Tomorrow is World Food Day. With 4.2 million Kenyans facing acute food insecurity and 24 drought-stricken 24 counties, there is nothing really to celebrate. As Cabinet Secretaries prepare for their job interviews next week, they must come up with new ideas for an increasingly hungry, impoverished, and distressed nation.
First-term Samburu Governor Lati Lelelit broke the news that one of his constituents died of starvation this week. His concerns have been echoed by other county governors and the Head of State. Two-year-old Travis Maina of Kiambu county died before Kenyatta National Hospital doctors could remove a fork jembe from his skull also this week. His family allege he was denied emergency treatment after they couldn’t produce Sh20,500 to secure a hospital bed. Within hours, the public had contributed 15 times that amount. Too late, the minor was dead, and another family was in mourning.
If the right to food and health is enshrined for all in our constitution, why are our experiences so different? A recent Global Inequality Index offers a few pointers. Kenya dropped 16 positions to 93 in this annual survey of 161 Government commitments to reducing inequality (CRI) over the last year. A 15 per cent cut in national and county health expenditure contributed to locking 24 million out of health facilities. Another 3 million were pushed towards poverty by hospital bills. It would have taken the late Travis’s mother two months of wages for him to have been admitted and treated.
Inequalities are not inevitable. The fifth administration’s policy choices and state actions will either accelerate or reduce future inequalities. While Jubilee avoided increasing value-added tax in favour of strengthening revenue collection and a progressive tax system that targeted high-income earners, 2021 saw minimal increases in health, education, and social protection expenditure. Furthermore, over 60 per cent of the COVID-19 stimulus packages targeted large corporations and not small and medium enterprises and social protection.
The Kenya Kwanza Administration must avoid double-speak at this time. Instructing Kenya Revenue Authority to collect Sh3 trillion while cautioning them from collecting outstanding taxes from politically connected corporations like Keroche Breweries confuses even the ordinary citizen. Their announcement that up to ten state corporations are to be privatised also deserves our scrutiny. While they may be loss-making, we must be assured that national public assets are not being stripped to expand private empires and create new dynasties.
In another controversial policy move, Kenya Kwanza has lifted a ten-year ban on genetically modified food production to address food shortages. Without scientific studies on the potential effects of GMO food consumption on our health or the impact of small-scale farmers’ dependency on seeds owned by multinational companies, it does seem this has been rushed. Even the EU has taken a phased approach to loosen its restrictions on GMOs.
The dropping of serious criminal cases against Cabinet nominees days before they are vetted by parliament must also alarm the public not just the Law Society of Kenya and the National Integrity Alliance. On this, the ODPP must publicly detail the specific reasons for each of the cases or risk losing public trust.
This week, the whopping Sh1.3 billion fine by Chinese banks for the underperformance of the Special Gauge Railway also caught our attention. While popular with our coastal cousins, has the move back to Mombasa port further jeopardised our coffers? With the recent public concern and the administration’s promise to open governance, is it time that President Ruto reads the SGR agreement to the nation?
Citizens can learn much from the habits of chameleons (Latin derivative for lions) at this time. Chameleons change colour not to camouflage themselves or blend in as most think. They change to regulate their body temperature or to communicate how they are feeling. Both of their eyes pivot independently, allowing them to observe several moving objects simultaneously. As the nominees come before the nation, we too, must become chameleons, remain attentive and find our voice.
Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]