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Like its football team, Kenya is failing to qualify

Nov 22, 2009 Strategy, Sunday Nation

I was an angry man last weekend. The ill temper was sparked by a football match. I watched Kenya lose 2-3 to Nigeria at Kasarani, and in the process fail to qualify for both the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations.

That in itself was not news, and should not have made me anything other than mildly irritated. Kenya’s football pedigree is nonexistent these days, and we would be lucky to win against a ladies’ netball team trying their hand at soccer. No, what was annoying was listening to so many commentators saying after the game that “plucky” Kenya had “put up a good fight.”

People, no one gets any prizes for trying. You get rewards for trying and winning. And I am fed up to the gills with our acceptance of mediocrity. Kenya played this game without its German coach, Antoine Hey, who had absconded in a fit of pique. The Prime Minister, who had been instrumental in forcing through the appointment of this laughably unqualified coach, sat in the stadium cheering “our boys”.

The high priests of football in Kenya must also have watched Kenya fail to qualify even for a continental tournament, let alone a global one. Having presided over an administration that would make circus clowns look organised, did they feel any shame? I doubt it very much. It’s just another failure, another blot in our copybook. We laugh it off and we move on.

My mood worsened as the weekend went on. First, I unfortunately started looking through the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2009/10, which gave me the news that Kenya is now 98th in how it competes internationally. We have dropped places again. Who is ahead of us? Oh, just countries like Senegal, Gambia and El Salvador. Who is breathing down our necks and likely to overhaul us soon? Tanzania and Uganda. No one to worry about, really.

Some more numbers for you. Did you know that we are about to fall out of Africa’s Top 10 in terms of nominal GDP? That Angola and Sudan have overhauled us, and Ethiopia looks like it will do so soon? Did you know that when we look at nominal GDP per head, Kenya features 27th in the continent, behind Chad? And that our national income per person now lags behind the average for Sub-Saharan Africa?

And yet this is the country that thinks it sits on the top table, whose ministers can only drive the world’s most expensive limousines, and which trades insults with the world’s most powerful nation.

What is it that’s knocking us down into the basement of the world economy? Oh, that’s easy. Endemic corruption, utterly inadequate infrastructure and institutions, inefficient government, and crime and violence. That’s our daily diet of junk, causing our malnutrition.

This stuff matters, Kenyans. At the end of the day, economic advancement is all. We can’t sit around amidst the world’s failed states as our neighbours race ahead. Other people are getting it while we sit around in a stupor. And as our peers are investing in all the right places, what are we arguing about? Kadhi courts, VW Passats, foreign coaches and an election three years away.

We are still having the same arguments about land and its boundaries that we did in the 1960s. We still have pastoralists driving cows onto the highways of our capital cities. We still can’t supply water or power or basic healthcare to most of our people. We are still arguing over forests and rivers. We are still waiting for rain.

Does any of that matter for the future? Not a jot. Our economic future lies not in how many goats we have, but in how many connected computers. We should be arguing about how to build international brands, not about constituency boundaries. The future is in the hands of those who can make the best use of knowledge, not of rain. Those who own expertise, markets and global supply chains are going to make that future.

Yet here we sit, unable to organise a national football team let alone a national strategy. Take a hard look at Harambee Stars, Kenyans: they are a metaphor for the nation. Their reference point is the past, not the future. They are administered by thugs and comedians, and coached by third-stringers and mercenaries. They are in a continuous state of argument about stolen money and political positions. Their best players have long lost faith in them, and make their living overseas. Their natural talent is stifled by the nonentities who lead them.

If we are not careful, our country will soon fail to qualify just as our football team did. We must stop revelling in non-news and arguing about non-issues every day. The real game is being played in other stadia, by people who have the right managers, the right knowhow, the right arguments and the right priorities.

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  • Moses Otieno

    Sunny, I have wanted to say this for a long time: many of your posts and articles on this website and the Sunday Nation appear to be very negative.
    I find many of them critical of Kenya, Kenyans and all things Kenyan. This has been the case since you started publishing your weekly article in the Sunday Nation.
    I know you mean well with whatever you write, but even the harshest criticism should be regularly tempered with encouragement and a way to right whatever wrongs that may exist.
    Case in point; in today’s article, you go ahead and lambast Kenyans for accepting mediocrity when they say that Harambee Stars were ‘plucky’ and did ‘manage to put up a good fight’.
    Yet the reality is that most of us accept that we are just not good at football. If we had qualified, well and good, but now that we have not, it’s good that we did the best that we could. Even when you consider that the footballing authorities are doing their best to take us backwards, you cannot escape the fact that you need more than just good organisation and funds to succeed in football. Think of Sweden and the Czech Republic who are considered great footballing nations yet they did not even qualify for the World Cup. Speaking of which, South Afica, (who will be hosting that tournament) are still stuck in mediocrity despite having spent millions in hiring the best coaches around.
    So my point is this, it is ok to be critical but don’t be such a pessimist. Offer hope and solutions to all that ails Kenya

  • Moses:

    Thanks for the challenge – appreciated.

    Negative – no. Provocative – yes. I am deliberately in the face of those who take us backwards, for they do not want to face the reality. And this is a country very good at not facing up to issues: I recall very well some CEOs I know playing golf when the country was up in flames last year!

    Let’s start with the football. Is it really just the case that we “just not good at football”, as you suggest? Have you forgotten that Kenya was once an African giant in the game? If we are useless now, it is not because of lack of talent: it is because we sit back and allow goons to administer the sport. I can accept Kenya not qualifying for the World Cup – but the Africa Cup of Nations?

    The same effect is mirrored in the economy. Did the figures I cited not cause you grief? That in terms of GDP per head we are below the average for Sub-Saharan Africa – which is itself the lowest in the world? That we are behind Chad? This is KENYA we are referring to, a country which was once one of the half-dozen African success stories.

    Look, there’s a reason for my “negativity”. If we refuse to accept how bad we have become, we are only going to go further down. I feel shame and even humiliation every day about the state of my country – that is why I am on a crusade to put it right. If we all shrug it off, who is going to put anything right? We could be so much better than this.

    I also think you do me an injustice when you say I have not offered hope and solutions. A trawl through this website’s archives should prove otherwise. I am a solution-seeker by profession, and do spend a lot of time thinking about what could be done. But first, we have to accept there’s a problem!

    Having said that, I accept your point about tempering the criticism. You may be relieved to know that I have been working on an end-of-year article about reasons to be hopeful in Kenya – coming soon.

    Thanks again.

  • james

    First of all i would like you to know that your column is one of the first ones i turn to when i get the sunday nation. I share your frustations especially about our corrupt and incompetent leadership. I feel you. Keep it up.

    But dont you think you were a tard too hard on the stars last sunday? Personally i think that despite the loss, the stars put up a spectacular performance. They made Nigeris look like underdogs. Before i proceed i want to invoke a disclaimer; i do not condone mediocrity, never have, never will. Consider this if you have a chance to replay the match;

    1.The referee was obviously biased in favour of Nigeria
    2.Kenya was blatantly denied a penalty
    3.At least one of Nigerias goals was questionably offside. The ref looked the other way.

    As i said i dont stand for mediocrity but lets give credit where its due, Our team actually surprised me with their game despite being coachless!

    The people you and me should continue bashing are our sick, incompetent politicians who have botched soccer in this country. Pray why did we have such a pathetic and expensive coach imposed on us? Outrageous!

    I long for the days circa 1987 when Kenya would stand up to soccer giants like cameroon, ivory coast. The days of Bob ogolla, Peter otieno dawo, Josphat mulamba, ayoyi etc.

    But then that was before our irritating politicians waded into soccer and murdered the sport.

    May God save us from the politics of this country.

  • Jacq W

    Oh my I love your articles and thanks for the stand you are taking. It’s true that in order for things to change we as a nation have to call bad – bad and praise the good that is just and moral. Carry on Sunny!

  • James:

    Thanks for the thoughtful input.

    I should explain: I was not being hard on Harambee Stars at all, nor was I commenting on that particular football match. I was attacking the system and leadership around the team, which is a shambles. And it has consequences – we cannot now even qualify for African tourneys.

    Equally, Kenya is slowly slipping down many economic rankings, unnoticed by most of us. That is what we have to wake up to as a country, and the more people that make noise about it the better…