throughout the course of their lifetime. If the unborn child is considered “sub-human” this appears to be a fair trade, but a lesser conviction in that tenet would mean that this would be considered a ‘holocaust’.

It is insightful to see how the opposition to these MPs is seen as espousing religious zealotry and patriarchy. After all, “…opposition to a woman’s right to choose is a proxy for the patriarchy to retain its stranglehold on the destiny and the lives of women…” Firstly, the author needs to understand one thing: people can be both religious and rational. In fact, if science be the bread that feeds the author’s soul, he’d do well to remember that it was in fact religion that spurred the early scientists to their greatest heights of achievement. Secondly, it is absolutely irresponsible of the author to degrade women’s ability to give birth as if it were some sort of slavery. Granted, we men have not treated our women with the respect they deserve (I apologize in advance for my gender), but we can never forsake the role they play in shaping the lives of our children and society at large. As the old Swahili adage goes, “Asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu.” What we men (born of this enlightened age) are supposed to do is support our women, renounce our manly privilege and hasten equal opportunity, show them that their value is not inherent in child-birth, and help them out both personally, and by introducing measures to help them raise the next generation of Kenyans.

The notion of sexual irresponsibility has also been raised as another issue to support abortion. I mean, can you imagine saddling a woman with a whole unplanned pregnancy, while the perpetrating male gets off scot-free? If anything, this is an indictment of the sexual revolution that is sweeping over the country. People have their rights, and they want to have ‘free sex’ without bearing any consequences. Nothing in this life occurs without any consequences, and in this case, we should not use our misguided choices to justify punishing an innocent being that did not ask to be formed. Short of a change in lifestyle, the only way to address this issue is through tough legislation that would force such bawdy men to pay greatly for their consequences by committing them to pay for the upkeep of the child. However, I am not trying to go the route of the USA where women trap men so as to get alimony payments from them; rather, I believe that the mother of the child should also be ‘forcefully’ committed towards equally working to support and care for the child, especially financially.

The most laughable fallacy raised by the author is the fact that only rich women are able to afford abortions, even if they are illegal, thus punishing the poorer women who are denied the same luxury. I dare say that even if abortion was legalized, these same poor women would still be unable to afford the procedure (in case you haven’t noticed Mr. Mutua, we live in KENYA!) Perhaps Mr. Mutua would recommend some form of government subsidy to cover for the cost of these abortions. Yes sir, don’t use our tax money to build our roads or send a child to school, but instead invest it in destroying the life of a fledgling Kenyan who couldn’t possibly relish the task of living in dire poverty! Such false sympathy for the poor is so laughable it reminds me of the time one of my colleagues at a college (in the US) informed me of how one of his American classmates remarked that “…the world would be a better place if we just killed all the poor people…”

Bottom line, poverty is a vicious cycle, and it needs immediate and extreme measures to be implemented if we want to alleviate it. Our MPs should remember that the next time they spend their days uselessly bickering or raise their emoluments for no reason at all; that money could actually achieve a lot more wisely invested in the lives of ‘future Kenyans’ than it can in the hands of a few politicians.

I would like to conclude by focusing on two more of Mr. Mutua’s statements: one, “Kenyans must also understand that their country is secular, and its laws must accommodate all, including those who are non-believers;” and two, “No society can fully develop unless it endows all of its citizens with the full compliment of human rights.”

Kenya may be secular, but even before the issue of infusing the law with religion is considered, the author should remember that every human being has a basic understanding of NATURAL LAW. Natural law, in fact pre-dated some of the rules laid out in the Bible; hence, when Christ commanded that we love others as we love ourselves, He was simply reiterating the natural law tenet that stated that “we treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.” Amazing that such wisdom was already in existence before the Son of God even walked the earth! Basically put, in a secular society, life is still highly regarded and snuffing it unnecessarily is never acceptable. Come to think of it, in a society devoid of any God, is there a more “sanctified” object than human life itself?

Of course Mr. Mutua is a professor of law so he had to argue about us being given our full human rights. Perhaps, the professor needs to become a student yet again, because he has forgotten the basic fact that our rights are judged by the effect that they have on our fellow citizens’ rights. Therefore, since we do not exercise our rights in a vacuum, we cannot disregard the effect they will have on others (as in, the unborn child a woman happens to be carrying). The arguments are really endless against abortion, but for those who need a visual aid, one need only reflect on the slippery slopes that it leads to in nations that choose it as a way of life: a diminished view of life, which has resulted in louder calls for Euthanasia, Gender selection (with people now being able to pick their baby’s sex) and one cannot forget the inverted population pyramids that are beginning to typify North America and Europe. Is it a wonder that some of these governments have to offer their own citizens incentives so that they can have more children? Is it a surprise that these governments are going to have to rely on more immigrants to perform their labor as their geriatric populations begin to far out number their youths?

My dear Kenyans, take heed of the lessons the world has to offer; and especially, learn from the mistakes that the developed countries have made and steer clear of them.

Friday, February 9, 2007


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to a day in the life. Dunno why I didn’t get into blogging sooner, ‘cause I’m very opinionated, and I got a whole lot to say anyway. Oh well, better late than never; besides ’07 is a year of new beginnings and it promises to be better than both ’05 and ’06.

I’ve grown a whole lot in the years since graduating from Messiah, picked up a few new labels for myself, and grown a whole new bunch of convictions. I’m not stingy and I definitely aim to share. I pray that I don’t come across as too preachy, ‘cause I’m in this game of life to learn as much as the next person. Feel free to add your piece of life’s puzzles to mine, and maybe we can be a little less confused and bewildered by what our destinies have to offer.

That said, my first few posts will be reprints of stuff that I meant for print in OPINION sections of our news dailies, but never saw the light of day. Just giving you a peak into my maze, before I hit you up with the new thoughts of the year.