After the glamour of the White House came the harsh reality of JKIA
This week I can reveal some of the things that happened behind the scenes during the recent presidential state visit to the USA. Did you know that long before our President and his entourage arrived at Washington airport, Kenyan security personnel had arrived as an advance party to sort out the security arrangements? Our boys literally took over the airport, resplendent in their black suits and dark sunglasses. America’s security forces bowed to the superior knowledge and expertise of Kenya’s highly trained, world-renowned professionals, and handed over all responsibility to our men.
The Kenyan boys were amazing. They barked orders at everyone. They held up all departures and arrivals of planes to allow our President’s aircraft to land safely. They perched themselves on all vantage points to scrutinise the terrain. They patrolled the airport’s perimeter fence to monitor any suspicious activity. They bundled all journalists into a pen from where they could take pictures only under intense supervision. They had superbly trained Kenyan sniffer dogs with them, whose noses were unleashed on everything from TV cameras to luggage.
They left nothing to chance and trusted no one. Why, even senior FBI and police officers had their cars searched by our men. You can’t be too careful. But no-one was complaining: the Americans recognised that we are consummate security specialists, and that it was best to just let us get on with it.
Our President arrived bang on time, and after a curt and perfunctory nod at the various obsequious American dignitaries lined up to receive him, was whisked away in a huge motorcade to a secure location. We weren’t taking any chances – diplomatic pleasantries could wait. Oh, I wish you had been there: your Kenyan heart would have swelled with pride.
OK, let’s stop there. I’m kidding, of course. I’m deep in the land of fantasy. These events did not take place. Or did they?
If you were watching TV news this week, you will have seen that all of this did indeed happen. Except it happened in reverse. It is what took place when Mr. Colin Powell, American Secretary of State and one of the world’s Most Important Men, deigned to visit us here in Kenya to attend Sudanese peace talks.
We did indeed hand over our airport security to foreigners. We did allow ourselves to be treated, not like welcoming hosts, but like potential terrorists and assassins. We accepted that we are not worthy of trust. We agreed that we are not competent to manage our own security. We acknowledged America’s superiority in these matters. We acquiesced with a smile.
Did we feel the indignity? Not really. We seemed to all know our place in the world. We are either well-meaning buffoons, or untrustworthy delinquents. That is our only basis for engagement with America. We are tolerated, humoured, scrutinised and kept at bay. Any relationship with us must be on America’s terms. We are not even allowed the dignity of being the welcoming hosts on our own soil.
All of this came into sharp focus during Mr. Powell’s departure the following day. The vehicle carrying the stairway that connected to his plane’s door stalled after he had boarded, and could not be driven away from the aircraft. There it stood on the runway, the name of a Kenyan company on full display on its side, stubbornly refusing to move to allow the Secretary’s plane to take off. After much frantic but futile activity by mechanics and security agents, there was only one thing for it: push! Ha-ram-bee! Kenyans and Americans alike put their shoulders to the vehicle, and after much heaving, got it away from the plane. It was a comic-book scene.
The Americans finally left, having seen our incompetence at first hand. Note to the head of the Secretary’s security detail: next time, bring your own stairway, and a mechanic or two. You can never be too sure in these countries.
If you watched all of these events in deathly silence, as I did, you will know that we have a choice to make. We can either make up our minds to stand proud on this planet, or we can continue to be one of the world’s court jesters. We can either aim to be respected as an equal in world affairs, or we can continue to behave like the desperate rural relative looking for handouts. We can either adopt a new mindset, or continue with the narrow thinking that has blighted us for 40 years.
How to change the habits of decades? Everything begins and ends in the mind. The first step to doing anything is to believe you can do it. Self-belief is what we do not have, and what we are unable to teach our children. If every Kenyan could believe that he or she is as able as anyone in the world, we would have made a giant leap towards self-sufficiency and self-determination.
I will say it again: it all comes down to skills and competence. We must become extremely good at the things we do. We must emphasise knowledge and education above all else. We must build ability and proficiency patiently and painstakingly. We must encourage original thinking and homegrown solutions. We must stop aping and mimicking.
For that we need teachers and equipment. We require research institutions with adequate budgets. We want world-class academics and professors. We need to invest in computers and laboratories. We must build the capacity to invent and innovate.
Then, after 10 years, we may produce a generation of teenagers with the confidence to take on the best on the globe. After 20 years we may produce writers who can grab the attention of the world. After 30 years we may produce scientists who make major breakthroughs and advance the frontiers of knowledge. After 40 years we may stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s leading countries, not on bended knee.
All of that requires leadership. If our leaders behave like supplicants, so will we. If our leaders tell us that there is no option for us but to be followers and ‘me-too’ specialists, then that is what we will be.
But if our leaders tell us to believe in ourselves, we may start to listen. If they put our meagre resources into education and capacity building rather than empty luxury, we may get some encouragement. If they set the personal example of managing their ministries with efficiency and innovation, we may sit up and take notice. If they invest our resources instead of pocketing them, we may think we have a chance. If they emphasise quiet hard work and dedication over showy performances for the TV cameras, we may stand up and applaud.
If they took their eyes away from politics and deceptions for just a moment, and looked to the future of this country, they might just see how long and arduous the road ahead is. But a glittering prize lies at the end of it. They must take us there.