I am dying. We all are. No-one escapes death. With this certainty, we can all turn to the legacies we want for ourselves and our leaders. The deaths of Joseph ole Nkaissery, G G Kariuki, Nicholas Biwott and Bethuel Kiplagat over the last few weeks generated national mourning and derision in equal measure. Although all four were State Officers for most of their lives, they left very different personal and public legacies. Their demise illuminates the important choices before us on August 8.
Leaders cannot be separated from the context of their time. Kenya was a dark place of despair before 2003. The State was incapable of protecting public resources. The Judiciary cannibalised laws at the whim of the Executive.
While Biwott and Kariuki were architects of this system, the legacies of most State Officers remain tainted by their silence or complicity with human rights abuses. Many chose not to confront the violence, suffering and destruction that came with the one-party system. Dissent and acting in the public interest was a dangerous path to take. Only the few who stood up against this tyranny will be absolved by history.
Thankfully, the conditions that gave rise to the fear and sycophancy of the 80s and 90s are no longer with us. Our leaders can no longer claim it is dangerous to have an independent mind. They cannot argue that laws prohibit freedom of expression and the right to association. Quite the reverse, leaders are required to bring honour, dignity and public confidence to the office.
Combine this with the principle of “command responsibility” and leaders can also now be held responsible for their failure to act. We can be grateful for Nkaissery’s assertive leadership style in this regard. It reversed the divisions within the intelligence and military communities that left us vulnerable to extremist militants.
A decade ago, I was asked by a very uncomfortable State Official how he could remove incriminating articles from showing up every time his name was searched on the internet. The answer then, would be the same now, “take full responsibility and do lots of good.”
The mark of great leaders has been the humility to declare errors of past judgement and a willingness to be held accountable for them. We are not our past actions or inactions unless we stop evolving. Having spent long hours with Kiplagat in 2008, I know he understood this. It was fundamental to his beliefs as a peace-mediator and a mentor to youth.
Leadership is also boldness. Let me be specific before I am challenged that Idi Amin of Uganda too, was a bold leader. Bold and ethical leaders are also easy to spot. Values rather than vices distinguish them. They are the ones that have courageously taken personal risks to advance the interests of others. They do not need a public title or salary to act in the public interest. Behind them are followers who produce results and see their lives change.
Legacies therefore are not constructed from a series of past incidents. They are our entire body of work. Painted on a wide canvas with many colors, moments of brilliance and darkness sit side by side. Only those making small and safe choices have the luxury of perfect and unblemished legacies. Leaders do stumble and we must catch them in these moments also.
In this way, our leaders’ legacies are much like our lives, a collection of both good and bad habits. Vicious and violent leaders have simultaneously been loving fathers and thoughtful husbands. This may need clarity for some. We wouldn’t put a recurrent drunk in charge of a bar or a serial rapist in charge of a school however good a father he was. Why would we elect a habitual thief to manage our taxes? We would if we were intentionally sabotaging our future.
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr advised us to measure a leader by the positions he or she took in times of controversy and the acute challenges facing society. It remains as relevant today as it did then.
Silence in the face of inequalities, impunity and theft of public resources is complicity whether you are a leader or a citizen. In two weeks’ time, we get to vote for who will lead us. All the candidates will have legacies. Study them carefully before you allow them into our public offices.
The writer is Society for International Development Associate Director. @irunguhoughton