Depoliticising the Kenyan mind – A quest for relevance

If we are not ready to look at our realities and take bold courageous steps, we can prepare to activate the secession clause in the Constitution through county assemblies

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By Kenyatta Otieno

Ngugi wa Thiong’o realised late in life that dropping the name James was not enough in his attempt to break the chains of mental colonisation. In his book Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi tells the world that he will not write in English again.

Ngugi was talking about Africans (writers) clearing their minds and worldview of biases of Western culture. I will shift his view to Western democracy as prescribed by the West, to emerging African states. From what is happening in Kenya, democracy is a necessary evil at its best and a tolerable one at its worst. Didn’t someone say that democracy is the best of the worst forms of government? We can tweak our democracy to suit our reality if we are still interested in project Kenya.

The Jomo Kenyatta government, in an attempt to empower locals economically after independence, promoted the jua kali sector at the expense of some multinationals. The majority of Kenyans operate in the informal sector where they are exposed to direct local and international economic forces. I can say from experience that since May this year, things have been tough. Looking at the drama going on between the Executive and Judiciary on one side, and IEBC and Opposition on the other, we are in for lean times for some months to come.

As I write this, nurses have been on strike for over three months. Patients with no means of accessing private health care are dying in public hospitals but no one will give us that number of those who have died. Yet on the other side, all we are hearing from the government is that there is no vacuum even as the circus gets crazy going into the October presidential election re-run. In fact, mid last month, during negotiations, the Salaries and Remuneration Commission had the nerve to classify nursing as an “unskilled” profession. The voter might be at the centre of an election but not the centre of political interest.

Informal figures put the cost of the August 8, elections at 55 billion. Following the fresh election ordered by the Supreme Court, the IEBC sought some Sh10 billion that was recently approved by Cabinet. But, for argument’s sake, let us work with 55 billion, which is equal to the amount allocated to free primary education and free day secondary education in the 2017-18 Financial Year. I am sure if that amount of money landed in the hands of a private entity, they would do a better job and still make a huge profit out of it. IEBC has put the country on the edge of a cliff after throwing away 55 billion shillings.

Kenya is ever in a perpetual election mode; the end of one election is the beginning of the next campaigns. Whenever we enter an election year, everything stops. Social functions are put off, travelling plans are shelved and expatriates leave as everyone else converges on social media to spew hate. The posts on social media and the responses they attract call for a psychiatric review of our mental health as a society. We went into the election preaching peace at all cost and we walked out with calls for secession. No matter how you look at it, we got our peace but lost the soul of our country.

Looking at our elections from the monetary cost, loss of business and emotional cost makes it too costly for a developing nation. Then look at the quality of leaders who come out of such an expensive process. The leaders we get cannot transform our health sector and pull us out of our international debt quagmire.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s lawyer, Fred Ngatia, in the recently concluded presidential petition captured this very well. He painted a picture of reality where Kenya cannot be in an election mode throughout. He said in court that his client has offered a hand of fellowship to the petitioner to form an inclusive government. According to Ngatia, as much as this may not be legal, it is reality that can be made to look like we are advancing the rule of law. I agree with him on the reality of our situation but not on an inclusive government. We had it in 2008 and it is not sustainable.

In his opening remarks, Ngugi says that the study of African realities has for too long been seen in terms of tribes but he ends up putting imperialism high up the list of African problems. I agree with him because I cannot write about Kenyan politics without cascading down into tribal rivalry, yet the problem is far off from tribe. The interest Kenyan elections attract from countries and organisations in the West cannot rule out interference from these powerful countries.

For instance, these “development partners” have been funding IEBC and other governance initiatives, which make them stakeholders. African leaders crave the approval of Washington, London and Brussels, which comes with aid and grants. Kenya is definitely more important to them than it is to the average Kenyan voter. The last part of his book is composed of essays on A Quest for Relevance. He tells Africans to go for literary works that are relevant to our history and reality.

Looking at our politics and general elections, you cannot rule out the need to depoliticise the Kenyan mind. Our democracy is not relevant to our reality. The success of any idea, venture or course is always pegged on its relevance to realities of the society where it seeks to establish itself. The trajectory that our politics is taking is pointing to one direction – a tipping point. The uncertainty of our polarised environment just needs a few mad men and the country will topple over.

Someone mentioned to me that every society goes through these phases in social and political development. According to him, we are doing just fine, may be better than many African countries. But at what cost can we as a society bear that cost? Life is about figures and it is about time we looked at our bottom line and highlighted the cost of our politics in it. No tangible development can grow in such high-strung political setting.

Immediately results were announced, some went to court, others defected to other parties and I am sure others are licking their wounds in preparation for another contest. Meanwhile Uhuru Kenyatta’s team is up in arms against the Judiciary. We must build trust so that people can have faith that they can lose fairly at an affordable cost.

Depoliticising the Mind

At the centre of our high stakes politics are a group of Kalenjin and Kikuyu elite currently behind Uhuru Kenyatta on one side and a conglomerate of elites of other communities coalescing around Raila Odinga. Every political stand in Kenya revolves around these two centres and the Kenyatta and Odinga dynasties have held us hostage since independence, except during Moi’s rule. The irony is we are in love with it in a typical case of Stockholm Syndrome.

The Kikuyu elite vowed never to let power slip from their hands again. Raila has never given up on his quest to wrestle power from them. After the 2008 post election violence it seems the people behind the Kenyan throne made sure the Kalenjin would never support Raila again. Even after eating up a good chunk of his 2007 support base, Raila is still good at consolidating the masses that feel left out from the centre of power. The Kalenjin had Moi as president for 24 years while Kikuyus in Jomo, Kibaki and Uhuru have had it for 30 years.

In Kenya, even after the 2010 Constitution gave us devolution, the presidency still controls a big part of national budget. Out of our 1.4 trillion budget, about Sh300 billion goes to the 47 counties. This budget means that the person in power and his cronies determine who gets to manage these funds and who gets the lucrative tenders from 80% of government budget. This has a trickle-down effect as the people with access to government coffers invest in their home areas and employ their tribesmen to manage their investments. Devolution looks like an answer but it will take a long time before it solves the interest that the presidency attracts.

One thing I know will depoliticise our politics is ending corruption. If the stipulated income for elected leaders and political appointees remains the only income available, political power will not be lucrative. The problem is that corruption needs favourable tribesmen in the right positions, which means more funds for campaigns thus contributing to raising political temperatures.

My take is that we let Raila win and serve for only one term. The calls for secession stem from the belief that, apart from Raila, no one else can wrestle power from the Kalenjin-Kikuyu coalition. A Raila presidency gives as a chance to send the Odinga and Kenyatta dynasties into their political sunsets, and take care of the past injustices. We can then change the Constitution to make the presidency a rotational, one seven-year term. The rest of the seats can retain the five-year term. This also means we separate presidential elections from the other seats, so IEBC will have all the time to focus on one election, and therefore minimise mistakes that often lead to irregularities.

If we are not ready to look at our realities and take bold courageous steps, we can prepare to activate the secession clause in the Constitution through county assemblies. We can only thank God the drafters gave us a window that will save us from the known bloody path to separation and self-determination. No one can have his cake and eat it.

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