Kenya still faces major challenges at home. But Prime Minister Raila Odinga says the country is now in pole position to play a positive role in Africa and help other countries, especially its neighbours, to resolve their own economic and political problems.
Q: What role does your position as prime minister play in the creation of a united Kenya?
A: The position of prime minister was created as a result of an accord signed between the two biggest parties in the country; it was signed by the president and myself. This was a compromise after the disputed elections of 2007. The position comes with the role of supervision and coordination of the functions of government. So it is basically to create efficiency in the running of the government, and to deal with issues of policy. So, basically, my role helps to make the coalition work harmoniously and by extension promote national unity.
Q: There seems to be a new sense of peace and harmony in the country, and long may it last. How much will you attribute that sense of inclusiveness to the fact that you are now the prime minister of Kenya?
A: I think that we have managed to remove the fears and suspicions that existed immediately after the elections. The elections had polarised the country, and it was necessary to diffuse the tensions and make sure that the whole country is treated equally and that resources are distributed in an equitable manner. This has helped to create confidence amongst the people.
Q: There is a perception that China and India are now more important to Kenya than your traditional links to the West. How far is this true?
A: I think it is a wrong perception. It is true that we have expanded our trade to emerging economies such as China and India; it is also true that the companies from those countries are very active in our country, particularly in the areas of infrastructure development, roads, water, and telecommunications, and indeed there is active government-to-government cooperation. But our relationship with these countries is not at the expense of our relationship with our traditional partners in the West, because we continue to expand the relationship with traditional partners.
Q: Vision 2030 asks for an annual growth rate of 10% per annum. Where, in your opinion, will this growth come from?
A: Growth in Vision 2030 is anchored on three pillars: economic, social, and political. We expect that the construction of infrastructural projects will create wealth and employment for the people, and thereby bring growth. We are seriously developing our infrastructure such as roads, railways, airports and air transport, energy, water, and telecommunications. We are also developing our manufacturing sector and agribusiness; we want to add value to our agricultural produce and process the minerals we have in this country before export. Tourism is another area we have to expand greatly. We also see manpower development as being very critical in the attainment of growth. The health sector is another important area, in the sense that we want to give people equal access to health care irrespective of their socio-economic background.
We want to expand and modernise the railway network, particularly the Mombasa-Nairobi-Kampala railway. We are also going to put a second port and network at Lamu, which we call the Lamu Corridor, by using rail and road to link Ethiopia and South Sudan. We have another rail project to link Cameroon on the western seaboard to create a land bridge across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.
Q: Kenya has astonished the world in terms of its innovations, not only in the ICT sector but in many other areas as well. What can you do to encourage and reward innovation and protect new discoveries?
A: Yes, we are very proud of the creativity which has been shown by our citizens, and as a result we have responded by offering incentives, rewards and protection for their intellectual property rights by enacting a law in this country to that effect.
Q: Even outsiders can see a new spirit of optimism and national harmony now prevailing in Kenya. How can this spirit be sustained in the long term, especially with the political changes that will happen in 2012?
A: We have a new constitution which has become the foundation of our endeavours. We are implementing this new constitution to give equal opportunity to all in the country. This is what will bring stability because we will move away from the unfairness that characterised past governments, and reduce evils like tribalism, nepotism and favouritism.
Jobs will also be created in both the formal and informal sectors, and we will give people access to credit to encourage them to be more productively engaged.
Q: You have just described tribalism as an evil; but politics in Kenya, from time to time, has been conducted via tribalism. What are you, the leaders in government, doing concretely to eradicate this cancer from the body politic?
A: You see, Kenya is not an exception on the continent. It is a cancer across the African continent. My view is that ethnicity is a disease of the elite. It is the elite who, in competition for the resources in the country, resort to ethnicity as a tool for discrimination against each other. And they benefit unfairly in the name of the tribe or community. They use it as a shield, especially when they commit a crime and they have to face the music. But when they are enjoying the loot, there is nothing like the tribe.
I think that this disease can be cured if we have an open society with checks and balances, for example if civil society is strong, if the media is strong, if there is a dynamic multiparty system where there is competition in the political process, then a government or leader or party will know that they need the support of all the people in the country. This is the only viable way to do away with this cancer.
Q: Kenya is now one of the “big three” in Africa. (Nigeria and South Africa being the other two.) How can you leverage your position to fight Africa’s corner on the global stage – because when things happen in Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere on the continent, Europe intervenes and Africa is sidelined?
A: I think that Africa needs to play a much more important role on the international stage. But to do so, there needs to be unity of purpose within Africa itself, there has to be some kind of openness in how African countries relate to each other.
We now have the African Union (AU) which has replaced the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The major weakness of the OAU was the non-interference article in its Charter which stated that there should be no interference in the internal affairs of member countries. In the name of that non-interference, a lot of crimes were committed on the continent by leaders, but the other leaders just looked the other way.
Now all these things were supposed to have changed with the establishment of the AU. The AU Charter has replaced the non-interference article with another one which says there should be non-indifference to the violation of human rights in member states. That basically means that if you see the violation of fundamental human rights in an African state, you have a duty to intervene. But unfortunately the AU has not made use of this new change of mandate. For example, in Libya, if the AU had been proactive and taken charge at the time that demonstrators were being shot at, the situation wouldn’t have degenerated to the level where the EU and later NATO were called upon to intervene and fight the Libyan government. This should have been an African problem and there should have been an African solution to it, much like the Europeans have done with the problem of the former Yugoslavia.
I understand that Kenya has a major role to play on the African continent, because Kenya is strategically situated on the eastern seaboard. Our economy is stronger than our regional neighbours’, we also enjoy good relations with them, both in trade and politics, and we should use this comparative advantage to help them grow their economies and resolve their problems. We’ve got to work with all these countries because opportunities exist for us to prosper together. But we should remember that opportunities have wings and if we don’t use them, they will fly away.