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Like Obama, we must remake our country

Jan 25, 2009 Leadership, Sunday Nation

After watching America’s presidential inauguration this week, I wanted to cry. Not because I was overjoyed, although I was. No, the tears, had they come, would have been of sheer frustration, summarised in one thought: will I ever see such a person take charge in my own country?

Barack Obama, I have stated here many a time, is the real deal. He is a man who unites rather than divides, who combines a steely intellect with compassion, whose determination to make the world better is apparent in his every move. If Barack Obama turns out to be a fraud, an incompetent or a charlatan, then we might as well all forget about the concept of leadership.

As I watched the inauguration ceremonies, the student of management in me took over. I was not paying much attention to the roll call of celebrities, the pomp and glamour; I was taken aback by something more mundane: how well is this thing organised? How much planning, how much painstaking attention to detail is necessary, to anticipate all the problems that could arise?

What if you were the project manager? How many kilos would you shed working on this? Not a job for the faint of heart, certainly. And not one for those lacking in management expertise. Imagine the army of workers who have to do the right thing at precisely the right time; the daunting security arrangements; the crowd control; the protocols to be followed – and all working against the clock. I’m losing weight even thinking about it. And yet it all went like clockwork. Those people clearly know what they’re doing.

What bothers me most is how far we are in Kenya from conducting an event of even a fraction this magnitude. We lack the skills, but more importantly we lack the mindset. It doesn’t really bother us when things start late and finish late. We are not that keen on sitting down months in advance to plan something out in painstaking detail. We are not that good at anticipating foreseeable events like famines or economic slowdowns. And we don’t have the standards that say something has to be done just right.

I also paid a lot of attention to the man of the moment, our supposed homeboy Barack. He did not spend too much time giving us a soaring speech; he merely set out the severity of the crisis facing his nation and the scale of the challenges ahead. Anyone who thought that his ‘Change We Need” slogan was just an election catchphrase was in for a rude shock: the Obama change agenda is very real and its going to become very tangible very soon.

We are the country with the ‘Working Nation’ mantra, but it was President Obama’s team that was dispatched to the White House even BEFORE his inauguration speech was over! Why? Because the president intended to issue several executive orders in the first few days of his tenure, and he had to make sure the groundwork was done in time. Here, the top team would have been getting sloshed on the State House lawns…

America has realised that its model is broken. Its economy is in the dustbin, its role as a world leader tainted by unnecessary war mongering and gruesome torture camps. America saw all this, and voted for change. It has brought in a young leader who will break the mould. His inauguration address made that very clear: it promised “action, swift and bold”; it promised to “begin again the work of remaking America”; and in considering the crucial issue of defending the nation, it rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Ah, how we need exactly those sentiments in the land of Obama’s father. Our model is also broken. It is centered on individuals and their personal aggrandisement, rather than the welfare of the citizenry. It treats the working class with contempt, and refuses to educate it and free it from poverty. It treats politics as a senseless game where people and tribes are mere pawns. It is interested in the grotesque enrichment of the few, rather than the steady development of the many. We, too, have to remake our country and reject the paradigms of the past.

And so we should have learned a great deal this week. We should have noted how the message of change can resonate with millions. We should have seen the political goodwill that the right person can garner from across political and ethnic divides. We should have seen the urgency with which national problems are addressed, where even a moment cannot be lost.

But I fear we saw very little of that. I fear we were too busy partying over here to note that they’re working over there. I fear we’re still asking what Obama will do for us, rather than what we will do for ourselves. And I fear that our big boys only saw the half-million-dollar limousine, the security detail and the convoy, and thought: “Yes we can”…

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