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Let politicians unleash ideas, not mobs

Sep 30, 2007 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Silly little armies wearing shukas and carrying bows and arrows. People being attacked simply because they dare to stand for election. Rent-a-mob tit-for-tat protests. Idiots clapping and jeering as they burn effigies. Threats and counter-threats. Banned rallies. Insults and abuse.

What a childish general-election campaign we seem to have in store. It is extremely worrying when people who wish to lead you – and in some cases, have already led you for decades – turn out to have thoughts no higher than those of the brutish schoolboy playing in the dust.

Is that not what aggressive little boys, suffering from a surfeit of hormones, do when threatened? Don’t come to my territory, or I will hit you. Look at all my weapons and my toy soldiers. I’ll get all my friends to shout at you. Mine is bigger than yours. That is the language and the behaviour of the (male) schoolyard. And also, it would appear, of the yard in which our politicians play as grown men.

What a shame it is, and what an example it sets to the real schoolboys. The job of leaders is to take the high ground; to engage in elevated thinking; to unleash ideas that transform lives. Here, leaders seem ready to dig ever lower; to demonstrate base emotions; and to take us farther and farther away from the world of ideas.

What a shame it is also that in this century of knowledge, innovation, technology and globalisation, we choose to deal in bows and arrows, clubs and catapults. Kenya needs to become a showground of new thinking, modern management and innovative models for society. Instead, some choose to keep us stuck in the old world of tribal chiefdoms where all non-kinsmen were ‘strangers’ and potential cattle-rustlers and had to be repulsed by all means.

This is not an indictment of any one side or any one politician. The problem is more serious than that. The poison is on all sides of the political spectrum. There is no tolerance or acceptance of the fact that in a free country it is anyone’s right to campaign in any part of the country. That no-one has the right to maintain or encourage armed mobs. That debate and argument is actually good for us – if we discuss the right things.

Elections are great opportunities to engage in debate about the soul of our nation. What are we, and what do we stand for? What do we aspire to become? What beliefs guide us? What is our long-term mission, and what do we need to do to achieve it? What actions must we prioritise?

Are there any more important questions than those for this country at this point in its history? For most of us, the progress of the nation – material and moral – transcends all other issues.

Elections should be the marketplace in which voters compare the ‘products’ and ‘prices’ of competing sellers, and make judicious choices. The ‘product’ we are interested in is the set of ideas and action sequences that will take the nation to a better place in the shortest time. The ‘price’ is what we have to forgo in order to get there.

But that is not what most ‘sellers’ in this marketplace have on display. What they want to sell is a different set of things: Look at the my clan heritage; check out my fleet of cars; listen to my loud voice; laugh at how I abuse others; believe my promises about schools and clinics and roads; pay attention to my warnings about what other tribes will do to you.

The only way to hurt these people is to not buy these tainted goods! Reject all the chieftains and warlords. Toss out the ones who organise stone-throwing mobs. Rebuff those who trade in vile insults and intemperate language.

Making noise and issuing threats is not leadership. Leaders are thoughtful people who can see a future that others can’t. They are gentle people who feel an abiding love for their followers. They are determined people who have no time for petty jealousies and childish arguments. And they are ethical people who understand the meaning of life and do the right thing at all times.

It is not too late for the main protagonists to demonstrate this kind of higher leadership. It is not too late for all the contenders to get together and sign a multi-party peace agreement that says all violence, from all corners and at all times, will be condemned and stamped out.

But if the protagonists want to do this, they have to go beyond mere talk. It is one thing to talk peace, and another altogether to live up to it. They will have to condemn their own supporters, publicly and firmly, if they engage in any nonsense. They will have to risk estrangement from their own allies if those allies are fomenting bloodshed.

For the voter, it is very simple. Toss out anyone who promotes violence. We don’t need it and we won’t accept it.

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