Wednesday, March 16, 2005

They want to sell us cheap Cell Phones, we want cheap cell phone services, what's the problem?

How Long will it take to reinstate local and foreign investor confidence... very
necessary for the benefit of Kenyan consumers whose need for more affordable
telecommunication services, seems to be obvious to all but the Minister incharge
of Telecommunications

By Martin Mbugua Kimani

So much for the younger generation of politicians offering Kenyans more hope than the dinosaurs frequently derided for driving Kenya deeper into poverty and insecurity.
Last week, Information and Communications Minister Raphael Tuju acted on behalf of the government in dissolving the board of the Communications Commission of Kenya.
A reform-minded CCK, which by law is an independent regulator whose director-general has tenure of office, has been a thorn in the government’s flesh for the past couple of years.
Last November, Tuju, acting unlawfully, as was ruled by the High Court, cancelled a mobile-phone network licence awarded to Econet Wireless Kenya after it had paid $15 million for it.
Justice Mohammed Ibrahim in his ruling established that Tuju could not cancel a licence since it amounted to usurping CCK’s regulatory role.
This decision was the second by the High Court against Tuju, who had initially called off a tendering process for Kenya’s second fixed-line telephone operator.
IN MID-2003, a CCK manager, Frank Wangusi, led a successful raid on a multimillion-shilling telephone fraud ring operating in Lonrho House.
Following the foray, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kiraitu Murungi asked Wangusi and his fellow CCK managers to report on the extent of illegal international calling consortiums in Kenya.
The resulting report – backing up a similar effort submitted to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission – allegedly pointed to high-up officials in the Ministry of Transport and Communications. The then minister, John Michuki, reacted by calling for Wangusi’s firing.
So there you have it, the two generations: Tuju, the young reformer and Michuki the old: joined at the hip in arbitrariness and dubious decision-making. Increased competition in the telecommunications industry has meant lower phone and call costs for not only the 2.7 million subscribers but also the millions of neighbours, relatives and friends who rely on their lines.
When a relative uses a friend’s phone to text his daughter in Kampala to send more money for buying anti-retroviral medicine, it saves a life.
When a water-seller who operates from Kawangware is called to make a delivery in Dagoretti, it expands his business.
A young student surfs the Internet in search of opportunity and finds a scholarship to the US.
Few would argue that the impact of competition in Kenya’s telecom sector has not been unreservedly positive. Yet increasingly in this matter, as in others, the government acts as a block to the aspirations and hopes of the ordinary citizen.
Everyone in the Cabinet talks a good anti-corruption fight. But often, lurking behind their pronouncements is a strategy to corner one market or favour some cartel.
The promised half-a-million jobs will never be created outside of ghost workers on government payrolls.
GRAND CORRUPTION, as its many self-announced Cabinet opponents grandly call it, is here to stay. The long view is instructive: the Kenyan government has waged a war against hope, hard work and the liberty of millions of people for the past 100 years.
Whether it was the settler-dominated colonial state or the nationalist-talking postcolonial government, the drive has always been to centralise power and allow privileged minorities free rein to enrich themselves at the majority’s expense. State-owned enterprises have been used to extend patronage, if not to fellow settlers then to fellow tribesmen. The state-created and sustained elites have consistently sought to ensure that reforms issue from the centre where a close eye can be kept on them.
The government has quite simply been a vehicle of control, working to usurp local initiative and individual effort in favour of national projects that cater to the few. In the colonial era, it led to mass land grabs and pass laws limiting the free movement of labour. In "independent" Kenya, robbery is the name of the game, with the government operating as a vast get-richer-quicker scheme for the well-connected.
THE ACTIONS against the CCK are a continuation of the state elite’s desire to maintain control over the marketplace. This elite, despite its self-regard as a capitalist class, regards privatisation as an enemy unless it can rig the rules to benefit from it.
The CCK’s independence and determination to open up the telecommunications industry led to millions of dollars being invested by local and foreign companies. Over 100 companies waiting for the CCK to process their licences are now in a cold sweat knowing that the board’s dismissal will further complicate their aim to compete in the industry.
The jobs this would have brought, the cheaper prices and better service may as well be kissed goodbye.
Tuju’s action has endangered not only the future of one industry, but of any long-term investments countrywide. Local and foreign businesspeople will now pause before allocating any funds for Kenyan projects that require fixed assets and a multi-year commitment.
Promises of better performance by NARC have proven to be an illusion fed by its cosmetic changes to the same old way of doing business. It is now obvious that this government, like its predecessors, was never constructed to reflect the hopes and dreams of Kenyans. Thus stories of its criminality and greed are really signs of its success rather than failure.
FOR IT to work for Kenyans, it must fail to serve them. If the public wants this to happen, it should demand a massive privatisation and decentralisation campaign rather than asking for public services that never come.
The conclusion that the NARC government, and those that came before it, force on Kenyans is that liberalisation is indeed a necessary step to decolonisation. By dissolving the CCK board, it has acted against the opening of the economy to innovative ideas.

Martin Mbugua Kimani is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at the University of London, King’s College

Uhuru Ni Haki

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