Put your best ideas forward

It is time to effect change through constructive enterprise.

Yesterday I arrived in Kenya, my home when I’m not in the United States. I spent most of my first day back in front of the TV watching our president and our prime minister launch Vision 2030, which is supposed to turn us into Singapore. The document is a supposed compromise between Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement and President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity. I started off my usual cynical self about local politics and was planning to write something about Barack Obama’s triumph instead. But there was something in the tone of the various politicians who spoke that caught my attention.

Our Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka was as articulate as usual and slightly boring as usual. It always seems that he is angling for something. He is, these days, a man of God, and at some point burst into song, singing Bette Midler’s From a Distance —

— sigh —

By the time Odinga made his speech, I found myself moved. It has been many years since I have been moved by Kenyan politicians talking. Odinga spoke about needing people of courage to make the vision possible.


A few years ago another Vision 2030 document was unveiled and the talk afterwards was the usual PR stuff: Asian tigers and the private-public sector and all those funky words. What was ­missing, what has always been missing in political Kenya, is what Obama and Martin Luther King have called the Fierce Urgency of Now. I heard them sell this idea, haha-ed and went off to have a beer, thinking: another one of those documents that will generate many conferences and consultancies and a general feeling of goodwill among all the “stakeholders”.

But today on TV Odinga was powerful and his statement to the audience of ministers and administrators that he will be there to police them; and that he demands performance and courage and creativity was moving, it gave life to the vision. As a rule Odinga does not let grass grow under his feet and it will be useful to see whether he gets active and positive support from the PNU side.

James Orengo, our new land ­minister, has shaken the foundations of everything by talking about the reallocation of stolen land and the cancelling of 999-year leases. I am not sure how far he will be able to go with this, or whether all he wants to do is necessarily pragmatic: what matters here is that for the first time that I can remember these fundamental issues are on the table.

But the person who most impressed me was Kibaki. In his long, rambling speech you could hear a new sense of purpose. He spoke about the need to come together, about his purpose as a leader. He was angry and impassioned and spoke directly about the crisis and the need to move beyond it. It is still hard to agree with him and his inability to recognise that the violence had much to do with our own political history and bad leadership. It seemed as if he wanted to assert that what happened came about because of “bad elements”.

But this time it was hard to take issue with him. He is a man of his age and that will not change. What was clear to me, listening to him, is the sense that Kenya’s growth and recovery means a lot to him personally; and he is ready to work with the other side in a way that goes beyond a political partnership. He made this speech without notes and he kept repeating the message — let’s do this together. I am ready. I believe in this.

What gives me hope here is that if we approach the new Constitution with this spirit we will have taken a great leap forward.

So, right here and now, let me make my own commitment to my country. I will be sceptical and critical, but never cynical. I will, Mr Odinga, strive with what I can to be a person of courage and commitment for my own country.

All you Kenyans working in banking in London; on Wall Street. All you Kenyan artists and architects, nurses and cleaners out there, take time to make your input to our vision, follow it up.

Whatever it is that happened to us this January, we have an opportunity we have never had: to commit with sincerity and purpose, on the back of the idea that we nearly lost it all, to make Kenya what it has always promised to be: a dynamic country that can create wealth for all.

More, almost, than any other country on this continent, we have you: this massive force of educated youngish people with world-class skills.

Our parents are retiring, it is time we took a stand and stopped being only critical. Put your best ideas forward. Not your charity: your best ideas, your energy, your enterprise — and your courage.

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