Africa must send its dirty pollutants out of politics

Today you do not read much about Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). Wilson was the one individual who dominated global news outlets during the First World War (1914 1918). The only other person to dominate the public mind was the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

Yet the 28th two-term American President is the kind of person I should recommend to anybody, if they were seeking a role model.

This fiercely independent-minded statesman was at once a lawyer, an academician, a prolific writer and a peacemaker. We owe the UN system to Wilson. He led the great powers of the day to embrace the idea of League of Nations for global peace in 1919.

After the Second World War, the League of Nations gave way to the United Nations, with the US as the most prominent member.

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Wilson easily passes for Plato’s philosopher-king, the kind of person who should govern. In 2000, a panel of academicians voted him the third best American president of the 20th Century. Of course, Wilson was himself the President of the respected Princeton University before going into politics. He left academia in 1910 to serve as governor of New Jersey, before running for president two years later. He easily beat the incumbent William Howard Taft and his predecessor to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt.

But why do I want to talk about Wilson? The squalid health of the political space in Africa calls for respected scholars to consider political careers. Where are Africa’s philosopher kings? While teaching at John Hopkins in 1888, Wilson famously said, “A professorship is the only feasible place for me, a place that can afford me the leisure for reading and for original work, the only strictly literary berth with an income attached.”

I feel this man. Undoubtedly, many academics think like him. They want to stay in the safe spaces – to read and write and be paid for it. Do we need to smoke them out of that comfort zone? Some of those who have left the zone, like Makueni’s Kivutha Kibwana, imbues us with hope. The humble professor of law justifies Plato’s belief that philosophers should be kings and kings philosophers.

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Perhaps it is time to headhunt them for politics, if they will not rattle us like Health Cabinet Secretary George Magoha. When the Democrats in New Jersey headhunted Wilson in 1910, he said, “It came to me unsought, unanimously, and without pledges to anybody about anything.”

Wilson easily won in New Jersey and went on to become the President of the US, only two years after Princeton. He brought some level of order to the political space. He is credited with a sober independent mind that led to some of the most progressive legislation ever in the US. Politics need to be brought to order in Kenya. We urgently need politicians of Wilson’s calibre.

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Our political space is a rogue environment. Here, a male MP will box the ears of a woman colleague in the precincts of Parliament and attract no outrage. A governor may choose a national public function as the occasion to tell a female leader, “I am not your husband. Stop making calls to me, as if I was your husband.”

The assembly will laugh and cheer him. It will boo the woman leader as she walks away. Another leader will engage in roadside publicity stunts, like a rehashed show of eating maize and bananas on the roadside. Some people will think that this is such a great achievement. Political parties are full of rogues without manners.

The notion has, therefore, evolved in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa that those who think should not act. Acting should be left to those who do not think. Accordingly, those who act don’t think. And so you find foul mouths everywhere in political space.

Hence, a scholar in the political space, may be asked, “What are you doing in politics?” The message is clear. Politics is dirty. It should be left to filthy individuals. Yet people like Woodrow Wilson encourage us to know that it is not politics that is dirty. It is the people in politics.

In 1983, iconic novelist Chinua Achebe had a short stint in politics in Nigeria. Achebe was the Deputy National President of the People’s Redemption Party. The party was led by the hugely respected Mallam Aminu Kano. Around him was a college of men and women of repute. Nigerians asked, “What are they doing in politics?”

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Mercifully, the gifted playwright and poet Vaclav Havel became the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic without people asking, “What is he doing in politics?” Barack Obama, an outstanding scholar by any definition, requires no discussion. Politics has given us reputable thinkers like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin.

Other notables are names like FD Roosevelt, Charles De Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah and Jomo Kenyatta. You do not have to be a thug because you occupy political space. The thinking, however, that those who think should not act, has filled up this space with polluters and pollutantsinstead of politicians.

Elsewhere in the world, they do not allow such polluters to survive in political space. They will hound them out of office. Africa must learn to send dirtypollutants out of politics.

- The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.

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