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What’s our real problem – leaders or followers?

Apr 19, 2009 Leadership, Sunday Nation

There is a prominent new sign on Nairobi’s Uhuru Highway, just after the University Way roundabout. It says: “No stopping for buses and matatus”. Rightly so: it is very dangerous for vehicles to stop on a busy fast-moving highway – the chances of a pile-up are big.

And guess what? That is exactly where buses and matatus stop to pick up passengers. In fact, passengers line up every day beneath the sign, as though it indicates a bus stage. What is wrong with us? Do we actually give a damn about rules, about the well-being of others – or even our own?

I think about that sign every day when I hear the familiar refrain in Kenya: we are in bad shape simply because we have such appalling leaders. We’ve been singing that song since the seventies: if only our leaders were better, we would be a Singapore by now. There’s nothing wrong with the people themselves, we say: we are talented, broad-minded, and industrious; but we are shackled by the ‘curse’ of bad leaders.

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. The idea that we are all generous, kind, caring and enterprising doesn’t wash. It’s not what we see around us every day. It’s a myth, created by those who deal in eyewash. Where is this mythical Kenya populated by excellent, forward-thinking people?

It’s not on the roads, where sheer bloody-minded selfishness rules, where people think that only their time matters, where they overtake just to gain two places, where they take insane risks and put danger in front of everyone.

The mythical Kenya is not in places of worship, which routinely reserve the front seats for ‘VIPs’, as though God values the rich more than others, and where the same leaders we claim to despise are routinely asked to speak to the assembly. And even when they spew vitriol in the hallowed precincts, the congregation heartily claps.

It’s not in the workplace, where we pay lip service to ‘diversity’ and ‘merit’, but remain fixated on tribe and ethnicity. Up to today, in the 21st century, you can tell the ethnic background of the key leaders of many an organisation simply by counting the names of the workforce. We make vocal demands for the appointment of incompetents, simply because we share a village with them. Ethnic identity is the only identity that matters to us; it is how we measure and calibrate our world, and our world is immeasurably smaller as a result.

Great Kenyans are not in evidence during elections, when the worst in us rises to the surface. We congregate in hate-filled rallies that encourage us to despise our fellows, and we acquiesce. We are wowed by large cars and convoys, and by displays of wealth. And on the rare occasions we encounter principled politicians standing on real issues and trying to actually change things, we despise them because they don’t have any handouts for us. Ask those who have actually tried to stand for election on principle and with a proper manifesto: it’s pointless. When you refuse to give fifty bob to voters, they will call you a ‘mjinga’ and ensure you come last in the poll.

We can’t even find that great Kenya in our homes and neighbourhoods, where we generally don’t give a hoot about the people next door. If you want to start a nightclub or a garage in a residential area, are you going to be deterred by the disturbance you will cause your neighbours? Not at all – why should they get in the way of your advancement?

Am I being way too harsh here? Perhaps. But I am fed up with all the self-righteous bleating about how we’re all good people really. Our leaders are not appointed by the United Nations (at least not yet). They are elected freely by us. If we routinely bring in ogres to lead us, then there is something very wrong with all of us, our values, our sense of right and wrong, and our ability to tell the difference between coal and diamonds.

Good leaders will indeed come to Kenya – when we are ready to appreciate, embrace and elect them. Good leaders come to good followers. And let us stop blaming it all on poverty: who says we can only have decent values if we are free of desperation? Which crook have you seen acquiring decency once riches come, in any case? The fact is we value shysters and hucksters more than we do softly spoken, decent, hardworking, principled people.

But let those who believe in the greater cause not be disheartened. No matter how degraded a society is, it can still reform itself from the example set by a few good people. A new order must coalesce around a few pearls. Those who wish to see a better Kenya must keep fighting the good fight and showing the way. Next week, I will come down from this lofty perch and suggest how it might be done.

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