The politics of burning bridges

The politics of burning bridges

BBI may succeed in creating a recalibration of our democracy, but not – never – a realignment

By Kevin Motaroki

The last time democracy almost died in Kenya, when Daniel Moi was President, heroes of the Second Liberation did not argue about it or call political rallies to tell the masses what, in their view, was wrong. They set about fixing it – with blood and sweat, with cerebral politics and ideology, with grit and determination not witnessed before then – or since. In Parliament, legislators with balls of steel defied the deity that was Moi. In the streets, and in Nyayo House, some had those balls bludgeoned and squeezed. They stayed put. They bickered with the state, and they hollered. And then they made a law to replace one-party “democracy” with multipartysm.

In the 1990s, you could count on politicians in the opposition to oppose; in the 2020’s they have listened to their handshaking generals and belted out a new tune faster than you can say “I don’t believe it!” It is a conundrum of the ages.

When Uhuru shook hands with Raila in 2018, they promised that stopping the bickering “would make Kenya safer”, the economy would grow wealthier, and things would generally look up. And things did look up, for a few months anyway, before Kenyans realised that, that was because they were no longer being told about billion-shilling scandals, which now happened quietly. As a cabinet secretary once whispered to another at the Norfolk one evening in July 2018, even those in government were in disbelief that no one was talking about the money being quietly siphoned out.

Today, the Kenyan nation-state staggers – weakened by corruption, monopoly of power and opportunities, citizen apathy, social and economic inequalities, political subjugation, ethnic imbalances, and injustices, skyrocketing unemployment and general despondency.

Yet, we shouldn’t be shocked, for there is nothing complicated about our politics; it is driven by a bunch of liars, thieves and manipulators.

While “Building Bridges” is an acceptable alternative to the tension the country witnessed following the 2017 elections, it is the biggest disaster in the history of all that is people-sanctioned. Constitutionally, too, it is questionable, for it is a roundabout way of changing the law without the exacting process prescribed in Articles 255-258. Senior Counsel Ahmednasir Abdullahi opines thus on the political circus we have witnessed in recent times:

“…[Issues] now championed by the BBI document do not require a constitutional amendment…They can all be addressed through departmental policy papers…”

Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy and its ideals as bearing witness to its demolition. We are in a period of tremendous national turmoil. Not against what will be a decade in 2022 of Jubilee’s plunder and blunders, but about who takes the mantle from Uhuru Kenyatta, under a new configuration, about who makes the rules and stays above them, about what new political culture to entrench, and whom those policies benefit.

Events succeeding the handshake are rather monumental in bringing to the forefront just how divided politics in Kenya really is and how elusive “common ground” is. With self-constructed ego chambers for both beneficiaries and losers – perceived and real for both – enveloping everything from social interactions, [acquired] political ideologies and even political friendships, it seems harder than ever to take a genuine interest in what the other side has to say. It is angry chants all round. And angry chants are the hallmark of the Kenyan political protest.

In the intervening time, a growing number of political players — including those who have hitherto supported the President as zealously as they have opposed the former prime minister —have become disillusioned with what they see as state agenda to impose predetermined outcomes on Kenyans.

Far from the sycophantic plaudits of the ‘bridge’ built between government and opposition, the state of affairs today, where the president appears to be more in tune with Mr Odinga than with his own Deputy and members of his Jubilee party – lead one to wonder about the unity of government.

Ongoing BBI popularisation rallies – of the contents of a document no one seems to oppose – have bred a climate of narrow-minded fanaticism that points to a hidden, insidious plan to preserve the status quo of Kenya at Independence and, in the process, exposed a political elite lost in its own utopia, unwilling to cross over from their Canaan to have a taste of what it is like to live a life of want and desperation. At the centre of this is a political culture of intolerance presided over by the President himself.
In an insightful piece published in The Elephant, Akoko Aketch contends that the BBI exercise is a crisis of how the long-standing beneficiaries of the political establishment—a distinctly Gikuyu elite—can reproduce their domination “after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record, and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to this elite’s interests.” He submits that the “BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.” Dr Wandia Njoya, in an article in The Elephant as well, summarised the report as a “declaration of war by the political class against the people of Kenya”.

Looked at this way, as Ngala Chome writes, the truce between Uhuru and Raila was, in actual sense, a clever ploy to hijack a systemic transformation in Kenya’s politics, to restore and perpetuate the status-quo instead. The BBI is the appointed “special purpose vehicle” for this vile mission.
Riding on the BBI wave, the establishment seems bent not only on burning bridges with old allies, but – informally, and with unabashed forwardness – with the Kenyan citizenry as well.

Be outraged

In 2017, Providence gave Siaya Senator James Orengo, standing on a Point of Order, a prophecy. At the time, Jubilee legislators had tabled a contentious Election Laws (Amendment) Bill that the opposition was opposed to. Speaking to Leader of Majority, Kipchumba Murkomen, who was championing its passage in the Senate, Orengo said:

Sometimes revolutions eat their own children, governments eat their own people, and this government is going to punish you more than they will punish me. I’m telling you… in another one year, you will be crying in my office for me to come and represent you. I know, I can tell…”

But people with extreme alliance tendencies have trouble thinking about their own thinking, and the legislator and others, snug in the shadow of an all-powerful government as their benefactor, took no notice. Today, Murkomen, under the guise of freedom of speech, is one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s fiercest critics – of course, only to the extent that Kenyatta continues to “embarrass and side-line” Murkomen’s political godfather, William Ruto.

Alas, Orengo’s prophecy is not just about Murkomen and his ilk; the bad times are here for the majority of Kenyans – an economy on its knees that cannot produce jobs, let alone sustain them and endemic corruption that continues to sap what is left of our dwindling support systems. Everything else that could go wrong, if we are to believe Murphy, either has already or promises to.

Yet, the institutions with which we have entrusted with our fate will not save us. The Judiciary has collapsed unnoticed. The capture of other institutions, including Parliament and Civil Society, happened early on, by individuals in government who were once scions of political reform. Kenya, under Uhuru, in the five years of his first term, has undone a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.

If we believe what the establishment is telling us about itself and its inability to think of what it calls “the ordinary citizen”, including blaming the electorate for its own blunders, then we must allow ourselves to be outraged.

In a way, anger is what has got us this far – for better and for worse.
“A free society is a passionate society,” says Daniel Wirls, a professor of politics of the University of California Santa Cruz politics, in a session to discuss the role rage and hostility plays in the political process.

For Wirls and others, the ideal political system is structured in a way that anger can be effectively channelled. In other words, people need to feel their vote produces something and their voice is worth something. For as long as most can remember, this has never been the case for Kenya. We exist in a variant of capitalism that is incompatible with democracy.
There is not a lot of faith in the political system for the majority of Kenyans who speak through media, online platforms and in social settings. Why? Because the political system is unable – or unwilling – to address the economic precarity everyone faces today. If this is the case, anger is the one tool left that can communicate injustice and inequality, to reveal problems impacting society.

And Kenyans have spoken in great lengths, to express their displeasure with all that is wrong with a glorified political process at a time when economic, social and health scares should take precedence. The result is a legitimacy crisis that has fanned cynicism, resignation and withdrawal.
At BBI rallies, instances of crowds taking sides with the underdogs of the process, those that the President has criticised, side-lined or altogether ignored, are rising. In a rally in Meru in February, on a stroke of protocol woe, Raila Odinga addressed a half-empty stadium after his political subordinates in Moses Kuria and Kipchumba Murkomen – the two are friendly to the Deputy President – had received acclaim from a packed rally – attendees proceeded to walk out once the two left.

The idea that Uhuru Kenyatta could remain in power, whether as prime minister or clerk, past his two-term limit is an insult to our constitutional ideals, and insults the intelligence of the Kenyan people. It is an idea that would destroy what patience limits Kenyans have been able to exercise until this point. If we allow it, we are complicit in the devious plan to privatise our country by becoming willing tenants in place of shareholders.
The idea of a three-tier government, which is just another way of expressing the need a new avenue to steal – at a time when hundreds upon hundreds of billions of public money is in the pockets of a handful of individuals – should have been dead on arrival. Yet, somehow, it continues to be mentioned, louder every succeeding time.

Despite expressing regret at the turn of events, Kenyans have been slow in mustering sufficient rage at these atrocities because they are bamboozled with the gospel of choosing a lesser evil (Uhuru and Raila) over a ‘viler’ one (William Ruto), which is what fuels the brazenness of the proponents of the shameless provisions in BBI.

Sporadic instances of anger mark and define important events in the history of our young nation. We must learn to recall and claim that right, for that is the only way we can stand up to the lies churned and dreamt up by politicians. Kenyans must, when the referendum is forced upon them, begin to express and exercise their anger by putting themselves above politicians for once.

To quote Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, political problems are not external forces beyond our control; they are forces within our control. We just need to make up our own minds to act. We need to be angry enough.

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