Virus unravels Africa’s development policy


Virus unravels Africa’s development policy

A road construction project
A road construction project. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, Africa lost one of its finest scholars, Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics. I came to know about Prof Thandika years back while researching about the thriving politics of patronage in Africa, and his work on the concept of “neopatrimonialism” which incorporates a diverse range of sub-concept from elitism, ethnicity, tradition, tribalism, nepotism and even rent-seeking was very illuminating.

In Kenya, neopatrimonialism takes the form of political and administrative system formally constructed to concentrate power, misuse of public resources and provision of individual interest through ethnic lines. And the patrimonial elites present the image of this power structure to the world as the workable system for stability and people are happy with it.

Today, this system is under severe threat than ever in Kenya and many parts of the world arising from the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most fundamental ideals of a democratic and progressive society is the recognition by the citizens themselves that the State exists to serve the citizenry and the novel virus in unravelling this reality. The biggest fallacies always peddled around is that economic stability overrides everything else even democratisation. We all remember that the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) in 2017 told us that the economy was taking a heavy hit from the protracted election re-run and came up with a preposterous figure that the economy had lost Sh700 billion, therefore, its stability should be prioritised.

Today, it’s the precious economy that has taken a back seat to contain the virus spread and social distancing policy is reducing and even shutting business activity to prioritise human life.

This is a salient reminder to the patrimonial elites that humans and their development whether health or democratic progress, are superior to the economy who should be prioritised if an economy is to seek the path of stability.


As Prof Thandika, noted in one of his work, economic and social development are inseparable, a failure to invest in one ultimately impact the other. In fact, it is social policies that have the capacity to alienate risks and uncertainties. Now in this pandemic, the last line of defence for the economy is the country’s healthcare system. How much an economy has invested in a well-structured, funded and inclusive healthcare system greatly determines how they will come out of the pandemic.

For the patrimonial elites, they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The risk of the virus spreading out of control will unravel the poor and distorted healthcare systems they have neglected while at the same time a lockdown means locking people in their houses to starve and both scenarios has a destabilising effect. It’s for this reason that across Africa we are seeing State violence unleashed to citizens in the guise of implementing social distancing containment policy. The soft underbelly of the patrimonial elites is about to be exposed

In Kenya, for example, the country has just come to the realisation that 22 counties, almost half, have no single ICU bed and this translated to a population of 13 million people going by the 2019 census, lacking access to critical care. In the same country, government has heavily invested in shiny phantom projects like the Sh600 billion in standard gauge railway, Sh60 billion in Westland-JKIA superhighway, more than 400 billion in rural electrification, another Sh60 billion in dams project, and many other brick-and mortar infrastructure development.

Unfortunately, many African countries adopted this pro-business economic development model where countries focused and laid resource on improving its international image to attract capital investment for industrial take-off, over pro-poor policies and now found themselves with neither the industrial take-off nor transformative social policy investments to cushion citizens during this crisis.

To the patrimonial elites, the genie is out of the bottle already and date with fate is here. A stable economy is built by investing in the citizenry.

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