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An engineer gave three teams of people a simple challenge. The first team was a group of nursery school children, the second was university business students, and the third a team of lawyers.

The task was to construct the tallest structure possible using dry uncooked spaghetti, some string and cellotape.   

The group of nursery children won the challenge. These little children who had the least experience, were the least competent and had the least general knowledge won. The advantage that the kids had over the lawyers and university students was their interaction.

While their older competitors were analysing the task and discussing the right strategy to follow, the little kids just started the task. While the students and lawyers were establishing a hierarchy in the group and criticising each other’s ideas, the kindergarteners were experimenting, discarding whatever does not work and focusing on the job at hand.      

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Another example. The English football team in the 1998 World Cup was ‘all star’. They were led by the talented David Beckham. The team was made up of big names and big personalities, arguably the best soccer players in the world. They were all Champions’ League winners and multiple Premier League winners.

Tribal tensions

But when they were put together there was a massive clash of egos. They were good on paper but not so good on the football pitch. Not only did they not win the World Cup that year, but they also did not take home a single trophy. 

When it comes to successful groups, skills matter less than the quality of interaction. Poor interaction causes a shift of focus from the task at hand to in-fighting, competition and an over-analysis of one’s status in the group. 

Take the tiny group that is in charge of governing the country, the Executive. I have argued in the past that an expanded Executive is good for the country, that it will make for wider ethnic representation and diffuse the tribal tension that we experience every election year. 

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But allow me to flip the argument today. With only two people at the Executive, we already have a dysfunctional group dynamic. How much more problematic will a group of five be? How much less focused will the president, prime minister, deputy president and two deputy prime ministers be on the task at hand, and squabble about hierarchy, politics and strategy? 

Disgruntled premier

We need to look no further than the ‘nusu mkate’ years. The years of the coalition government, defined by a disgruntled prime minister.

Raila Odinga was forever telling us that he was not getting the protocol and privileges he ‘deserved’. The attention was not on the task at hand, which was governing a divided country. The attention was on political merit and skill. Because Raila was an important, politically skilled man, hierarchy and recognition in the group were far more urgent and important to him. 

Today, these issues are repeating themselves. Even with a much smaller Executive of two people, the dysfunctional group dynamics are apparent. While the president is his deputy’s boss, he began as the DP’s partner. In 2013, their relationship was symbiotic. Each would not ascend to presidency or deputy presidency without the other.

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At that time, the ‘dynamic duo’ sold us a brilliant vision. This vision was the ‘task at hand’, but after getting into office, focus shifted to the group dynamic. Just like the university students and the lawyers, the president and his deputy’s relationship is consumed by hierarchy, protocol and status.   

But worse than the ‘nusu mkate’ years, the Constitution now allows for an even more dysfunctional group dynamic.

Article 147 states that the DP’s role is to be the principal assistant of the president and to deputise for the president in the execution of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. This means that without the president, the DP has no job. On the day the president decides he does not like the shape of his deputy’s head, or no longer enjoys his company, he can sideline him. 

If their ‘group dynamic’ no longer works for the president, the DP is rendered a lame duck. He can be cut off from the governance loop at the speed of light. Political and official seclusion is easy. And because this dynamic is entrenched in the Constitution, we are likely to see permanent dysfunction at the Executive till kingdom come.

-The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]


Politics Executive
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