Misplaced priorities: Another of our unique problems

Society loses the plot where its derision for the important ends and love for the trivial begins, in a never-ending cycle of twisted priorities

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By every estimation, the launch of the new Jubilee Party was a lavish affair.
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By Kevin Motaroki

For some reason or the other, walking in Nairobi’s streets can be as dangerous as it is uplifting. On one hand, it is as healthy as exercises go. On the other, one has got unpredictable, less-than-vigilant drivers and cyclists to contend with, muggers, and the whole range of unpleasantness the city has got to offer.

But between sifting through submitted articles, planning for press and conducting interviews for assigned stories, I find that walking the six odd kilometres between work and the place I call home helps me clear my head and think through ideas. Well, that and the unpleasant idea of sitting for hours on end in traffic.

It is during one of these walkscapedes that I witnessed one of the more flowery incidents I have seen this year. At the junction of Uhuru Highway and Haile Selassie Avenue, a contingent of heavily armed GSU officers had given the regular cops a break and taken over controlling traffic. Naturally, my interest was pique and I stopped to watch.

There were about a dozen of them, all dark-goggled and lustfully fondling the trigger housings of their rifles, stationed strategically about, on the sides of the road and in between vehicles. Two particularly zealous ones were furiously waving their batons, urging drivers on the two inner lanes to proceed. Their convoy, as it would later emerge, was stuck some way back. They very nearly smashed the windshield of a driver who made the unwise decision of switching lanes.

Displaced from their day jobs, the traffic police took to offering vague assessments to the crowds that had now gathered on both sides of the road, just why the GSU commandos could have taken over (they hadn’t been informed why they were being temporarily replaced). One could easily tell the “traffic marshals” had deep admiration from the way they spoke of the now street-strutting commandos.

By this time, the sound of sirens had got nearer, and the flickering blue and red lights could be seen dancing above other vehicles in the distance. At this point, some in the crowd were taking videos, and this seemed to animate the other personnel, who now took to prancing on the tarmac and issuing incoherent commands to immobile drivers. They wielded their batons menacingly and told everyone to be still. At this point, one of the boys in blue made it his duty to control a crowd that had already complied with the orders given. Expectation was palpable.

As the first cruiser approached the roundabout, some officers jumped on the still-moving vehicle before the driver made a dramatic swerve to some wild applaud from the crowd. The same thing happened with the second cruiser. Two trailers followed, punctuated by what looked like an ambulance; two other cruisers completed the convoy.

As the party made its way onwards to Haile Selassie before making the turn towards Parliament, one traffic cop, suddenly remembering he was a police officer again, draw caught the attention of many when he quipped that what the two 40-foot containers held was money in hard currency. The veracity of his statement is up for debate but it was quite clear that whatever was being escorted was extremely valuable to warrant such protocol.

As I made my way home that evening, I was full of admiration for the zeal with which the troopers had conducted their clandestine assignment. Instead of blaring their sirens and sitting it out as they waited for traffic to open up, they had gone ahead to facilitate their progress by letting the officers manning traffic just how important their duty was, and why everything else had to stop while they completed their mission.

And afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking that if we had half the enthusiasm those men had, in most of what we do, there is very little we couldn’t achieve.

I read somewhere that American educator, writer, orator – and advisor to presidents of the United States – Booker T. Washington, who authored Up From Slavery, once travelled 1,000 miles one way by train to Atlanta to speak to a predominately white audience for just five minutes. It was supposed to be a catered-for event, but he even paid his own fare. Why, you wonder? He felt so passionately about breaking down racial barriers following the Civil War, and had no regrets doing everything he could to deliver that all-important message.

Recently, about a dozen parties folded to form what is now known as the Jubilee Party. By any measurement or estimation, its launch was a grand event. There are allegations that more than a billion shillings were spent on the occasion, and this is not counting the money spent on the land and building of their new offices in Pangani. Not willing to be left out, the Opposition made attempts to match the Jubilee event with one of their own in Mombasa, to commemorate 10 years since the formation of the Orange Democratic Movement.

The focus here is not the amount of resources mobilised for the two events, part of which reportedly came from both the national and Mombasa county governments; rather it is the level of commitment and enthusiasm that went into their preparation. Nothing was left to chance, from accommodating the delegates to getting live television coverage, to securing the venues and providing security for the duration of the activities.

Things have happened in the country in recent years, the magnitude of which has not caused government enough worry to act with the same fervour seen at the Jubilee convention, for instance, and one could be forgiven for thinking this has to do with the fact that the State is either complicit or uncaring. Grand corruption, flooding occasioned by poor urban planning and building on riparian zones, lack of proper housing, non-existent public sanitation – anyone remember Nairobi River? – and famines, among others, come to mind.

Even where government has undertaken to initiate and fund projects, it has been difficult to justify the use of public money on investments. A few years ago, government promised to make the country food secure through the one million Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme. Through utilising the water from the Tana, Kenyans were promised food more than they could eat in a year. Billions of shillings and many false promises and three years later, there are no photos of healthy, happy families from the country’s most vulnerable regions. What is more, when media asked to see proof of the existence of the project, reporters were met with extreme brutality.

Some years back, a cabinet meeting decided that our rainforest cover had dangerously been encroached upon, and that communities would be barred from accessing this valueless resource. On international forums, government officials made promises and signed ratifying documents to support global efforts to save the world from global warming, and undo the effects of bad environmental decisions.

Today, government has announced plans to reintroduce the Masai back into the Mau Forest, ostensibly to pacify them because members of the Kalenjin community were sneaked back in at some point. Even a dimwit will easily understand that politics is the motivation, and that as soon as the polls close next year, efforts will be renewed to take them out of the Mau. The sad reality is that extensive damage will have been done already.

In handling serious national issues, Kenyans must have noticed the casualness with which certain matters have been handled. These include the Eurobond and electoral reforms, for which politically motivated concessions, which in no way promote transparency or accountability, have been made. The things that we now occupy ourselves with, so peripheral in their importance and so undeserving of attention as to be trivial – in no little part aided by media – are often at the expense of more deserving matters.

Which is why we have an anti-corruption agency full of questionable characters but choose to look the other way, because they are our friends. Which is why ministry officials can divert money meant for athletes and still stay in office. Which is why an official can escape prosecution, because they once took a photo with the president. And which is why Parliament can ignore audit queries in the manner of expending as long as they get their guzzlers fuelled free for a couple of months.

Until we get our priorities aligned with our aspirations, we may as well forget making any appreciable progress; we will be like dogs chasing their own shadows.

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