Thursday September 4 2014

Kenya needs to get a grip on terror and crime

By Karoli Ssemogerere

Earlier last month, I reflected on a two-day trip to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. It was my second trip since the election of Uhuru Kenyatta in March 2013. I had spent one week in Nairobi during the election as Kenyans eagerly anticipated the results of a closely contested election.

I had moved against caution to visit Nakuru in the Rift Valley, the scene of some of the worst election clashes in 2007 as the results were being declared. At the time, hotels had been deserted. Game Parks flung their gates open for whoever wanted to visit.

The Airport hangar, now converted into arrivals hall, was the first major change I noticed. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is the busiest airport in the region. Kenya Airways connects to 76 destinations from Jomo Kenyatta. Traveling through Nairobi again is a leap of faith.

On this particular weekend, KQ – the national carrier – was facing heat for maintaining fights with Ebola struck countries: Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Alongside Ethiopian Airlines, KQ is perhaps the only other carrier with continental wide reach. I looked around the immigration hall expecting harshness or downright handedness, especially given the profile of the passengers making their way through immigration.

None at all! People seemed to continue clearing the airport hall with not much more than a small slap on the wrist by Kenya Revenue Authority. KRA now opens suitcases - itself a new development. Uganda Revenue Authority routinely opens all baggage but again, the Ugandan mindset is retail. 90 per cent of trade in Uganda is small business; a fact that explains Uganda’s lower tax-GDP ratio.

On a Sunday after Church service, I set out to Westlands to the scene of last year’s gruesome terror attack: Westgate Mall. Kampala residents thump their chests on seeing a number of buildings and malls coming up in different parts of the city, but Nairobi has a different problem – over-development. Most of the former residential areas have been torn down into apartment complexes, office high rises and shopping centres.

Westgate hits you like an afterthought. First, it seems the building codes in Nairobi are still robust. The building is intact, all in one piece. But it does not take a lot to wonder how packed this corner of town is; far away from the centre. Kampala does not have an equivalent.

In malls and on the roads, Kenyans are patiently absorbing the implications of daily news of terror attacks. At times the country seems ungovernable. The President has finally begun taking action, firing people and transferring other members of his war cabinet. In Kenya, you don’t get the impression that the government has any relaxing time.

CORD has provided a startling fire-cracker by the belly parliamentary opposition; and a nonstop election campaign whose current tune is a referendum to amend the Constitution to return certain aspects of parliamentary rule to Kenya.

The economy is not doing well enough. There are fears that Kenya has over-borrowed in anticipation of oil. Kenya nearly repeated the Uganda mistake of 1995 - creating an overdose of constitutional offices, some of which practically cannot enjoy the prerogatives of their predecessors.

A high recurrent development budget expenditure is a sure dose for higher taxes going forward. In a country like Kenya, which already has the region’s highest personal and corporate taxes, there is not much more to be taxed.

People feeling poor is one thing; people feeling they can’t get ahead is a bigger problem. At this point, the soaring rhetoric offered by politicians starts to get in the way of the real problem.

Kenya’s demographics are starting to flatten ahead of her neighbours; so people are going to demand more. One hopes they really get a grip on terror and crime before it wipes out the national budget.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.