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Investing in data could save Africa billions of dollars

This post was originally published on this site

By Emilly C. Maractho

As I write this week’s column, I am sitting at the beautiful Tamarind Tree hotel in Nairobi. Opposite the hotel is Wilson airport, where Kenyans say their Deputy President, Dr William Ruto has a fleet of private jets. 

The private jets, are nothing, compared to the rest of what Dr Ruto owns like hotels, land, they say.
The story allover is how wealthy Dr Ruto is. It is almost baffling to most Kenyans here, how much wealth and power he has. 

It is clear the UhuRuto love of 2013 is lost, judging by the debate on media. Some have called on the Deputy President to resign. At the centre of this call is a huge amount of money purportedly sent to Uganda, facilitated by our good friend, Dr Ruto.

Even then, driving to the hotel clearly shows, while the rest of us were in our houses due to Covid-19, Kenya was moving on amid the pandemic. So much has changed. Roads and flyovers are everywhere. Some Kenyans who have lived in Nairobi much of their lives say they now need google maps to drive in the city.

Yet, much of the discussion has been Dr Ruto. Of course, many say the deputy president is a man of high intellect, good courage and a shrewd businessman. It is thus possible to be so wealthy legitimately, hard as it may be to convince some Kenyans. 

Still, some Kenyans believe supporting him to win the presidency in next year’s election could guarantee them some personal wealth, how? I am not sure. 

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Back home in Uganda, the story making  rounds is Godfrey Oloya. After several weeks of vulnerable Ugandans waiting for government cash relief to support them during the second lockdown, we all watched an excited Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja speak to the first recipient, live on television. 

Having learnt their lessons during the first lockdown that delivering relief items to the vulnerable was not a small task, then brand-new Prime Minister Nabbanja decided cash transfer would be affordable, transparent and less prone to the corruption, claims that bedeviled the relief food delivery. It would be very quick too, and less costly.

Alas, it recently emerged that billions were used to execute the task that had been envisaged, would save tax payers a lot of money and benefit more people. 

It further emerged that the most celebrated first recipient of the Nabbanja cash, Oloya, was no bodaboda rider, but an assistant to the former mayor of Gulu. The mayor had also received the cash meant for the vulnerable, according to media reports. 

So why is it so hard to explain how one politician accumulates so much wealth in a country where most people generally hustle and tussle with life, and how a former mayor of Gulu City and his assistant got cash meant for the vulnerable during a pandemic that has seen most people lose their source of livelihoods? 

I know most people easily conclude, it is corruption, but the real issue could be a near absence of reliable data in most of Africa. That lack of reliable data in turn facilitates corruption.

Africa is a continent of diversity, yet its stories of governance and development are remarkably similar. 

Stories of corruption that seem to be cooked in the same pot, cut across from South Africa implicating wealthy business owners to the state, to Kenya where there is a never-ending stream of stories implicating those in power. 

The wastage of resources, the theft of critical resources meant for development by government officials at the local and central levels, the evaporation of projects with minimum intended outcomes, illicit financial flows and tax evasion by the rich, and so on, are all common place across the continent, with just notable exceptions.

People become bold to accumulate wealth from public resources because it is difficult to track where theses resources end up. Most wealth in much of Africa, is closely linked to power and politics. So is corruption.

Investment in data is going to be crucial. It is easy to appreciate how data poor we are, in a world that increasingly depends on data for decisions. 

The lack of reliable data is costing us a lot. It costs those with wealth their reputation, as people begin to assume that resources owned by an individual must be born of corruption, either by working for government or having direct links to those in power.

For that matter, people find wealth like that of Dr Ruto inexplicable and shocking in Africa. It costs poor people even more, as they are left out of programmes they should legitimately benefit from. Money some elderly person needs to survive on for a few more days, ends up with a political assistant like Oloya, probably involved in creating the list of beneficiaries or friends are. 

That is our real development dilemma, the lack of relevant, reliable data that helps us make sense of things. How do we ensure we have data that allows us to explain things and do the right thing?  

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at UCU.  [email protected]