Investing in Marketing Shame

Published on 28th March 2006

If you stay in Nairobi, you must have at least taken a ride along the road to Jomo Kenyatta Airport popularly referred to as Mombasa road. If not, you must have watched a news bulletin some time last year showing a senior government official launching a road painting exercise as part of keeping the city clean. The lanes were painted white but barely a week after this much publicized exercise, another troop of painters started decorating the road with yellow patterns. The rest is history; the road has been drilled, carpeted and re-carpeted to the chagrin of motorists who have had to endure hours of traffic jams every other day.

I recently read with some level of amusement a writer’s observation that the Mombasa Road painting exercise best illustrates how Africans are poor in planning. It reminded me of the emotional reactions that came my way when I wrote a piece arguing that the famine situation in Africa is an artificial problem. “Are you happy when you see people and their cattle die due to drought?” one reader posed. Definitely not! It is no longer news that three quarters of Africa is faced with famine. This is happening against a backdrop of surplus food in other countries. Kenya in particular has made numerous appeals for food aid for the dry northern and eastern parts currently ravaged by famine.

The people who die are our parents, brothers and sisters; nobody is happy to lose anybody because of famine or any other reason for that matter. But has any Kenyan stopped to think for a second to measure how much the Kenyan government is going to spend to ‘clean its image’ abroad and locally by hiring public relations experts? The figure will hit billions of shillings, excluding the ‘normal’ nepotism that normally goes along with such bureaucratic exercise. Which ought to be prioritized, saving the dying or ‘cleaning an image’ of a country without addressing the cause of the bad image? In ‘real politics,’ perhaps the answer is, go for the image first and save the dead later. What are the political think tanks concocting this time?

During the previous regime, most strategists focused on getting rid of the Moi political machine. Their success was so overwhelming that Kenya was touted to be a democratic show case for Africa. Unknown to those who were crowning Kenya, local political think tanks rarely go beyond party and tribe in their strategies. The political implosion now being witnessed is a true testimony that Kenya lacks think tanks that focus on the future of the country, its foreign policy, its economic interests and its regional responsibilities. Armed with the poverty of nationalism and the guise of ‘real politics’, such thinkers have been quick to put the Kibaki regime on the path of disaster in the name of ‘image cleaning’ while ignoring the fact that Kenyans wanted positive change in governance, freedoms and economic prosperity based on individual exertion.

I had the honor to address a group of business people recently on the subject of ‘Aid and the future of Private Sector in East Africa.’ Part of the discussion centered on why the private sector tends to change with every regime change and whether the aid industry is somewhat connected. In an ensuing discussion a gentleman asked me to point out how Kenyans can wean politicians out of dependency on aid. It emerged that there are three groups that benefit from the status quo – the politician is lucky because the donor community is always ready to subsidize poor policies in the country. The politically connected private sector gets contracts. The donors too engage in public relations with aid money. In the local scenario, donors would readily rush to solve the famine problem in Kenya and allow the politician to spend money on public relations exercise.

The challenge goes to political think tanks who prepare local politicians to survive only in elections and nothing else. It is a high time that we focused on nurturing visionary leaders whose rallying point will be to make famine, diseases such as malaria, lack of clean water and reliance on donor aid history. Public relations exercises will neither change the poverty situation nor stem the brewing political discontent; it will only serve to make citizens feel insulted and cheated by the government they elected in power.

Kenyans ought to employ the use of law to hold their government to account. For instance, whenever a consumer of branded beer or branded soft drinks finds fault with their drinks, he normally takes the brewing company to court seeking compensation. Many a time claims of a ‘cockroach in a drink’ end up in court and due compensation is awarded. To ensure that our public servants, politicians, and their think tanks sober up; Kenyans must start taking the relevant offices to court whenever they paint a road before re-carpeting, whenever they get involved in an accident due to a pot hole on the road, whenever they lose a relative due to famine linked to poor policies, and whenever the government loses property due to corruption. Kenyan lawyers must prepare themselves for boom time!

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