We need leaders who believe in us

Irungu Houghton

Viewed from Nairobi, North America appears more polarised, intolerant and a deeply conflicted society since last year’s US polls. Looking closely, something is stirring again that may not havebeen seen since the 1960s and it may have lessons for us.

Since the elections, more than 1,000 attacks have happened against individuals and institutions associated with people of colour, Muslims and Jews among others. Churches, mosques and synagogues have been vandalised and torched. Citizens of all racial, gender and sexual identities have been intimidated and attacked in public or homes. Provoked by new travel bans, hundreds of Muslims found their visas denied or revoked on arrival by several airport authorities. Last month, the African Global Economic and Development Summit took place without any Africans when all 100 African delegates were denied travel visas to attend the annual conference. One wonders what the impact of this policy will be when African, Arab and Asian students willing to pay exorbitant foreign fees seek student visas.

Even the Internet has failed to escape. The rise of new psychographic technology, big data analytics, twitter bots, Facebook algorithms and fake news websites seem set to manufacture public consent on a scale never been imagined.

This week, the US foreign policy stool seemed set to lose its third leg. Proposals are being considered to cut funding assistance to the UN by 50 per cent and USAID by 30 per cent. America’sinfluence will now have to rely on trade and defence in a world being dominated by China and India. Polarisation politics inevitably isolates those that practice it. Removing constitutional protections, increased policing powers and looking away when human rights are violated is high risk behaviour for politicians not just in America but everywhere. The social cost is being seen in America. Ironically under these circumstances, America’s once lazy democracy could be on the verge of being great again. Live streaming court cases and congressional hearings now rival Kardashians and Oprah Winfrey on most of America’s television and radio stations in popularity.

Fair and open elections

Opinion polls suggest that 87 per cent of Americans still believe in open and fair national elections, 79 per cent uphold the right of citizens to politically protest and 64 per cent advocate for news organisations to report news freely. For the first time since the sixties, active citizenship and acting in the public interest is cool again. Millions of citizens now know their state and federal officials and thousands, many of them women, are considering running for state positions. Attendance at town-hall meetings have grown. Within the first 48 hours of the travel ban, citizens and firms contributed $42 million into the legal defence fund of the American Civil Liberties Union. Thousands swarmed America’s airports supported by pro-bono lawyers filing habeas corpus and gathering affidavits from arriving immigrants. A campaign is now underway to turn cities into sanctuaries of safety for undocumented workers. Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland have already evoked state laws to prohibit racial profiling, detention and deportation.

Non-discrimination and justice are on people’s lips and the placards on marches. Most mobilisation has been peaceful and free of arrests. Some of my readers may miss America’s message to us. Some leaders may even fear the prospect of activist Kenyan citizens. They would prefer to entertain them in rallies, bribe them and comfort them with false promises. Leaders who listen and follow their people don’t need to buy their support.

Empowered citizenship cannot exist in the same mind space as hopelessness and fear. If Kenyans are to serve higher than self, we need leaders to believe in us. Not some of us who share their gender, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation but in all of us. Until we get these leaders, we can borrow a leaf from America today. Our choices and collective actions have far more power to affect our lives. Nothing is pre-destined, everything in our future depends on what we do today.

—The writer is Society for International Development Associate Director. He writes this column in a personal capacity. @irunguhoughton