Building Stadiums; Kwame Owino is wrong

Kwame Owino is a good economist, no doubt about that. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t be the CEO of Institute of Economic Affairs – Kenya. I don’t have a problem with his credentials, but I have a problem with how he recently went into thinking too much about economics. Economics like all sciences that rely on figures and data, is only as good as the interpretation. On the five stadiums Jubilee Government promised, Kwame is trying to massage facts to go deep into his imagination.

Tomorrow, the Nairobi Derby is on at Nyayo Stadium. Perennial rivals AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia are meeting for their first leg match. For the past two weeks, the match has been in limbo. Initially it was meant to be played at Nakuru’s Afraha Stadium but KPL ruled that the facility was not fit to host such a high risk match. We have one world class stadium in Kenya at Kasarani; the other (Nyayo Stadium) can be described as a concrete bowl. The two are under renovation so KPL was contemplating putting off the match until later in the year. Imagine a country like Kenya lacking a stadium to stage the local derby yet we hope to host CHAN in 2018.

If we are to subject everything we do to economic evaluation, we won’t have justification for doing half of the things we do. Take spending money on weddings and funerals. How do we justify raising millions of shillings to send off a close friend or relative? We all know that a few months after the burial, we will be moving on with our lives without the money and our loved one. Why do we bother with weddings (even a 100/- one) when we know that a wedding is not a precursor to or indicator of- a happy marriage? Some things in life beat economics, and a stadium is one of them.

The world over, Kenya is known for two things; wild life and sports especially middle and long distance running. Brazil is known for their Samba Carnival, football and volleyball just like Egypt is known for the great pyramids. These are low lying fruits for these countries in terms of international branding. It doesn’t take economics to teach you that if you are good at something you must let the world know about it. There are only two outcomes, you may make money out of it, or walk away with pride and courage that you can conquer the world to do other things.

Kenya as a sporting nation has never made an initiative to build its own stadium. Nyayo Stadium was a bribe from Americans for us to boycott 1980 Moscow Olympics. Kasarani was a ‘grant’ from the Chinese to enable host the All African Games in 1987. The world may marvel at Collins Injera and Humphrey Khayange’s athleticism in Sevens Rugby, but I am sure if they went and saw Nairobi Railway Club where the brothers train with Mwamba RFC, they will be shocked and respect them more. We are treating our athletes who bring us honour in the world stage with contempt they don’t deserve.

So Kwame is happy the government did not bother to borrow money to build stadiums yet we have an SGR that our grandchildren will pay for built by borrowed money from China. There are roads in this country that have been tarmacked for aesthetic purposes; they make no economic sense at all except that once in a while a vehicle uses it to get to its destination faster. The rationale behind these infrastructure projects is that they will open up the areas for investments. Why are we building Isiolo Airport when everybody knows that Eldoret Airport is a few flights a day away from being a white elephant and Kisumu Airport does not operate at night?

Given, the World Cup and Olympic Stadiums in Brazil are white elephants at least for now. The Birds Nest Complex in Beijing may not be doing much either, but what does Kenya have? The devil is in the details, Brazil has a host of football clubs, the government can hand over these centres to clubs. I believe the problem lies in the bureaucratic systems of governments and not the stadiums.

Look at Kasarani for instance. It has a three or four star hotel just across Safari Park Hotel. There is no hotel on the Nairobi Side of Thika Highway that can match the Kasarani hotel in terms of facilities. The problem is the services rendered at that facility. What if the Sports Kenya upgraded the services to Safari Park standards? With a jogging track and an Olympic size swimming pool nearby people may just cross over from Safari Park for affordable but better if not equal service. The National Prayer Breakfast can be held there.

Look at Nyayo Stadium; it has office space that is rented out to the public. It has two restaurants and people park there too during the week. This clearly shows that a stadium does not have to be a white elephant. Nairobi West next door is a 24 hour bee hive. Some of that traffic can find space at Nyayo Stadium; someone just needs to think a little less than Kwame Owino. Very many services can be offered within the premises, only the playing field can be left as sacred. 

Maracana in Brazil is like a shrine in the football mad country. Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona like Amahoro Stadium in Kigali is more than a football ground. The Catalans view Camp Nou as a symbol of their resistance to the draconian rule of Dictator Franco. Many Rwandese survived the 1994 genocide by running into the UN protected Amahoro Stadium. To them, like the Catalans’ “more than a club” call on FC Barcelona, the stadium is more than a football ground.

Culture can also be deduced as what people do in their free time. Kenyans at the moment can be termed as a drinking nation; we never miss an opportunity to drink to our triumphs and sorrows. Yes, stadiums may not make immediate economic sense, but their aesthetic value goes beyond the balance sheet pegged on them. They can be the beginning to a cultural revolution in Kenya.

I hope people at the Ministry of Planning did not read Kwame Owino’s blog, if they did it is my prayer that they can see beyond Kwame’s obsession with unrealistic economics. There is more to stadiums than the cost of construction and operations.

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