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Looking beyond the by-elections circus

So our five tumultuous by-elections are done. Did we learn anything, and are we moving forward? I am afraid the answer to both questions may be “no”. Like a tape running on rewind, we may actually be unlearning what we know whilst driving backwards.

How can we be said to be moving forward when we remain so very backward in the way in which we make democratic choices? You tell me whether in a progressive nation the following things happen as routinely as they do here:

1. It is possible to seal the outcome of elections by dishing out more T-shirts, caps and banknotes than your competitor;
2. It is possible to fool people regularly and repeatedly by appearing before them only at election time and promising the delivery of roads, jobs, clinics, schools, phone lines and even taps;
3. Voters actually believe that having a cabinet minister from their region does them any lasting good, so that such a promise can sway an election;
4. Instilling the fear of other tribes in your voters is always an election winner;
5. If you are the kith and kin of the dead incumbent, this fact alone gives you a head-start against all-comers – no other qualification is necessary;
6. It is still a good campaign tactic for politicians of national stature to parade before the voters in a crooked line while doing a silly dance;
7. Loud noise always beats calm logic;
8. If you are not naturally in possession of testosterone, don’t even bother showing up.

Sorry to sour the milk in your cornflakes this morning, but I was not impressed by our conduct as a nation during these campaigns. It was as though we are stuck in a time warp: all the backward electioneering that worked in the 1970s and 1980s is still used, still works and still delivers results.

When you look at the state of the voters, however, you will begin to understand. In remote and rustic Kenya, the average voter is poor and impoverished, so a few extra shillings do make a difference. In faraway constituencies, the most basic of human essentials – water, electric power, roads, health facilities – are mere pipe dreams, so promises do tend to be believed. In rural outposts, meaningful education is the province of a select few – so intelligent discernment becomes a luxury. And ministers, it seems, can influence the location of roads quite dramatically. So perhaps we should not blame the backwardness of our voters.

What we should condemn, emphatically and incessantly, is the fact that the voters are backward at all. Four decades after independence, why should we have an electorate that is so deprived of services and knowledge that is a wonder it exists in the 21st Century at all? And, most damningly, is it not in the interests of our political classes that the people remain pitiable, poor and primitive? For if they were affluent, ample and astute, they would toss out today’s crop of wastrel leaders without a second thought. We are only led by the hapless because the electorate is clueless – and is not allowed to be anything else.

I hold no brief for any of our so-called political parties, and care not a jot who in the present dispensation won or lost. Only their names are different; the animal beneath the skin is indistinguishable. So if this circus is the one that will come to town again in 2007, we are in for a most unedifying spectacle.

Our politics is a tragic-comedy. It is a con-game and a hoax. The politicians of all camps (some of whom hold doctorates; others, admittedly, would fail an IQ test for dunces) are merely playing out an elaborate fraud on the people. This fraud involves talking down, condescension and play-acting. They pretend to care, pretend to work and pretend to lead. Look at their faces when elections approach: wink, wink, the game is on again. In Kenya, you CAN fool all the people all the time.

Are we lost, then? No. You have to hit bottom before you rise up again, and that is where we are. The answer to our misery is not for men and women of intelligence and discernment to look away and do nothing. It is to consider more vigorously than ever what should be done.

We must move away from the politics of ignorance and deception. It may take a long time for that to happen, but happen it must. And that requires that the people must be shown an alternative. People who have an alternative vision for this land must stand up and present it. This is not the only way to exist; and the other ways need to be articulated with passion and commitment.

That is already happening. There is an outpouring of intelligent opinion pieces in our newspapers, penned by professionals with no political axe to grind. Politicians appearing on radio and TV talk shows now know that they may face an uncomfortable grilling when members of the public phone in. Some of our more enlightened chief executives are busy outlining a vision for Kenya Limited – what this country would look like, behave like and achieve if it were run like a business, using the timeless principles of professional management.

That is all wonderful. But it is not enough. Transforming Kenya is not an intellectual undertaking, conducted for the applause of our professional peers. It cannot be conducted in the opinion pages and airwaves, nor in conference centres and workshops. Sooner or later, some progressive people need to stand up before the people and ask to be elected.

I hanker for the day when a man (and preferably a woman) of vision and determination steps forward to be counted. I yearn for a manifesto which is ambitious and yet realistic, far-reaching and yet honest, thoughtful and yet go-getting. I pray for the campaign platform that is based on new ideas, new thinking and new policies. I hunger for a person wishing to lead us who conducts himself (and preferably herself) with decorum, dignity and integrity.

Do such people and such campaigns exist? Certainly. But we must be realistic. It is of no use pushing people to run for office when they have no inbuilt desire to do so. So cajoling our businessmen and professionals, our clergymen and columnists (take note!) is likely to be fruitless. The political game is not for everyone. Not every thinker or visionary has what it takes to stand before a crowd and persuade it to change the habit of decades.

But it will happen. It is your job and mine to create the conditions in which a leader of great vision emerges. Conditions emerge from actions, actions from ideas, ideas from thoughtful exchange. So here is some food for thought for those caught in contemplation: in 2007 we will have a populace that is younger than ever before, more educated than ever before, more connected than ever before, and more desperate than ever before. You know what they need, so step up to the line.

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