Oh, how soon we forget!
There we go again. Another plane fell out of the sky. Only this time it took the lives of many top leaders from a part of Kenya that could ill afford to lose them. May I take you back to January this year? Forgive me for repeating myself, but this is what I wrote then:
“Nothing changes, no lessons are learned. Kenyans move on, and forget about the whole thing. And so buildings will continue to fall, and bombs will keep being planted. Ferries will keep sinking, and trains will be derailed. Buses will continue crashing in exactly the same places for decades. Planes will keep falling out of the sky. Famines will occur annually with complete predictability. The makers of toxic brews will carry on apace. When the death toll is high enough, we will call in our friends, the Israelis, Americans and Britons. And then we will shake our heads in dismay and carry on.”
That was in response to the building collapse in downtown Nairobi. Whatever you do, I wrote, don’t sit back and forget all about it. Since then at least four other buildings have fallen down, in different parts of the country. Did you sit back and forget all about it, Kenyans? What are you waiting for, that a loved one should perish in a collapsing building? Is that what it will take to spur you to action?
And what of this plane crash? We’ve buried the bodies, so are you ready to move on now? Or do you feel like asking some questions? Questions like: why do we allow our pilots to fly into areas with bad weather and poor visibility, relying on their eyesight to manoeuvre through thick fog? Is there no technology available in the world that allows people to utilise instrumentation, and advance weather forecasts, and radio assistance from the ground? Why are we happy for our airstrips to become grazing grounds and playing pitches?
Perhaps you’re happy with the way in which we conduct procurement in the security arena? Or OK with the suspicion that we always seem to end up with outdated, second-hand or just useless equipment – at world-beating prices? That we shroud all security matters in a veil of secrecy, behind which a few shadowy characters can be discerned making merry at our expense?
Could it be that you’re fine with all the procedures and polices we use to regulate ourselves, and the management processes we use to run our country? Maybe you don’t mind the fact that we haven’t had a proper management overhaul in government since…well, how far back can you count? Or that all control procedures are routinely flouted and no one gives a damn?
It’s even possible you’re happy with the level of skills and expertise in the country. Could you be thinking that because we have free primary education we will become a ‘tiger’ economy sometime soon? That massive investments in 21st century skills are neither necessary nor achievable?
You can’t be thinking any of that, brethren, you really can’t. So why are you so quiet in the face of mismanagement? So compliant when your leaders position you over a barrel? So utterly willing to watch the news on TV and then go to sleep? What will it take for you to put an end to this: when our GDP per capita reaches 18th century levels? When we lose thousands of people every year in unnecessary famines, clashes, crashes and collapses? When we sacrifice a big chunk of every person’s income to corruption?
Oh, I forgot: all of that is already happening, and you clearly don’t give a damn. Perhaps we should call in a team of international psychologists to analyse our national psyche.
I know what you’re going to say: what can poor little me do on my own? What’s the point of me getting mad when no one else seems to? Why should I bother? OK, that’s fine. Let’s all just carry on doing sweet nothing about the situation. And perhaps the last one to leave the country could turn out the lights.
On the other hand, if there’s still anyone out there who wants to do something about anything, here’s an action agenda for you.
Item number one: don’t accept any crap. This is your country, and you should demand that it is governed properly. Don’t live with low standards and lower ethics. That is the first, all-important psychological step. Say it ain’t OK.
Item number two: say it out loud. You may not have the privilege of writing a weekly column, but you can cause a commotion nonetheless. Talk to people who feel the same way and form groups. Pool ideas, skills and resources. Write letters and organise protests. Use your pen and your telephone. Learn to sue those who don’t deliver. Go to visit your MP or your councillor in large groups and give ultimatums. Refuse to pay for services that don’t materialise. Go on, be a nuisance – it’s your country you’re trying to save.
Item number three: support the right people. We can’t all stand up and join government, but we sure as hell can give our votes and sustenance to right-minded people who do. But item 3 requires a certain skill: it’s called discernment. If your elected leader doesn’t deliver any development to you, and you vote that person back into office – then, well, you deserve every single thing you get, no matter how painful.
The discernment deficit is a serious problem: how else can we explain the fact that utter incompetents and outright reprobates always sail back smiling broadly every five years? If you’re serious about selection, then pay attention. Pay attention to those in charge of ministries that preside over chaos and needless catastrophe. Pay attention to all the good work the media does on your behalf in uncovering wrongdoing and mismanagement. Pay attention to the words and actions of your leaders, and ask yourself whether you would be happy for your own child to say and do those things. Don’t set a lower standard for leaders – it’s what’s retarding us.
There are plenty of good people ready to lead – already in government or just waiting in the wings. Look out for them, and give them your support when they step forward. And if they let you down, well, kick them out and start all over again. That’s the whole point of democracy – it gives you a check on performance. If you choose not to exercise that power intelligently – then lala salama: there soon won’t be anything worth waking up for.
Oh, and there is an item four. It’s the most difficult one. It’s called, to paraphrase a long-dead Mahatma, being the change you want to see. What’s right for you is right for the country. What’s wrong in you is what you see writ large on the national stage. If you don’t conduct your own life being true to good values and decent behaviour; if you don’t uphold the value of education and skills in your own family; if you don’t routinely do things that benefit other people: then, please, keep very quiet. You are the problem.