Who will save Kenya from a generational leadership crisis?

Kenya's '2nd liberation' heroes Kenneth Matiba and Martin Shikuku. [File, Standard]

The decade of the '60s was a culturally tumultuous period in America as generations of young people rebelled against the conservative values of their parents.

Although there were many factors that contributed to the youthful cultural rebellion, two key issues stand out.

The first was young peoples’ opposition to a senseless Vietnam War which had cost many lives and money. Like the late boxing legend Mohamed Ali opined, his generation was opposed to the war because they did not have any personal quarrel with the average Vietnamese.

A second factor that distinguished the '60s was the civil rights movement. This saw the boiling over of pent-up anger of the African American population against historical injustices and institutionalised discrimination.

While great leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King died in the process, their leadership and sacrifice resulted in passage of civil right laws that broke down many barriers for subsequent generations of minorities and women.

If the sixties were an age of turmoil, the '70s was a period of relative calm in American campuses with majority of students more concerned about pursuing professional careers than railing against the establishment.

In sharp contrast with the young radicals in the '60s who eschewed material things, generations that came out of campuses in the '70s were narcissists who are best remembered for their obsession with designer labels and sporty BMW and Saab Turbo cars.

Compared to their activist predecessors, those who graduated from American colleges in the '70s and early '80s were variously derided as “yuppies” or the “Me generation”.

They were called yuppies because, while the '60s generation attacked historical wrongs with the ferocity of a pack of lions, the historical impact of young people in the '70s was comparatively puppy like tame. The '70s generation was also called the “Me generation” because some critics considered them as terminally in love with themselves as Narcusus.

The contrasting character of '60s and '70s generations in the US provides an apt framework for comparing Kenyan leaders from the pre-colonial period to the present. Like the American activist in the '60s, pre-colonial and colonial period Kenyan leaders were passionate people who stood up for their dignity and freedom.

This group comprised leaders such as Mekatilili wa Menza and Waiyaki wa Hinga who stood up for the dignity of their people against a pre-colonial administration. After Kenya was declared a colony in 1920s a new crop of leaders rose up against the injustices of the colonial administration.

This group was dubbed the first liberation generation and included Mau Mau freedom fighters and pioneering politicians such as Harry Thuku, Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Odinga, Tom Mboya and Ronald Ngala.

A less conspicuous generation but equally impactful were intellectuals who complimented the political liberation struggle with cultural emancipation. This group included a cohort of authors and playwrights such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Mugo who believed that political liberation would be meaningless without decolonising the minds of the citizens.

After independence, Kenyan democracy retrogressed into an oppressive one-party dictatorship that erased gains of the liberation struggle.

 However, and in the finest tradition of legacy of Kenyans fighting for their freedom, a new group of young Turks stepped up to the plate to restore the rights of the citizens. This group was dubbed the second liberation generation and their efforts culminated in promulgation of a new Constitution in 2010.

Just like the anti-Vietnam activist and civil rights crusaders were replaced by a narcissistic Me generation in the US, Kenya’s first and second liberation generation has been replaced by a self-seeking leadership whose sole obsession is power and wealth.

This is a materialistic group whose most animated moment is when they come together to fight for higher salaries and perks. As one social commentator observed, this is a group chronically addicted to the smell of upholstery of a new SUV and the alluring serenity of the leafy suburbs.

Unlike the first and second liberation generation who were born before independence, the Kenyan version of the Me generation comprises mostly leaders born in post-independence Kenya who are ironically better educated.

However, despite being smarter, the Kenyan version of the Me generation has evolved a Machiavellian political culture that preys on the ignorance of the average hustler to acquire wealth and influence. Since the end of their political effort is personal gain, they are completely amoral and will accept anyone to their cartel as long as the new recruit can advance their quest for power and wealth.

As slaves of a materialistic culture, they are unable to make the requisite personal sacrifices in order to get the economy on the right path.

As Kenya’s economy titters on the verge of collapse the question that begs is whether a new generation of leadership will step up to the plate to save the nation from a generational leadership that is imprisoned in its own greed for wealth and power.