Kenyans are pawns in a political chess game

AfricaPress-Kenya: The collection of over 5 million signatures to support BBI’s proposed referendum for constitutional change is impressive; until one remembers that besieged Nairobi County Governor Mike Sonko, and his impeached Kiambu counterpart Ferdinand Waititu were voted in by a similar groundswell.

And whilst this may pass for a democratic process at work, it speaks to the dilemma of a gullible public, unable to envision that the pursuits of the political elite might not be fully aligned with the social and economic interests of the country.

Cognitive capture, the focus of mental energy on one issue to the point where other important things are ignored, appears to be the driving force behind the push for a referendum. This is so when one considers that there are many pressing issues posing far greater existential crises than a plebiscite to divvy up power positions.

First off, Kenya is in the throes of the second wave of Covid-19 that is stretching public health facilities to their limit. This is exacerbated by nurses and other health workers in public hospitals going on strike over deplorable working conditions and an acute shortage of personal protective gear for frontline workers. Doctors may follow suit in a couple of weeks if talks with the government do not lead to desired outcomes.

Second, Kenya’s economy hangs by a precarious thread. At an unprecedented high of Sh7.2 trillion, the country’s public debt threatens to breach the ceiling of Sh.9 trillion. There has been a drastic reduction in revenue from tax collection due to an under-performing economy. Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani has hinted at delayed disbursements of money for State operations in the coming days. As it is now, counties, which are devolved units of government, have not received their money for two months now.

Why then is there an all-out push for a referendum? What is it the amended laws will cure that the Constitution in its current form cannot? A lot of the selling points of the BBI have been debunked as unworkable. Increasing county allocations to 35 per cent of the national budget is not practical when the government has been unable to disburse the present 15 per cent on schedule. Giving a moratorium of 4 years on university student loans flies in the face of rising unemployment. Inclusivity becomes mere talk when one side of a disenfranchised country is denied a say in matters leading to the plebiscite.

Then there is the absurdity of BBI’s theme song drawn from protest music of the 1990s. How does the Government protest against itself when it is responsible for the country’s current economic morass? It offends the sensibilities of many, when respected democrats make a public spectacle of themselves, dancing to ersatz liberation reggae songs. Aren’t Jubilee administration’s perfidious schemes that have sucked public coffers.

It is under this administration that commercial loans at usurious rates have been executed. Scandals such as the Medical Equipment Leasing Scheme, the inflated cost of the Standard Gauge Railway and the disappearance of Covid-19 funds and equipment are just tips of the iceberg covering malfeasance at the highest official levels.

Little wonder

Former Leader of Majority, Aden Duale’s recent Freudian slip suggests as much. At a television interview, he blamed the eschewing of cheap loans in favour of expensive ones from the East, on a culture of 10 per cent kickbacks from unscrupulous lenders.

To the minds of some, the BBI is a diversionary gambit to deflect attention from the country’s real issues. It is a tactic to keep citizens preoccupied with the referendum so that the cracks of the coming hard economic times are papered over by promises of a rosy future. Little wonder then that an uncontested plebiscite is undesirable. It would not create the requisite diversion. It would not be enough to hold Kenyans in the thrall of the political elite until mid-next year, and after that, until the elections of 2022.

So complete is this cognitive capture that it is impervious even to the countervailing influence of compelling arguments. The voices of those who have called for the referendum to be postponed, or at least, held together with the next general election to save on costs, have fallen on deaf ears. There is an implicit quid pro quo bargaining between the fiercest proponents of the BBI. Only time will tell what is at stake. Meanwhile, members of the public are the unwitting gullible pawns in this elaborate political game of chess!


Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst


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