By MUGUMO MUNENE
Kenya turns a critical corner this year, pressed by tough economic times accelerated by last year’s prolonged drought, the urgency of a new constitution and the quest for the trial of post-election violence suspects.
A survey whose results were released on Saturday shows Kenyans rank the country’s needs this year as a new constitution, buying food at lower prices, finding employment, affordable healthcare, affordable education and justice for post-election violence suspects in that order.
Mr Kofi Annan, the man who helped to broker peace when the country was falling apart, thinks this year is most critical if Kenya is to decisively march away from the breaking point it approached following a disastrous presidential contest in 2007.
“The progress that we are seeing is an encouraging indication of what Kenya can achieve. But this progress is not yet irreversible. We urge greater speed of action, particularly as the time for reform is shrinking. In our judgement, it will close as early as late 2010 when the next round of electioneering begins in earnest,” said Mr Annan in December. “This is an important time in Kenya’s history, one in which all Kenyans must take a clear stand and play their part.”
Twenty-two per cent of those interviewed by pollsters Infotrak Harris thought a new constitution was the most important item on their New Year list of priorities while another 19 per cent thought the government should pull all stops to ensure food was cheaper.
Twelve per cent of those interviewed said employment was the priority, nine per cent wanted better access to affordable healthcare, seven per cent rooted for affordable education while four per cent listed security as their topmost concern for 2010.
Only one per cent of the people interviewed were concerned about the size of the bloated Cabinet, according to the results of the survey conducted in all provinces except North Eastern. Those surveyed gave the grand coalition government a 42 per cent average pass mark. None felt the government was deserving of an excellent rating of 90 to 100 per cent.
“Not surprisingly, almost half of those interviewed; 48 per cent stated that one of the main reasons they gave the government unfavourable ratings is the non-accomplishment of promised reforms,” said the pollsters.
“This notwithstanding, Kenyans are also unhappy about unemployment, constant wrangling and corruption. Other issues that drove the dissatisfaction include increased poverty, insecurity, poor governance, ignoring of IDP’s pleas for justice and resettlement and poor infrastructure for example in health facilities.”
In their New Year messages, President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga seemed to grasp the realities that face Kenyans and, again, promised to address the issues in the months ahead. “As we are aware, the year just ended was one of the most challenging in recent history… we faced an economic slowdown, high fuel and food prices as well as a prolonged drought which severely threatened the livelihood of millions of our people.
“Indeed, we have fared much better than was expected and emerged an even stronger nation and people. As we enter the New Year, we must continue the path we have embarked on,” said the President from his traditional Christmas retreat in Mombasa.
“We wish to conclude the constitution review process that has over the years proved divisive. This is why it is critical that the final document that will be presented at a referendum must form the foundation for a stable, united, peaceful and prosperous Kenya.”
And in a message sent from abroad, the PM said: “If we are to make this year a truly happy one for our nation, we must all face the stark reality of hard work ahead. This is the season when we say, ‘out with the old and in with the new’. Perhaps never before has this sentiment held such powerful meaning for Kenyans.”
“Whatever happens this year, our constitution-making efforts must not bow to narrow partisan interests that seek to keep our nation shrouded in the dark age of our continent,” he said. Mr Odinga made a rallying call on Kenyans to forge ahead, devoid of “partisan interests”.
“We have seen how difficult 2009 has been. Our national spirit has limped along through hunger, drought and the economic downturn. Although the government unveiled a number of reform programmes, reactionary forces that dog our footsteps every inch of the way still seek to hamper really tangible progress,” Mr Odinga said.
“This is the year when we as Kenyans must say enough is enough. We will not allow ourselves to be held to ransom by political agendas that have nothing to do with our real lives. From Rift Valley to Coast, North Eastern to Ukambani, suffering people have no time for games. We must make progress.”
The people surveyed had good things to say about the government as well. “The expansive rehabilitation of infrastructure and especially roads has given the government a favourable rating in 2009. Kenyans are also pleased about the advancements in FPE (free primary education),” said Infotrak Harris official Angela Ambitho.
“It is important to note, however, that the poll was conducted before the misappropriation of FPE funds was made public.” The Ministry of Education is currently embroiled in a scandal in which officials reportedly dipped their fingers into FPE coffers, sparking a freeze in support for the programme from Britain and public outrage.
In his Jamhuri Day speech, President Kibaki promised that those found culpable would be punished, a promise he repeated in his New Year message to Kenyans. “We will therefore be taking stern and decisive action against any individuals who will be found to have misappropriated funds meant for the benefit of our children,” the President said on Thursday.
In the survey, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights attracted the highest rating as the public institution that best serves the interests of Kenyans. The media, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, the Kenya Roads Board and the Ministry of Health appeared in the top five in that order.
The justice system continued to receive a poor rating with the police ranked as the worst performing institution followed by the Judiciary, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, local authorities and the Ministry of Roads.
The government has been under pressure from a group of MPs, ordinary Kenyans, civil society and foreign missions to reform the criminal justice system, including having top officials removed. This pressure was seen to bring to bear in the removal late last year of Police Commissioner Maj-Gen Hussein Ali who was replaced by Mr Mathew Iteere. Similar pressure also forced Justice Aaron Ringera to resign as KACC director.
Shortly after, the American Government slapped a visa ban on Attorney-General Amos Wako who has, however, stayed put at the State Law Office. The government last year responded to pressure to reform the police by establishing a task force chaired by retired judge Philip Ransley whose wide-ranging recommendations have been adopted and are at the first stage of implementation.