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The people found their voice in 2005

Today is New Year’s Day, 2006.

It is therefore very unlikely that you are reading this article early this Sunday morning. If you are like most Kenyans with money to spend, you will be nursing a hangover and treating a stomach-ache this morning, after a night of revelry.

If you do manage to pick up the newspaper at some point in the day, however, you may want to take another look at the year that has just departed, for it was an important one. What did 2005 bring for Kenyans, and what lessons has it left in its wake? In fact the high and low points of the year came from the same event.

The high of the year was the referendum on the proposed new constitution. Now wait a minute, I hear you say through the fog. The referendum was a high? Has this kalasinga been spending too much time with his friend Johnnie Walker, as his kinfolk are known to do? Did we not squander billions in the referendum campaigns, and distract ourselves from what really matters: investment, trade and economic growth?

Hear me out. The referendum turned out to be a major milestone in the evolution of Kenya’s democracy. The thing is this: we had to go back to the people, and they said no. Those who huddle together in smoke-filled rooms and purport to know what’s best for the sullen masses were given a rude shock. The people of Kenya are no longer a collective rubber-stamp to endorse the whims of the elite. They only endorse what makes sense to them, and what they believe is in their own interest. And they will go against the instructions of their tribal chieftains to exercise that self-interest.

What a breakthrough that is. Yes, the grip of tribe is still strong – the unambiguity of the electoral results in Nyanza and Central Province told us that. But the first cracks in the model are beginning to appear. The flawed argument that tribe is the only unit of development is usually made in dark and damp places. The rock that covers it has been kicked over, and the contention will have to be defended in the strong glare of sunlight.

At the heart of the thinking that has dominated our politics since independence is a peculiar laziness. It is the willingness to be small and stay small. It is the habit of hiding in our bomas and homesteads, our mosques and mandirs, surrounded by our cousins and kinfolk. It is the comfort of being on safe ground, in familiar territory, behind high walls. And peering suspiciously at those on the other side.

Societies do not advance in this way. Small groups have always moved forward by finding common ground with other groups, by seeking ties and enabling commerce. The great success stories of world development have happened where diversity has been leveraged as an asset – the USA, Canada. Wherever ethnic hatred has been allowed to breed unchecked, stagnation inevitably follows. 2005 may be the year in which Kenya caught first sight of a different way. Development is more than just our borehole, our road, our clinic. It is about connecting the nation into one network, one economy, one investment pool. Our take-off will come from connectivity, not isolation.

The referendum exposed many of our leaders as vile chauvinists. People with advanced degrees showed that they never outgrew their schoolyard personas, and are still happy to besmirch entire tribes with infantile slurs. These people will never allow the 21st Century networking that we sorely need. They stand in the way of development. These are precisely the people who keep you poor.

The ramifications of the ‘No’ vote will continue to be felt, at the next election and beyond. Once, the winning formula was simply to gather enough tribal overlords into your tent. They would deliver the vote of their people. Now, the boss-men have a problem. Their people have matured. Education and experience have seeped into their consciousness. They are learning discernment. And they are refusing to accept shoddy goods, whether those be constitutions, policies or services.

I believe that politicians of all shades will finally be forced to focus on issues in 2006. They will be judged on the quality of their thoughts, not the heft of their potbellies. They will have to demonstrate the intellectual strength of their policies, not the loudness of their voices. They will have no choice but to do the things that deliver development. The people have learned to say no. They have said it twice now, in 2002 and 2005. They have developed a taste for it.

The political old guard cannot survive in this new dispensation. They are used to top-down, not bottom-up. They do not have the tools and faculties to actually focus on the voter as king. So 2006 will mark the beginning of an era in which we refresh the political gene pool. Hecklers and schemers will find their days numbered; thinkers and doers will begin to test the waters. The process will be slow and patchy. There will be disappointments and reversals. But we are on the path to democratic maturity, make no mistake, and it is what will save us.

The lowest ebb of the year, however, was also associated with the referendum. It came when the entire cabinet was sent packing, ostensibly to clear the way for a new breed of development-focused ministers. Unity, delivery and economic growth was the promise. The nation held its breath. And then…nothing. Old failures were hurriedly plastered with new make-up and despatched to new offices. New additions comprised those who cannot read a speech in English, those who would trade their grandmothers for a flag, and those whose only goal is to seek positions for “their people”.

If there is a causal association between these attributes and economic development, I confess to having failed to see it. How rent-a-mob leaders will understand the nuances of the economy and culture remains a mystery to me. How packing the cabinet with ethnic loyalists will provide the skills needed to stimulate investment and build institutions is beyond my simple mind. How installing as our leaders the sorts of characters who can be found shouting in Nairobi’s Aga Khan Walk at lunchtime (as one wit put it recently!) will inspire us is the enigma of the year.

In 2005 we went to the polls on a major issue, and survived the experience. We made valiant attempts to explain an extremely complicated subject to the great mass of the people. The collective passed its judgement. It may have been ill-informed and motivated by prejudice. But a judgement was passed, and it reflected the balance of opinion in the country.

Let 2006 be the year we move forward from this and learn to put our collective voice to even better use. Let it be the year we say ‘yes’: to service delivery; to performance by those we employ; and to visible, tangible gains on the ground in every corner of the land. The democracy has found its voice; let it now learn to sing.

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