From Nairobi to Singapore: The quest for good governance and growth

  • 18 Sep 2023
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Karim Anjarwalla

The curtains for the Africa Climate Summit 2023 closed in Nairobi on a very high note last week. The Government of Kenya deserves commendation for conceiving and hosting the Summit and placing the global discourse on climate change firmly on the international stage. If this event serves to expedite the shift towards a fair climate transition, considering the substantial concerns of Africa and the Global South, it could signify the inception of a significant movement. The Nairobi Declaration might well be remembered as the launch of a worldwide re-evaluation of climate, sustainability, and the fair allocation of resources for adaptation and mitigation.


Nairobi’s evolving landscape

Nairobi has also become an attractive city to live in if you are relatively affluent, with new restaurants, malls, branded hotels, and schools popping up everywhere. It has always been a green city. Its residential areas, until recently, were havens of relative calm. Serviced offices abound, housing a young mobile demographic of tech entrepreneurs and the businesses they have created. Silicon Savannah has been meeting Silicon Valley as founders and ideas from global tech centres of excellence find their way to Nairobi. While there has been a reality check in the funding cycle of tech companies recently, the trajectory of travel is clear. Nothing expresses the boldness of these new possibilities better than the Nairobi Expressway which has made commuting through Nairobi inestimably easier and has become the physical landmark that most makes Nairobi feel like a global city, as it snakes through the city, its elevated grandness a sign of things to come.


The growth challenge

So far, so hopeful. So why is Nairobi, not Dubai, Singapore or even Cape Town and why (other than a few years under the Kibaki administration) has Kenya never been a 10% per year growth economy? Why have we not made any meaningful strides in improving our Gini coefficient rankings or materially getting people out of poverty as India and China have, or even Malaysia and Vietnam? Having just returned from a working trip in Singapore, the answer is obvious.


The shadow of corruption

Corruption is a significant issue. Unlike Singapore, we are a low-trust society, and we are therefore cynical as a people. How can it be otherwise after decades of false promises, shattered dreams and tribal politics? As Hannah Arendt, the greatest mind on totalitarianism and autocracy wrote in her seminal work “The Origins of Totalitarianism”:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.


The path to redemption


So, how do you remedy this malaise? There is only one simple answer: good governance predicated on the rule of law. President William Ruto, upon assuming office as the 5th President of Kenya, made it a focal point to differentiate his administration from its predecessor. For instance, during the swearing-in ceremony of new judges on 14 September 2022, he underscored this commitment by stating that “Kenya can only be better if we become a country of the rule of law. Anything else leads to anarchy and confusion. We are all equal before the law… Even as president, I have limitations and I should respect them, just like all other arms of government have limitations. We must all live within our mandates… it is the rule of law, not the rule of man.”

And then again on 5 January 2023 in a round-table with journalists, he said: “I have sat down with the Police Command from the IG downward and we have agreed that they will operate within the law.” The thing about the Rule of Law is that it is a two-way street: it operates as a mutual obligation, not limited to ordinary citizens alone. It necessitates that all branches of the Government conduct themselves in alignment with the Constitution and the laws to which they are equally accountable.


Balancing act

One year in, the signs of Kenya’s commitment to the Rule of Law are, at best, mixed. The government is clearly determined to be decisive and bold, which can quickly catalyse progress. But this boldness must not lead to demagoguery. There are signs that agencies of state are being weaponised for collateral purposes. Ironically, in many cases, these are the same agencies that were criticised by members of this government for going rogue under the previous government. Disappointingly, there appear to be incursions on the freedom of expression and evidence of arbitrary detention. None of this is necessary to run a focused and decisive Government. Respect for human dignity and liberty are the essential foundations of prosperity and growth.


Lessons from Singapore

And this brings me back to Singapore, a nation which appears to strike this balance between a decisive government and respect for human dignity and liberty. Singapore has chosen not to simply mimic models grown elsewhere to achieve development. Singapore is charting its own way. And so should we. The economic miracle that is Singapore is not a story of top-down economic growth. Instead, it is the story of far-sighted planning, coupled with execution capabilities, an intolerance for corruption and respect for human dignity and liberty, allowing people to feel empowered in a predictable playing field.

Moving forward

It is true that this government inherited a structurally weak economy and a challenging global environment. However, after a year, no government can justify its actions by blaming its predecessor or persistently dwelling on the past. As Kenyans, we fought hard for the rights and liberties we have, as enshrined in our 2010 Constitution. Let’s face it, the government cannot guide us towards tremendous growth, no matter its plans and no matter the number of high-profile summits we host, if fidelity to the letter and spirit of our Constitution, to human dignity and liberty, are not preserved, protected, and enhanced. The green shoots of a Bottom-up Economic Transformation Agenda (BeTA) recovery will die prematurely in the absence of the rule of law, and this Government’s opportunity to chart a different course of history will be lost to the ocean of mediocrity.


Mr Karim Anjarwalla is a Senior Partner at ALN Kenya