Kenya’s Monument of Shame

article top

Kenyans were treated to a horrific past that took away peoples individual liberty in the name of security of the state. One of the survivors Wafula Buke, requested the present government to address the socio-economic and political problems which prompted the detainees to be on a war path with the Moi regime. “Unless the problems are solved, the Government might soon require the Nyayo House cells again.”

A grey steel door, 12 ft wide, that led to an underground car park, that led to another steel door, that led to a steel barred gate, that led to an infamous torture cells of Nyayo house. There were 12 cells, each 8 ft by 10 ft and 7 ft high: all without windows and painted either black to absorb all light, or a dark enveloping red, the color of the blood that splashed the concrete walls and flowed on the floor. And this was in the basement of a building christened “Nyayo” from the Nyayo philosophy of following a leader’s footsteps. It is estimated that over 2,000 people passed through this cells including prominent ministers in the present government. Some 500 of this are suspected to have died.


What lesson do Kenyans learn from this sad past? Wafula Buke gives a timely warning, it does not take people with special genes to put up such torture chambers it simply takes a system that is devoid of checks and balances. Following in the footsteps of another delegates extreme powers to one that he ceases to value the freedoms of the follower. It also indicates that over reliance on the government of the day to solve problems that can be handled privately empowers such a government to come up with short cut to destroy voices that are opposed to its system in order to attain “efficiency” in service delivery. Elsewhere a public policy analyst that visited Kenya January last year Dr. Lawrence Reed argued, “that a government that is big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you’ve got.” Individual liberty makes the difference in the world.

The voting pattern last year was a clear indication that Kenyans wanted to be free, they no longer wanted to follow in the footsteps of any leader, and they wanted to make their own imprints. Kenyans wanted the government to minimize its role in the economy and let people have the freedom to choose. Kenyans wanted a limited government, not one that interferes in every sphere of life; they wanted security of persons and property and economic freedom. Kenya was experiencing the fatigue of plunder and wanted rest. How can Kenyans achieve this goal under the new government?

The government must leave the business of wealth creation to private citizens and focus on areas that a profit driven entrepreneur will not venture in. The recent wave of “free things” to Kenyans will be counter productive in the long run. The world over, segments of the society that have been hooked on “free” things tend to be more dependent, in the United States of America, Africa Americans have largely been lulled by the Social welfare system, in Australia, the Aborigines are given special treatment making it difficult for them to prosper, while other communities seek tax waivers to do business and fight excessive licensing procedures the dependent populations simply fight for an increase in the cake. Africa as a continent focuses more on getting assistance from abroad and rarely looks inwards to solve her political and economic problems. Free health care and free education might look appetizing but has hidden costs that will lower efficient service delivery and the incentives that go with it. As of now it may seem to work because of the long queue of willing donors ready to support the initiative but how independent and self sustaining will this be? The dream of Kenyans was to be free from “footsteps” /Nyayo, be it the nyayo of a political leader, and or of a donor agency.

It is a matter of urgency that all children are taken to school to learn and all sick people get treated and in the city people access public toilets. Are Kenyan parents interested in transforming the school system into a conveyor belt of keeping kids in school to simply grow up or are they keen on quality of the education? Are sick people keen to simply be released from hospitals without paying bills and receive no serious medical attention due to lack of incentives? Are Kenyans keen to go to a public toilet that is dirty and with muggers ready to pounce on them? Whereas this initiatives are with good intentions, the message being send to Kenyans is, rely on the government the more! The resultant effect is pressure on the government to borrow from donors, which yet again will finally lure the non-corrupt NARC leaders into corruption.

The focus on aid is best illustrated by a story of a man who moved to a village that had for a long time been terrorized by wild pigs. He sought to assist the villagers tame the wild pigs if they paid him. Knowing how difficult it was to tackle these dangerous animals, the villagers offered a high price with the assumption that the fellow will never live to receive his pay. Using food as bait, he managed to first have the young piglets taste the food. When he got the whole bunch visiting the spot for his handouts, he finally raised the bait that had all the wild pigs netted. On reporting his victory to the villagers he observed, “I can nail anything on earth, as long as it relies on me for a free handout, for there is no such a thing as free lunch”

The free things wave in Kenya will simply “nail” the creative minds of people. Without first addressing the reasons why the cost of education and healthcare is high and what Kenya can do for herself before seeking donor support, the new government is simply pushing Kenyans into a short term world view. Books, chalk, building materials are expensive because of among other reasons high taxes, unnecessary licensing procedures that makes it difficult for some industries to start up and corruption. The Nairobi Central Business District Association best illustrates what the private sector can do in partnership with the government. Private business people are using part of their profits to improve security in Nairobi city, they are using a model of “adopt a light” to light up dark streets and have shown how when people take charge of public toilets by paying fees, it becomes cleaner and safer. Ten years ago, nobody would have imagined that one could seat in a public toilet to read a newspaper! Health care costs are up because of lack of infrastructure and limited avenues for one to choose from. When all this demands are instead directed to the government, it falls in for the “donor trap.”

Once in the trap, Kenyan policy makers will focus more on pleasing donor agencies and not entrepreneurial skills available. The trap will make people to ask more from the government and they will not focus on solving their own private problems. This in turn will create a socio-economic upheaval that will make it mandatory for the torture chambers to spring up yet again to protect the interests of those in whose wisdom will be serving Kenyans. On top of museums of shame, Kenya will have a landscape of museums of hospitals that don’t offer services; schools will cease to be innovative and will be slow to adjust to modern trends of technology. And because the government will be too big in the name of satisfying all Kenyans private investors will be forced to form partnerships with government operatives instead of entrepreneurs with business skills.

If the political “Nyayo Philosophy” produced torture chambers, chances that the economic “Nyayo” will produce poorer Kenyans with a make believe economic growth, are high. Kenyans must remain steadfast in their fight for more freedom both in terms of politics and economics. The private sector must be given a chance to partner with the government in ensuring economic prosperity and trust in individual contribution to a better Kenya. The present government ought to critically evaluate its public policy in order to avoid building monuments of shame in service delivery.

”’James Shikwati is director the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), in Nairobi, Kenya.”’