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Kenyan politician – where is thy substance?

May 21, 2006 Leadership, Sunday Nation

The smell of elections is in the air again. Perhaps it’s just the fallout from the Marsabit air crash, and the resultant by-elections. Whatever the cause, the kaleidoscope that is Kenyan politics is rotating again.

New parties are being formed, and old ones unceremoniously dumped. Alignments are shifting, and ambitions emerging. Accusations of betrayal assault our ears. Meetings are being held in the dark corners where no light ever falls. Seats are being counted, and votes anticipated. Who’s in, and who’s out? Who’s still holding hands, and who’s slipped away?

A full 19 months before the next general election, coalitions, partnerships, movements and alliances dominate our headlines. We are all – leaders, donors, ambassadors, businesspeople, analysts, columnists – watching with keen eyes to try to discern what new animals are taking shape in the political jungle. Like the tourists who throng the Mara, we are fascinated by the mutterings and matings of the strange creatures we behold. The ordinary mwananchi follows our lead.

But what is it we’re all so interested in? Who our next leader will be? Or just in the soap opera of who’s stabbing whom in the back? In the cut and thrust of deceit and betrayal, or in assessing the qualities of those who will shape all our futures? It’s hard to tell; and it really doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because there’s a set of questions, bafflingly, that we all seem to forget to ask politicians, parties and groupings. We ask and worry about which ethnic groups are becoming allies and which luminaries are joining forces. But we never seem to ask the following: what, Bwana and Mama Politician, are your goals for this country? What are your policies? What’s your game plan? What are your priorities? And how will you make a difference to my life and to those around me?

It is amazing that a country that has only known economic stagnation forgets to ask what is going to be done about it. And because we don’t ask, no one bothers to tell us. All parties spend next to no time building structures, agreeing shared principles and developing a policy platform; instead they shout absurd slogans and vapid pledges to us at rallies. And when they do bother to put anything in writing to call a ‘manifesto’, they make lists of ridiculous promises that no-one can put a cost to and no one intends to deliver. Would anyone care to revisit the last winning manifesto? No, I didn’t think so.

Our parties cannot even be called institutions in any sense. They have no structures, no procedures that anyone respects, no elections that they bother to hold, and no vibrant membership that puts any pressure on them. They are matatus, decrepit vehicles that carry the ambitions of a few bigwigs whilst not caring two hoots for legality. Passengers get on, usually just before elections; and get off, usually just after. Some are thrown off, and will run alongside for a while throwing stones, until they tire and stop. Then they sit and wait for another one to come along.

The people on the party political matatu do not own it and do not care for it. They do not invest money in it, and they do not maintain it. They have no idea whether its engine is sound, or if the electricals are working. They couldn’t care less. It’s a mere vehicle, a quick ride to riches.

It’s not like that everywhere. In some countries parties are so strong that they own individual politicians: without the party behind you, you are nothing. Parties are built on ideologies and ideas, not on personalities and personas. They produce campaign platforms that are true to their shared principles. They provide an economic costing of their proposals, and analysts and pundits pore over their calculations and pronounce their verdicts. Here we beat tribal drums and try to get a large crowd growing.

It should be very different. All those politicians out there trying to form, reform and deform parties should think about the fundamentals: principles, policies and governance. Otherwise all they are doing is hijacking a matatu to drive into the sand.

We can make them get back to first principles. Rather than be wowed by their dumb parables and silly rhetoric, we should start asking some very hard questions of any group of people purporting to be a political party that wishes to lead us. Here is a set of such questions.

Question One: how, Mr and Ms Politician, does your party plan to unite us? How will you create and instil nationhood in Kenyans? We know we will not develop without unity of thought and purpose, and without a national fabric in which to clothe our hopes. So how do you intend to do it? How will you put the forgotten people of the North and East on the same economic table as those from the Centre and West? Which combination of campaigns, institutions and incentives will you use to bring us all together? Or do you not know?

Question Two: how will you grow us? We are tired to the bone of being poor and going nowhere. We want economic growth, and we want it be widely shared. So what is your economic offering, party people? What are the pillars of your economic strategy, and why? How will you incentivise the private sector and right-size the public one? Where will you get the money, and what will you use it for? What will you do first, and what will you leave for later? What is your plan for turning this into a knowledge economy? How will you involve that great mass of people out there in their own development? Or do you not know?

Question Three: How will you protect us? We are fed up of being fleeced like sheep every five years. We are sick of the plundering and looting of our forced contributions to the national kitty. And we will not accept the culture of lawlessness and impunity that threatens each and every one of us, each and every day. So: what is your institutional plan? What will you do to ensure that the police, the judiciary, the treasury and the central bank can never again be placed at the mercy of individuals? What is your unambiguous and un-retractable proposition on a new constitution? And how much money will you put (guaranteed) in the development of key institutions every year? Or do you not know?

If they don’t know, we must send them packing. We need to have our hopes united, our livelihoods grown and our ambitions protected. That is not a job for drum-beaters. But if we don’t ask the questions, we have no right to worry about the answers. So if you can find a party that tells you how it will unite us, grow us and protect us; and if you find like-minded, thoughtful and determined people in this party telling it to you credibly and convincingly; and if you find you can believe them; then, hey, vote for them!

Me, I’m going on a flying-pig chase.

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