Raising the bar for politicians
As the government passes its half-way mark in office, we can all be sure of one thing: we’re in for two-and-a-half years of high-decibel campaigning and low-principle scheming. Money will undoubtedly start to flow now: roads, clinics and schools will begin to emerge as judgement day starts to loom on the horizon. Equally, the number of night-time meetings in shady rendezvous will shoot up, as dodgy deals are done and unlikely alliances are formed.
We could all be forgiven for yawning and turning the other way. Is it even relevant, you might ask, which bunch of rascals and underachievers are in power? Why should we even care, pay attention, discuss the candidates, get out to vote? After the letdowns and reversals we have faced, surely we should all just get on with better things rather than pay any attention to politics?
Pay attention we must. This column may have argued on many a Sunday that real change will come from individuals; that personal values drive development; and that our destiny is in our own hands. But there is no gainsaying the fact that good government is necessary, and good leaders are vital. We need government: to guarantee our freedoms and regulate our behaviour. Government must define and manage incentives in the economy; and it must impose penalties on those who disturb the norms of acceptable society. A matatu society is in no one’s interest.
Undoubtedly, political realignments are going to take place over the next two years. Undoubtedly, some leaders are going to shed the clothes they wore in 2002 and reappear in newer, stranger garb. Undoubtedly, new promises and statements of noble intent are going to fly thick and fast. And undoubtedly, some men and women of goodwill and good intent are going to emerge to present an alternative. It is part of our democratic evolution. Our political space is bigger now than it has ever been. The opportunities are there for the taking, and many players, new and old, will run out onto the field of play.
But what will we poor Kenyans, confused and battered after decades of poor leadership, make of the teams that appear on the electoral pitch, in their many-splendoured outfits, led by their confident captains, displaying many a dazzling ball-play? Will we know how to tell the wheat from the chaff, the solid from the hollow, the passionate from the merely noisy? Our record is not good as voters, and it is perhaps time we learnt political discernment. This is not a political column, but this Sunday it offers a how-to-tell guide. So, as political parties new and old parade before you, ask each of them a very pointed set of questions.
The first question: are you a party at all? What is your essence: a set of common principles and values that all members must adhere to and demonstrate; or merely a party symbol, a makeshift flag and a ramshackle HQ? In other words, is your party held together by clear, distinctive and meaningful values, or are you just a bunch of ragtag opportunists seeking temporary refuge until something better comes along? What are your values, and why are they relevant to us? Can we see them reflected in your faces, your words, your deeds and your campaigns? No values, no vote.
Values are easily tested. Do the people asking for your vote claim to represent the poor, but live the life of Croesus? How do they seek to impress you: with a fleet of four-wheel-drives and a retinue of guards and aids; or with their innovative ideas and policies? Do they lead people into violent confrontation, or do they advocate sober discourse and reasoned debate in all circumstances?
Second question for would-be leaders: what is your electoral base? From where does your core support emanate: a tribe, or an electorate of decent, like-minded people? Are you guaranteed a bloc vote because of your ethnicity, or do you aim to win over a wide constituency of Kenyans? This is a difficult one, because arguably no party in post-independent Kenya has been truly free of ethnicity. Yet the focus on tribe has been the biggest stumbling block on the road to nationhood. We have built many little Kenyas – suspicious, narrow-minded, bigoted and selfish Kenyas – rather than construct a place with a big heart where our common humanity can reside. Many a politician has preached the sugar-coated message of nationalism; but beneath the coating the pill is pure ethnic poison. This one we cannot afford to leave unexamined. The party and politicians that truly stand up to appeal to principle rather than geography will take a major risk: they will have no bedrock support, no easy foundation to work from. It is our task as voters to recognise these people and give them succour and sustenance.
A third test: why are you doing this at all? What is your motivation? What’s in it for you? Will you consider your campaign a success even if you fail to win office – but fight it on unfaltering principles? The people who have emerged to lead us thus far in our history have, by and large, been in it for themselves. They were attracted by large dollar signs: government contracts; generous pay; large amounts of taxpayers’ lolly at their disposal. They were pulled by their egos: unfettered power (aided by a colonial constitution); an army of servile aides and sycophants; the adulation of the unlettered masses. Watch the motivation. Look out for those people who have stepped forward to do something about the state of the country, not to feed their own stomachs and egos. That’s where you’ll find true leadership.
Fourth: have you actually done any thinking? Do you have a plan for the country beyond extending donor dependence and rewarding the owners of land and capital? Can you offer thoughtful ways of increasing participation in the economy? Do you know how to harness the power of the private sector for the benefit of all? Can you see how to actually tame crime? Or are your manifestos a collection of the same tired platitudes and weather-beaten promises? The time for intellectual shallowness is gone. We have to harness brainpower and move away from mediocre thinking.
Lastly: who is in your ranks? Who captains the team, and who backs it from the shadows? What stains and blemishes can be seen in the track record of your leading lights? It is time we consigned those who perennially appear in courts, commissions of inquiry and lists of shame, to history. Recycling of garbage may be a wonderful thing for environmentalists; for the electorate it is a toxic pursuit that will pollute us for generations to come.
Let this be our message to politicians and wannabe leaders: if you are ready for the campaign, so are we. Step forward, the game is open to all. But if you’re going to start politicking early, we’re going to start our scrutiny early. As you recede into your holes, our gaze will follow. As you raise the tempo at rallies, we will be listening. And this time around, we’ll know what we want.
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