Virtues and not vices should define a politician’s purpose


Johnson Sakaja is just Mike Sonko with better manners.  We know that the Senator for Nairobi would never call people “takataka” on social media like the Nairobi governor did last week. We also now know that Sakaja could do this and worse, but only when he thinks that the public is not watching. 

We know this because when he was arrested for breaking the curfew, his menacing side surfaced. Our most dignified, levelheaded, senator did the last thing we expected him to do. He responded in the typical: ‘Do you know who I am?” 

He became the typical Big Shot who wields power arrogantly and threatens terrible repercussions if ‘disrespected’. The kind we are familiar with, who pinch noses and rain expletives on earthlings who do not bow in deference to the mighty ‘mheshimiwa’. 

In Kenya, is there such a thing as a humble politician, or are they mythical creatures? Or perhaps this is not a Kenyan, but a general politician affliction? If cameras are not pointing at the prim and proper Barrack Obama, for example, would he call his driver what Mwai Kibaki called his? Would he declare him a ‘human chicken dropping’ in anger, or even just because he can? 

Although politicians are humans who err just like us, their margin of error is wider. We expect them to not only be liberally sinful, but to operate on deviousness and arrogance.

But not all politicians are judged equally. Those like Sakaja who have been ‘canonised’ by the public are held by a higher standard. St Sakaja should remain blameless in our sight. 

In the African mythology of decent politicians, people like Nelson Mandela, Thomas Sankara, Tom Mboya and Patrice Lumumba were also held to a higher standard. They were not allowed to have personal shortcomings. But mercifully, the public’s threshold to forgive or excuse these ‘saints’ is just as high as the standards they hold them against.   

Martin Luther King Jnr is a prime example of a leader ‘canonised’ by a large part of Americans in the early 1960s. ‘St Martin’ was fighting for the civil rights of the disenfranchised blacks, a cause he openly declared that he was willing to die for.

But during the struggle, the American government looked for ways to vilify this thorn in their flesh, this holier-than-thou ‘St Martin’. 

The FBI director himself, Edgar Hoover, took a personal interest in King, and had him followed and wiretapped for years. And of course, many indiscretions were caught on the secret recordings. 

But even when they found evidence of philandering, the FBI never managed to turn the public against Martin Luther King Jr. However, his counterpart in civil activism, Elijah Mohammed, was not as lucky. The leader of the Nation of Islam was accused of the same indiscretions as King, and he never lived them down. His situation was made even worse when Malcom X denounced and cut ties with him, precisely for being a hypocritical leader; a saint fallen from grace.   

When it comes to political virtuousness, the majority fall into the ‘moderately indecent’ category. Then there are those who are on the extreme end of the decency spectrum.

Their type is seen as the incorrigible rascals, from who not much in the way of decency is expected. That is why Sonko can make ludicrous claims such as; 'signing away my own county was as a result of being intoxicated against my will!' And the interesting thing is, just like Martin Luther King Jnr, Sonko gets away with it. 

Relative truth

So, whichever way you look at it, the public is extremely forgiving to ‘saints’ like Sakaja, and ‘rogues’ like Sonko.   

But then again, politics is not about absolutism. Politics is about relativity. In politics, even the truth itself is relative. 

There is an old Indian story that explains the ‘relativity of truth’. Five blind people stumbled upon an elephant. Their sixth companion, who was not blind, declared: “It is an elephant!” 

Each tried to describe what they had bumped into, and put into words what an elephant looks like. The first blind man ran his hand along the wide side of the elephant and said: “An elephant is like a wall!” The second person touched the elephant’s trunk and said: “An elephant is like a thick snake”. The third felt the tusks and said: “An elephant is like a smooth and hard like a spear”. The fourth touched the tail and said: “An elephant is like a rope”. Finally, the one who felt a leg insisted that an elephant was just like a big tree trunk.

All the blind people mistake their little bit of truth for the whole truth, and each person is adamant that their truth is the absolute truth, because they have ‘evidence.’

In the same way, the liability or virtue of a political leader is debatable, depending on where you are standing as you appraise the politician. 

As if this amorphousness is not enough, in politics truth is not just relative, it is subject to perception. It is also comparative. 

If in your perception a politician is decent and saintly, this perception is further measured against something or someone else? It is like the glass analogy. A glass is half full when it is next to an empty one, and half empty when it is next to a full one. 

Whatever parameters you choose to use, a drop of drunken indecency does not make Sakaja a vile politician. He is neither a half nor empty glass. He is neither a thick snake nor a big tree trunk. He is all those parts that make up the elephant. A saintly one, who should be totally and unreservedly forgiven.

–The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University.

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