NAIROBI – Kenya’s fiercely contested presidential election in March, and its disputed outcome, has left the victor, Uhuru Kenyatta, with a daunting challenge: to unite a country riven with ethnic violence and distrust. Although this election was accompanied by far less violence than the previous presidential vote in 2007, the opposition candidate Raila Odinga’s second consecutive defeat has only re-enforced his supporters’ fears that they are once again being cheated out of power.
Kenyatta, a member of the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, says that he wants to heal the country’s divisions, echoing the promise of his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki. There is a simple way to start: combat the corruption and nepotism that characterize so much state employment.
Kenyatta assumes power a half-century after his father, Jomo Kenyatta, led Kenya to independence. The anniversary provides a reason to reflect on some of the country’s achievements and failings, especially in the field of education – the key to economic opportunity and professionalization of the public sector.
During the colonial era, most of Kenya’s children were denied schooling. The post-independence government thus found itself having to hire vast numbers of teachers, many of them unqualified, to cope with the influx of black students attending school for the first time. Today, however, there is an oversupply of trained teachers. In fact, many of them can now only find work in neighboring countries such as South Sudan, which needs to fill shortages left by decades of conflict.
Investment in Kenya’s education system, along with economic reforms, and (until recently) relative political stability has undoubtedly helped the economy, which has grown by around 4-5% annually over the past decade, following long periods of stagnation. By some definitions, around one-quarter of the country’s 44 million people are in the middle class. Compared with the rest of the region, the country’s key sectors – including education, transport, communications, agriculture, and tourism – are professionally managed and the envy of much of East Africa.
But the emergence of an increasingly educated population has also intensified the need for more skilled jobs. Unemployment is conservatively estimated at a staggering 40% of the workforce. The government has promised to create jobs, but that is only part of the battle; it must also reform the way such jobs are filled.
Public-sector employment in Kenya is notoriously opaque. Kenyans typically complain that key positions are not advertised nationally (as required by law) until the employer has already found the “ideal” candidate. Instead, vacancies are listed internally as temporary contracts, obviating the need for a national search.
This makes it easy for a manager to hire a relative or friend, usually from a favored ethnic group. The candidate is then best placed to benefit when the temporary post is upgraded and advertised as a permanent position. There are even instances in which two managers will contrive to hire each other’s relatives to evade nepotism charges.
The system is hardest on first-generation graduates who lack a highly placed relative to help them into the workforce; they are often left with no option but to pay a hefty bribe to advance their careers. Unsurprisingly, the way state jobs are filled, from the presidency down, has become a source of deep and widespread bitterness.
The Kenyatta government could go a long way toward addressing the problem with one very practical measure: establishing and supporting an independent watchdog to audit hiring and promotion decisions in official agencies. The vetting process that Kenyans observed being applied to recent cabinet appointments should be extended throughout the public sector (and also to private entities that win state contracts). An independent watchdog would require all employers to demonstrate that their hiring practices are transparent, competitive, and meritocratic.
Such an agency need not be expensive. Its very existence, and the threat of random investigations, would serve as an effective deterrent against malpractice – just as random audits deter tax evaders. Whistleblowers, encouraged to come forward by legal protections enshrined in the agency’s founding legislation, would provide leads for the investigators.
Kenyatta has a chance to steer Kenya away from the ethnic tensions that have plagued its society and economy. By introducing and implementing fairness and transparency to public-sector recruitment, and ensuring that appointments are based on talent, not ethnic or family connections, Kenyans may become less fearful about their political leaders’ origins. They may also grow more confident that their skills will be properly deployed in a fast-growing economy, further spreading the prosperity that many fellow citizens have only recently started to enjoy.