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Listen up to the people’s message

Nov 27, 2005 Management, Sunday Nation

The Kenyan people recorded a massive protest against the quality of their leaders in 2002. This week they sent another warning shot. Leaders who are not paying attention to this strong and consistent message are heading for political oblivion.

We are in a different country now. The average voter is a quite distinct animal from the one that could be given a T-shirt and herded into the voting booth to do as the master wanted. This voter will not vote for promises, will not vote for an elusive ‘trickle-down’, will not take any leader’s word on face value, will not accept sub-standard goods (like a second-rate constitution). This voter is the bad leader’s worst nightmare.

The referendum on the new constitution may have cost us billions, but it may yet prove to have been worth it. Here’s why.

Firstly, leaders have exposed themselves rather interestingly in advance of the 2007 general election, and have given voters a preview of their true natures. The referendum campaign revealed all that is nasty and petty in our leadership, from all sides of the political spectrum. Not one leader came out of it smelling of roses; no, the aroma they let off had an altogether more putrid tang.

They showed us, for one thing, that they all have serious character deficits. If a leader shows himself unwilling to honour his word, then why should we take him seriously again? Behaviour generally predicts behaviour, after all. When a leader is found with a new clique of allies every year, and last year’s mortal enemies are this year’s bosom chums, why is that not a problem? In which field of life other than politics would such behaviour not excite extreme suspicion? Why do we place lower ethical standards on politicians? Do we see them as a lesser species? And if so, why do we allow them to lead us?

You may have noticed a strange phenomenon. When leaders who are supposedly the most bitter of political enemies meet in public, how do they behave? Why, they hug each other like long-lost brothers amidst much hearty back-slapping and bonhomie. They wear smiles that threaten to crack their faces in two. Yet they might have just come from rallies where each was likening the other to rodents and serpents.

What should we make of this? Only two explanations are possible: either they are out-and-out hypocrites who say one thing and mean another; or they are not enemies at all, and the bitter-foes charade is just a scheme to divide us into voting blocs. Whichever it is, the character deficit is all too evident.

Most leaders showed us, also, that their style has not changed at all since the bad old Kanu days. Only the false piety is new. The substance of politics appears much the same: give taxpayers their own money back, selectively and manipulatively, in return for votes. Divide people by ethnicity and geography, so that they are easier to control and fool. Incite violence where none exists, so that fear drives people back into tribal kraals. Promise them the earth spinning on a silver platter; deliver sweet nothing.

They also demonstrated their collective penchant for foul-mouthed diatribes against members of other tribes. Our human-rights bodies did a fine job of collecting the ethnic slurs and chauvinistic insults that were being hurled at various rallies, and publishing them for all to see. They made for very unsettling reading; but were very necessary for us to see the calibre of many of our leaders. Behind that bespoke suit and party hat, it seems, is often a vicious cur waiting to bite.

Fortunately voters have moved on, even if leaders are stuck in time-warps of their own making. Lawyer Paul Mwangi pointed this out very clearly in a piece in the Daily Nation on referendum day. We are more united and more politically mature than our leaders are. “The problem with this country has always been our politicians”, wrote Mwangi. Fear and hostility “are never in our minds. They are put there by politicians.”

The results of the referendum show that the led are willing to take the leaders by the nose and drag them to a better future. They will not accept shoddy government, broken promises and the posturing of glorified matatu touts. They will reject leaders who jump from camp to camp in search of lucre. They will reject so-called chieftains who claim to speak for entire tribes.

It behoves the leadership of this country, of all political and ideological shades, to pay attention. Those who deal in back-room manipulations and electoral greed were given a sharp rejection on Monday. But that does not mean that the “Orange Team” was the winner of the poll. Not at all. The only winner was the will of the Kenyan people, which decided that the Wako draft was not worthy of its support. That is all. The Orange luminaries happen to have tied themselves to the winning horse this time round. But it is not them we voted for; it is the principle of voter supremacy.

Those who will now seek to make political capital from the vote should tread very carefully. They should fine-tune their political antennae and listen with great application and insight. Lesson number one: personalities do not matter to us; results do. Even the most revered of tribal overloads can be sent packing when they back something that is not in the interests of the majority.

Lesson number two: no one tribe can ever hope to rule this country in perpetuity. Coalitions, alliances, consultations and consensus define the game from now on. Those who seek to win in this environment would be best advised to weave a national fabric and build a support base that transcends ethnicity and emphasises common issues.

Lessons numbers three through to ten: it’s the economy, stupid. There is nothing that is more “front of mind” than economic development in a country that has wallowed in poverty and inequality for two generations. Every plan, every policy, every project and every action must deliver economic advancement to the common Kenyan, and it must do so as a matter of urgency. Let every government from now on take off the cowboy hat and put on the thinking cap, and go back to the drawing board on this. Kenyans will accept nothing less than rapid and sustained improvement in their standards of living.

And yet it won’t happen until we refresh the leadership pool once again. In 2003 we appointed more youngsters, more advanced degree-holders and more women to positions of authority than ever before. By and large, they have proved to be monumental disappointments. When the singing was done, these new faces showed themselves to be as venal, as narrow-minded and as inept as their predecessors.

It’s time for new faces, new blood, new ideas and new energy, from outside mainstream politics. It’s time for paradigms to shift and for intellectual revolutions to occur. The future of this country is wrapped up in knowledge and innovation. Those who can deliver this once and for all need to gird their loins and step decisively forward. The people await.

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