Interview: President Uhuru Kenyatta

What do you see as the single biggest priority for Kenya over the next 12 months?

UHURU KENYATTA: We’ve laid a very firm foundation for the country’s development. For example, we expect the Standard-Gauge Railway to reach Nairobi by June 2017, we have connected nine in 10 of Kenya’s primary schools to the grid and we will more than double our geothermal power by 2022.

That said, we must also lower the cost of living for Kenyans, so that all of us can make the most out of the new infrastructure. This will be achieved through a number of processes. I would like to highlight the importance of automation and digitisation, right across the board. For example, we are digitising our land registries, which means far quicker land transactions. Equally important, we are cutting the time it takes to register a business, just as we have made it far easier to get a connection to electricity, and so on. These reforms saw us climb 21 places in the latest World Bank ease of doing business index.

Making it easier for business means sharper competition, and a better, cheaper deal for Kenyans. That is the challenge, and it is one which we are well on the way to meeting.

I know you asked for my single biggest priority, and bringing down the cost of living certainly qualifies. However, I think there is a second item, of such high priority that it cannot go unmentioned. That, of course, is industrialisation, and the jobs we expect to follow — especially for our young people.

We know that the work of Kenyans is as good as anything that foreigners produce. We know that Kenyans, given the chance, are the equal of anyone when it comes to making the industrial goods, and learning the techniques upon which so much of the modern world relies. That ability and education is proof of the wisdom of our predecessors’ investment in education for Kenyans. But it also shows the importance of the investments we are making in bringing Kenya’s education systems up to standard. If we can make sure that every Kenyan gets a world-class education — an education that puts them on equal footing with anyone in the world — then we can be sure that we have met the first and most basic requirement for industrialisation.

It ought not be thought that this emphasis on industrialisation is new. Kenya is no stranger to making goods that find markets in the region and across the world. But over the years, we have allowed some of our industries — the plants, as well as the knowledge and skills which supported them — to fall into disrepair. One of the things we’ve worked hard at is reviving them whenever we can. I expect to commission the first phase of the revived Pan Paper Mills Plant before the end of January 2017. Throughout 2017 we will be working on a number of revival projects, to make sure that we build our industrialisation on the firmest of bases — the skills, the knowledge and the infrastructure that we already possess. I think it fair to say that in 2017 we expect to implement more industrial policy. The early signs are promising: Volkswagen will begin to assemble cars right here in Kenya, and we expect other industrial opportunities to open up over the course of 2017.

What have been the biggest challenges so far in executing the devolution process?

KENYATTA: Devolution is an exciting journey. This is the most extensive change in Kenya’s governance structure since independence. It’s exciting to be charged with the responsibility of making it work.

That said, there have been challenges. It is important to build the capacity of our counties. The government has transferred skilled personnel to the counties, but we need to do more to make sure that the new counties are able to use their new resources wisely, and that they serve the people with the speed and efficiency that Kenyans deserve and is their right.

How can cooperation between the national government and the counties be improved?

KENYATTA: We already have established very good relations between the national government and the counties; indeed, we have regularly scheduled meetings with the governors, where we consider the state of devolution together.

It is sometimes forgotten that although the Transition Authority, which oversaw the early work of devolution, is no longer with us, inter-governmental relations are now as good as they have ever been.

The division of revenue is now entrenched, and in every year since my administration came to power, we have allocated far more than the constitutional minimum to the counties. The equalisation fund — established in the constitution to direct extra resources to the parts of the country that require them — is now up and running. None of this is to say that we cannot do better. The national government and the counties need to more to closely align their development priorities. We also need, as I have already mentioned, to improve the management of public finances, especially in the counties. There is also room for improvement in the planning, budgeting and spending processes.

How can the EAC work to improve economic integration further?

KENYATTA: I’m delighted by the progress that we have made in bringing the people of East Africa closer together. But, yes, we need to raise our game.

As I see it, the key to closer and deeper integration is infrastructure. Integration is about bringing people together and that will not happen unless East Africans have the roads and rail — the whole apparatus of transport — they need to move across the region, and to bring their goods and services to everyone who is willing to take them. That is why I am so encouraged by the close cooperation between the countries of this region in building the infrastructure that will bring us all together. Actually, a few weeks ago when President John Magufuli of Tanzania was here, he graciously accepted our invitation to formally open the Southern Bypass. In my speech that day, I paused to remember the new roads connecting Kenya and Tanzania: the Arusha-Holili-Taveta-Voi Highway, the Arusha-Namanga-Athi River road and a number of others. This is the way to build integration: by connecting our countries and our people.

What is Kenya doing to help address insecurity in the Horn of Africa?

KENYATTA: Insecurity continues to trouble some parts of the region, but I won’t allow for it to be forgotten that the region as a whole is rising. Governments are working to improve the lives of their people, open up trade, become more responsive to their peoples and secure the security and stability that will allow their work to succeed.

Kenya’s part in this is clear. We support multi-lateral engagement, so long as it serves the interests of the peoples of the region. We are happy to work together with continental organisations, which tend to have a closer understanding of the needs, interests and hopes of this part of Africa. We believe that African problems are generally better solved by Africans themselves. But, we also live in a world where the threats to our security cross borders as well as continents. We fully appreciate that it is in our common interest to fight common threats. That is why we have not limited our engagement to continental or regional organisations, but have worked with the UN, and other partners and friends outside Africa. But if I may be direct: our guiding principle is that this region deserves peace, so that the talents of its people can find full expression. Our means to that end will vary, given our interests and changing circumstances, but that is our basic principle.