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Do people really change that much?

Back in the nineties, Kenyans were really fed up of their leaders. The country was in dire straits, and there seemed to be no light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. In those days, our only symbols of hope were a group of people not in government: opposition politicians, young activists, business folk, journalists, the leaders of civil society, even men of the cloth.

We placed great hope in these people. If only this country could be led by people of this calibre, we thought, our many wrongs will be put right. I recall sitting in various seminars and gatherings where the leading opposition lights of the day would hold forth on what ills needed to be eradicated from government, and how it should be done.

But then the Nyayo government was tossed out by fed-up voters. I sat in Uhuru Park in 2002 amongst the ordinary folk, rejoicing at the peaceful handover of power. The good people would take the reins of government now, we sang, and all would be well. Indeed, this column was born then. I started writing it to contribute thoughts and reflections for the new Kenya.

Well, in the years since, I have watched most of those ‘freedom fighters’ of the 1990s take charge of Kenya. Many who were once banished to opposition politics and activist circles became ministers, bureaucrats, ambassadors – the new drivers of vehicle Kenya, promising to put it on the road to prosperity and wellbeing.

You know what I’m coming to. It never happened. Much to our dismay, many of those who used to make righteous and noble noises when they weren’t in charge began talking the language of disdain and division soon after taking power. Since 2003 and all the way to today, a large number of seemingly good, competent people have passed through the corridors of power holding important positions.

By and large, they have delivered nothing of substance. They, too, quickly joined the rat race and became bigger rats than their predecessors. They took their places at the trough and ate their way to obese personal gain. They took over the mansions and the cars and the budgets. They claimed to want power for the sake of Kenyans; but wanted it mostly for themselves.

The question is often heard: what happened to these people? Why do good people go bad? Why do they change from noble to ignoble, virtuous to vicious? There are two possible answers to that question.

First, people change to reflect their surroundings. Do not underestimate the power of prevailing culture. If you place a good person in a bad system, the chances of the system beating the individual are big. When you arrive in a place where everyone is on the make, where it is the accepted norm to be corrupt, where everyone is prospering by doing the wrong thing – it takes an unusually strong person to resist. And those who resist are quickly eliminated. The bad system beats good people.

But there’s a second possibility. Those good people? Perhaps they were never that good at all. Perhaps they were only making good noises to impress gullible voters and even more gullible foreign powers. Perhaps all they lacked was the opportunity for the bad in them to come out and show itself. Character does not change that much. By this reckoning, the good people did not become bad. They merely revealed themselves once in power.

So take your pick: which of the two possibilities do you believe? I used to place much credence in the first (bad system wins); but of late I look at the long procession of supposedly good folks engaging in relentless plunder and self-aggrandizement , and I wonder whether systems can really change people that much.

The lesson? Never listen to what people say. Look at what they do.

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