Photo credit: Sam Tarling

A powerful and resilient minority

There are many things the world says about us Kenyans. Some people say we are a very political nation. Others claim that despite our tropical climate, many beautiful wild animals, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and the recently discovered oil and devolution, we are also leading fellow nations on corruption. Still, others claim we are a young nation, and that we still have a lot of growing up to do! If you don’t believe this, refer to the recent UNDP report (2015) which revealed that our median age is only 19 years! Add this to our national independence birthday and you might just believe these ‘naysayers’. So yes. We could be all of that. Or not. But I dare say that if you woke up one day and decided to take a tally of the world’s most paradoxical people, Kenyans would definitely not miss out on the shortlist.

A recent report released by Oxfam vindicates me. The baseline study which was conducted in three counties; Nairobi, Wajir and Turkana revealed snippets of just who we are as a people. The report revealed that a majority of Kenyans (77.3 per cent) know that it is their obligation to pay tax. In fact, only two in every ten Kenyans don’t know whether or not they should pay their taxes. With such satisfying statistics, one may easily get carried away from the need for massive civic education around taxes. But the admiration that Kenyans earn from their awareness to pay tax is diminished by the realities of their aloofness. The same study found out that a whopping 91.7 percent of Kenyans have never participated in any public forum to discuss their budgets! This is the first of three paradoxes. That a people with such a high level of awareness on their obligation to pay tax, who also claim to receive poor essential services from the taxes they pay can then proceed to be indifferent and disengaged in the running of their OWN affairs.

A grim picture

The report goes ahead to tear up any hopes you may have on the blossoming Kenyan middle class, who we assume are largely found within urban areas. Compared to the rural folks who stood at 40.7 percent, a majority of urban dwellers (56 per cent) are dissatisfied with the quality of services they receive from both the national and their respective county governments. Ironically, 75.9 percent of the respondents from urban areas claimed to know how much money was allocated to their respective county by the national government in the previous financial year. Overall, the numbers looked quite good, at 69.2 percent for those that knew of the allocations, and 4 percent for those that didn’t. However, the same challenge witnessed with the first paradox recurs.  For someone with an expectation that the growing Kenyan middle-class will be at the forefront of holding leaders to account, these revelations paint an almost helpless situation.

The third and biggest paradox was around the belief of Kenyans to influence decision making. A majority of 75.6 percent of Kenyans believe that it was either difficult or very difficult to influence any decisions by their County governments. Now picture this: 91.7 percent of Kenyans who have never participated in any county budgetary process now claim (almost unanimously) that it is a near impossibility to influence policy restructures by their own county governments! These are the same people who, according to the study, said that given a chance to avoid paying tax, they (54 per cent) would still proceed to pay. Ironically, 64.6 percent of them believe that the Kenyan tax system is unfair.  

Let’s now put this into context: First, they are aware of the budgets and when these public forums normally happen. They even have a strong opinion on the fairness (or lack of it) of the Kenyan tax system. But then they are indifferent and don’t see why their actions are necessary. Worst of all, they are now hopeless! There is no better example of a more conflicted group of people than this subset of Kenyans. If National and County Governments today decided not to efficiently and effectively engage their citizens in subsequent budget-making processes and other aspects of governance, a majority of Kenyans would probably do nothing about it. Why? Because they are just happy paying their taxes, and not caring to follow up on the services they should be getting from these taxes! And this is the tragedy of our times.

A powerful and resilient minority

Luckily, this magnificent world as we know it today wasn’t made by such ‘realists’. It wasn’t modelled by those men and women so disengaged with the running of their daily lives, that they are only present when it is time to heap pessimism on the minority who earnestly seek that distant light at the end of the tunnel. As Theodore Roosevelt would have it, “it is not the critic who counts...the credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming...if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

My heart goes out to those brave and diligent men and women in this country who every day give up their time, resources and expertise to hold their leaders to account, for the greater good. It goes out to those women in Turkana who can’t read but always make it in time for chief barazas, and sit there listening to the reading of budget estimates in all their complexities. My heart goes out to those young, educated but jobless youths in Wajir and Nairobi who have made it their business to engage their leaders and demand for action that benefits all and not just themselves. I celebrate those brave Kenyans who despite being turned away from public budgetary hearings in Lokichar on account of ‘enough’ numbers, still persist to attend these forums. I celebrate Kenyans who made a New Year resolution to petition their County governments to raise budgetary allocations in order to build a road that connects their community with the next or allows them convenient access to the nearest hospital or school. Those who vowed to petition their leaders to build an extra health centre in Korogocho; light up Kakuma, build an extra ECDE Center in Bute Helu in Wajir, or provide more water to Mukuru. It is this minority group of Kenyans that will eventually get the national and county governments to fully abide by the spirit of our constitution and learn to involve citizens in the business of governance beyond the tick-in-the-box approach that they currently employ on public participation. All of this may not happen immediately, but it shall surely come to pass in the fullness of time.

To the rest of the Kenyan majority who continue to linger in the comfort of their indifference, it is now time you boarded the bus occupied by this courageous lot. Because the future of participatory governance in this country calls out to your undivided effort and commitment today.