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Let Kenya’s leaders spend tonight in a slum

Jan 06, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

So many bad things have happened in Kenya over the past few days that we are numb with disbelief. But more than anything else, I am overcome by feelings of deep shame. Shame that my countrymen are capable of such inhuman and unconscionable acts against each other. And shame that people at the top of the tree can be so self-absorbed and can act with such impunity and lack of concern.

I urge you all to feel the same. We need first to hang our heads in shame if we are to lift them with pride ever again.

We should be ashamed because what has happened is our fault, not someone else’s. We are all sitting around casting blame: it was the leaders; it was rogue elements; it was Tribe X; it was hooligans and criminals. Not it wasn’t, Kenyans: it was us.

True, most of us have not been the ones who have raised our hands in violence against others. It is indeed very difficult to imagine what on this earth makes people snatch a baby from the arms of its mother and throw it into a fire, as has been reported. What utter hatred guides such an act? Is it really possible to stand back and watch the flames inflict unspeakable agony on innocents, to live through horrific screams, and then go back to normal life? Apparently so.

But let us realise, once and for all: such havoc was not visited upon us by aliens. It is our own handiwork. It is happening because we, each and every one of us, have lived in a beautiful country and have refused to see the fault-lines beneath the very thin layer of topsoil.

We knew all along that there was a fault-line called inequality, but we refused to see it. We knew that some people had far too much control over wealth and the assets that generate it, but we looked away and let them have even more. We knew that whole regions and communities in our country were impoverished and unable to find a way out of their poverty, but we blamed it on their laziness and lack of endeavour. We knew that slums filled with unemployed youth living like rats grew every day, but we looked the other way.

We knew all along there was a fault-line called ethnicity, but we glossed over it and pretended (in public) that it was not there. We laughed at all our neighbours who had had their countries ripped asunder by ethnic strife, and we thought we were better than them. In private, however, we spoke disparagingly of other communities and belittled them, and allowed differences to grow unchecked. We knew hatred lay deep in many hearts, but we tried to go on with business as usual.

We knew all along there was a fault-line called history, but we tried not to learn it. We knew that the policies of the past had led to displacements and forced settlements, but we imagined that did not matter. We could feel the presence of the ghosts of the political assassinations of yesteryear in our midst, but we shuddered and drew the curtains. Now history itself has returned to haunt us.

We knew all along that there was a fault-line called governance, but we just paid it lip service. We knew our constitution was fundamentally useless, but we failed to take opportunity after opportunity to fix it for the benefit of all. We knew our institutions were weak and corrupt and headed by clowns, but we failed to overhaul them. We knew that there was too much power in the presidency, but we failed to reduce it because whoever was in power wanted to keep enjoying it. Now we are afraid to hand over the presidency to our opponents because it is too powerful.

And so we sat on these fault-lines for years, and carried on partying. I wrote, way back in 2004: “All I can see is a leadership so consumed by the task of retaining power that all else is window dressing. All I can see is an economic elite so consumed by the task of counting its money that it cannot see the rage in the eyes of those guarding the gates. We are all busy laying out the picnic chairs on the slopes of a rumbling volcano. The wine is indeed fine, and the cuisine delectable. But what happens when the music stops?”

And yet the music has still not stopped for some of us. In the middle of this week’s mayhem, many were still teeing off in the golf clubs. New Year’s Eve parties still went on uninterrupted in many places. Fireworks could be heard where bullets had rent the air just a few hours earlier. Champagne spilled when blood was running in rivers nearby. Kenya’s partying classes are beyond redemption.

Here is a solution to the crisis: let the top 100 leaders from across the divide be forced, without security, to spend tonight in a slum in turmoil. By morning peace will break out.

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