Monday, 16 September 2013

Raila Masterminded the Discovery of New Kenya

By Dennis Onyango

At a meeting between Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Israeli Prime Minister Mr Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2011, Mr Odinga asked Israel to assist in the irrigation of the Todonyang and other parts of Turkana where famine was a permanent feature, punctuated with conflicts over diminishing water and pastures.

The Israeli PM reached for the map of Kenya and followed the northern part with his fingers, carefully scanning the region from the border with Uganda, towards Somalia. His fingers stopped on Lake Turkana, then asked; “where is the problem? I can see there is a permanent lake here, surrounded by a vast dry area. Why is the lake not being used to irrigate the land?”

For about 50 years after independence, the Turkana lived desperately while the lake stood by, not a drop of its water being used to irrigate the sunbaked land around it. The straight answer should have been that previous regimes had refused to put money into it. But diplomacy dictates that you cannot talk ill of your country in a foreign land.

Mr Odinga needed Israel’s technical expertise to irrigate the land. Mr Netanyahu immediately obliged, asking his people to get in touch with Kenya and begin working on the project.

The result is the 10,000 hectares, Sh20 billion Todonyang Irrigation Scheme which Mr Odinga unveiled in August 2012.

Away from Mr Netanyahu’s boardroom, Mr Odinga later explained that there were people in government who were still not convinced that northern Kenya is worth developing.

He explained that government was full of either the authors of the Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965 that Kenya had followed since independence, or their disciples. This is the policy paper that advocated for investment of precious government resources only in “high potential areas” to guarantee high returns on investment.

Israel’s intervention therefore would not only boost Kenya’s limited capacity but also shame the doubting Thomases.

Today, Mr Odinga must feel vindicated. While he is largely associated with the push for the new constitution, Raila biggest contribution to Kenya may be the discovery of “the other Kenya.”

This revolution is overshadowed by the new Constitution that has institutionalised the idea that no part of the country should ever be starved of resources on account of its geography, political choices and distance from Nairobi.

The discovery of oil in Turkana, coal in Kitui and rare earth minerals in Kwale while other regions look for hidden treasures is in reality a discovery of the Kenya that the rest of the nation chose to forget for close to 50 years.

This is the Kenya of oil, natural gas, underground water, iron ore, coal and irrigated agriculture.

The coming of the new Kenya, like the new constitution, equally came at a price. For half a century, Kenya was run on an assumption that the potential of a nation is measured by how fertile the land is and how much maize, tea, coffee and grade cattle it can produce. 

The founders and defenders of the old Kenya assumed that regions that cannot grow these crops and stuck to the traditional livestock, had no potential and was not worth public money.

As these once forgotten regions emerge, the leaders are today being forced to catch up with citizens.
Suddenly, everyone wants to be seen to be sympathetic to the wild north. At the Coast where for close to 50 years, the high and mighty went for holidays but refused to notice the myriad problems that kept the people down, everyone is talking about title deeds and grabbed land.

Given that Kenya’s leadership has barely changed hands in both ideology and personalities, the push to have the government rethink policies towards the former Northern Frontier District and the Coast has meant telling the authors of the economic blue print that Kenya relied on from independence that they were wrong.

At the centre of this quest has been Mr Odinga’s near solo onslaught on the Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965.

Raila’s position has been that the development plan was inappropriate as its proposals resulted in skewed development of the country. In the ill-fated, propaganda laden 2007 campaigns, Raila vigorously attacked the blue-print, blaming it for the marginalisation of northern Kenya while other regions wallowed in government sponsored development.

The status quo of the PNU jumped in with claims that Raila was a Communist, anti-capital, anti-property, a man who would take from “the hard working” rich to reward the “lazy poor” who were his supporters.

At the Coast, Raila’s push involved embracing voices and causes including “the untouchable”. Years earlier, Raila had embraced the then fiery Islamic Party of Kenya and its preacher Sheikh Khalid Balala. IPK was considered “dangerous” and only an equally “dangerous” Raila Odinga could embrace it.

In the north, the creation of a Ministry of Northern Kenya for the first time since independence put focus on the region’s unique challenges.

Government explained the investment LAPSSET as an addition to what Kenya has, but Raila pitched it as a beginning for northern Kenya. Raila’s position was that LAPSSET would do for northern Kenya what the Kenya-Uganda Railway did for the south.

As the new Kenya emerges, the battle has shifted. The question today is no longer whether these regions are worth investing in. It is whether they will be allowed to take charge of their destinies through strong devolved units or they continue to be micro-managed from Nairobi.

Mr Dennis Onyango is an aide of the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. This article was first published on Sunday Nation.