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Our undoing is leadership with no moral conscience

By Makau Mutua | Published Sun, September 11th 2016 at 00:00, Updated September 10th 2016 at 23:30 GMT +3
Every nation should have a conscience. But not all nations are blessed with one. The conscience of a nation can be a singular individual – a living, breathing human. Or it can be an institution, like the Supreme Court of Kenya. PHOTO: COURTESY

Every nation should have a conscience. But not all nations are blessed with one. The conscience of a nation can be a singular individual – a living, breathing human. Or it can be an institution, like the Supreme Court of Kenya.

 But it could also be an event – like a civil war, or a constitution – that returns a people to sanity in moments of collective national madness. It could even be a prolonged struggle for social justice – like the anti-Apartheid movement – that sears into the nation a zeitgeist, or establishes red lines that can’t be crossed. Which begs the question – what, or who, is Kenya’s conscience? Are we bereft of that inner moral voice to restrain our worst proclivities?

Let me make this concrete so that it’s palpable to the human touch. When he was alive, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela – regarded globally as a saint – was that country’s conscience. He and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were indisputably South Africa’s North Star. Closely behind them was jurist icon Justice Albie Sachs. Human beings don’t come with purer hearts than those three.

I don’t want to think of South Africa as unique, but I must say there is a paucity of such moral giants elsewhere in Africa. I know there are many unsung saints – persons who embody the moral conscience – among the subalterns and hoi polloi. But methinks among thought leaders, the pickings are slim. Perhaps even totally non-existent.

Among the elite, Africa is awash with little moral dwarfs. Thieves and decrepit leaders who are ravenous egomaniacs. They would be very comfortable with America’s Republican nominee Donald Trump. The problem lies in the nature of the African post-colonial state. This colonial beast is an ogre bent on the consumption of humans.

Africa was never decolonised. We took over the colonial state and made it our own. The African elite inherited the colonial state and mimicked the white men they replaced. That, in my view, is the root of our moral dwarfism. Our leaders lack the richness of the spirit, the moral code of submission to higher and nobler ideals of service.

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In the messianic faiths – Islam and Christianity – the theme of self-denial and rejection of worldly goods as the sole purpose of life are inferior pursuits.

They are immoral even. In Surat Al-Kahf 7 of the Quran, it’s written that “Indeed, we have made that which is on the earth adornment for it that we may test them [as to] which of them is best in deed.” The admonition is clear – self-denial is a virtue but greed is a vice. In the Bible in Matthew 10:39, the same lesson is taught – “Therefore the Sages: They place themselves last, but end up in front.” Our churches and mosques are filled to capacity, but most of the people in them have dark hearts.

In Kenya, we have a new constitution – one of the most progressive in the world. It’s started to take root, albeit haltingly. Two steps forward, one and half steps back. Sometimes three steps back. The thing isn’t linear. But I have inner hope that our better angels may yet prevail. However, hope isn’t a strategy. It’s wishful thinking, not even thoughtful wishing. But the political and elite classes that superintend the state are introverts – they spend too much time in front of the mirror admiring themselves. They linger on too much in self-congratulatory poses. They believe too much in their own hype. I don’t think they ask often enough wherefore do they exist. What they need is a personal jihad.

I want to go back to the first generation of African leaders. You know the names. Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga, Houari Boumediene, Abdel Gamal Nasser, and Amical Cabral to name a few. I won’t leave out Tom Mboya either.

 These men were moral giants – articulate, clear, resolute, and morally intelligent. Yes they had flaws. But their likes are gone and what we have now is a barren desert devoid of men and women of moral acuity. Instead, today we have men who steal titles. All fakes – professors, academic doctorates, even military ranks. The chest puffing is symptomatic of a moral emptiness that defies description. If people can steal titles in broad daylight, what’s left in their dark hearts?

And so I end where I started. Who or what is going to be Kenya’s moral conscience? I am willing to give our leaders a clean slate on which to write a new legacy from scratch. Who will step forward, deny self, and put down a marker of personal probity? There’s a huge vacuum. Let’s see which political leaders, clerics, judges, academics, and civil society denizens rise to the challenge. Central Bank Governor Patrick Njoroge is showing some signs. Perhaps he is the one.


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