Watch lest populism becomes new normal

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Rapid change has become the norm, rather than the exception of the modern world.

Admittedly, disruptions in society, from technology to the economy and even politics, have given rise to what is increasingly becoming known as the age of uncertainty.

It is now apparent that no one has precise inside-information into how the future looks like.

Many times, industry veterans’ ‘sense of knowing’ that breathed confidence into decisions in their respective fields falls short of accuracy as outcomes of events unfold contrary to widely accepted positions.

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Consequently, those who were hitherto considered underdogs, the underachievers, are breaking barriers and redefining the landscape- from economics and finance; to governance and politics; to society and culture. Everything is fluid.

There is no longer the conventional or traditional way of doing things.

The game has changed and so have the rules. But then caution is needed lest we get carried away.With this wave, identity has been lost, at times irredeemably.

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For instance, in the world of politics, before he announced his interest for office, it was beyond imagination that Donald Trump would become President of the United States.

Similarly, the Brexit is termed as a surprise against a common belief that the UK would not leave the European Union.

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Both incidents have earned their place within the covers of a number of bestseller books because they reveal outcomes that were absurdly different from conventional predictions. In both cases, pundits, ‘experts’, politicians, polls and even the media were mostly wrong about the possibilities presented before them. 

Here in Kenya, the famous March 9 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – his bitter rival in two previous elections caught everyone, including the feral media flat-footed.

The two leaders went against what  was popular in their circles, and for a good reason. The peace dividend has been phenomenal to the country’s social fabric.

While many of “failed predictions” are worth a good laugh, sometimes placing hope in sensational claims and even mass euphoria that often feel ‘right’ at a moment can be risky, especially when the consequences are political or economic and involve life-and-death.

But nothing presents an unprecedented and imminent danger to society like the rise of populism. Many times, populism bears a conspiratorial-thinking tone.

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Populist politicians often blame common problems on a minority, creating an ‘us versus them’ narrative that rallies the masses against an easy target.

With the growing significance of social media in the political realm, populist statements now have a medium to reach an unprecedented majority, and interestingly enough, to make it to news headlines at the end of the day.

Oddly enough, even though truth is stranger than fiction, and is often counter-intuitive, populist statements sell more and trigger the emotions of the masses.

Scaring enough, without scrutiny, and proper counter-mechanisms, populist sentiments have the ability to influence public sentiment, often with repercussions.

If anything, the Rainbow wave of 2002 taught us that there is a difference between promise and delivery.

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As the Rainbow wave swept through town, opposition leaders and their supporters were buoyed by the ‘Moi must go’ and that ‘it is our time now to eat the cake’ mantras.

When the rubber hit the road, the new rulers in town realised too late that “state-craft” wasn’t as easy as it seemed at first.

Dejected supporters watched as the Narc coalition tore at each soon after and then finally imploded.Until then, an under par performer, the opposition association had proved a hotchpotch; their schemes, shoddy, feckless, ineffectual and weak.

Political fires

It was no different when they assumed the reigns of power. The ensuing time was spent fighting political fires rather delivering to the masses the political nirvana they claimed Kanu – the former ruling party- had denied them for so long.

Political pundits actually place the 2002 euphoria at the centre of the present-day woes bedeviling the country.

From unemployment, inequality, corrosive politics, entrenched tribalism and the pervasive sense of hopelessness and lack of faith in politics.

While many countries, including ours, have institutions created to deal with emerging social, political and economic issues, populist solutions offer simplistic and sensational alternatives to the same, smearing contempt at the legitimacy of these institutions.

At times, populism clouds our view and consequently, our judgment on emerging social problems.

For instance, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa were a reaction to the commonly held belief that foreigners (particularly from other African countries) are responsible for the social and economic woes in that country.

The media (international) in return, reacted by painting the entire nation as purveyors of xenophobic violence. Both were simple narratives that failed to explain a complex issue such as migration and economic stability.

Mr Mokamba comments on social issues

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President Uhuru KenyattaOpposition leader Raila OdingaBrexit