The by-election in Msambweni reminds us that in the end history is about the common people. Traditionally, history has been understood to be the preserve of royalty, in its majesty and misery. It has talked of regal frolics and conspiracies, as well as conquests and misfortunes of great military generals.
When they talk of rise and fall of empires only the monarchs matter. The people are objects on the landscape, part of the theatres in which the mighty perform. In a sense, this grand tradition of history refuses to go away. Journalism, for example, remains much focused on presidents, prime ministers and the rich and famous. Ordinary people don’t make news. Accordingly, they don’t make history either. Journalism students are taught that prominence is a major news quality. And prominence is about royalty, stardom and wealth. Common people are prominent only in massive happenings, like disasters. Even then, they remain statistics.
Because history helps us to know who are, not much is known about the ordinary people when great men and women reign. Nothing much is told about them in their own times, and less still in future. Even their great moments are appreciated in the shadows of the great people of their times.
Nothing much is said about their beliefs and ways of thinking, or their social structures. And so, the big story of the day remains the heroic narrative of the great master. The history told tomorrow is also about the master. The small man and woman are lost in the dustbin of history.
Despite being statistics, the common people sometimes strike so hard that they just must be noticed. Royalty wakes up to the reality that common folk, too, are makers of news and history. What happened in Msambweni was not just competition in the top-heavy political class. Yes, the contest was billed as a challenge between ODM leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. It also remains much about the BBI and about 2022.
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- 3 Raila: Why we lost Msambweni
- 4 Feisal Bader sworn in as Msambweni MP
Even the two leading candidates, Feisal Bader and Omar Boga, were essentially chessmen on the chessboard. President Uhuru Kenyatta wormed his way into the competition. His arrival gave the duel the ultimate character of a royal battle. His images with the ODM candidate in State House Mombasa swamped the social media. At the apex of the ensuing excitement, Mr Odinga let the cat out of the bag. The competition was the curtain raiser to the BBI referendum, he said. He understood that BBI was very popular.
The idea is that BBI is only going through necessary motions before the ultimate success, sometime next year. The common people of Msambweni, however, have other thoughts. Civic affairs around them are about them, and not about the big boys. They are not alone in this. You get the same message almost everywhere else. The common people are getting fatigued by a self-absorbed political class. Ordinary conversations and folklore point to a citizenry yearning for change. It does not seem to be the kind of self-focused change that dominates discourse in the political class.
It’s change that transforms people from passive players and observers in the making of their story. For what has been the common man’s story? At one time, the nation was lumped together as a class of hewers of wood and fetchers of water for the colonial master. It disaggregated itself into two internal classes of resisters against colonial oppression and collaborators with the system.
From colonial oppression they moved on to dialogues of independence and hope. The story of independence, however, morphed into long dark nights. The nights refused to give way to new dawns and fresh mornings. The people ceased being subjects. They became objects on political canvases. Any elite politician could paint them on these canvases howsoever he wished.
That, at any rate, would seem to be the philosophy driving political debates in the country today. The top brass knows that the difficult bit is to reach consensus within its ranks. Once that has been done, the common people are expected to put on the rubber stamp.
Does Msambweni seem to be a wake-up call? In 2017, the people of Msambweni, alongside half of the Kenyan electorate, were going to what NASA leaders called Canaan. Mr Odinga was their leader. He would later explain that they got to River Jordan and encountered crocodiles. They had to beat a retreat. They sought to build bridges to take them across the Jordan, and on to the Promised Land.
Associating the by-election with the proposed bridges across the Jordan is possibly what messed up things for ODM and its leader. If this by-election was a test case, as Mr Odinga said, then it proves one thing. Kenyans now know where Canaan is and how to get there. They are already embarked on the road to Canaan. They remain open to their leaders joining them. They will travel on, however, with whoever is willing to join them.
Those leaders who do not wish to join the people on this mission can remain in the wilderness. It’s up to them. In Msambweni, Murang’a, Kakamega and everywhere, the political class is invited to begin listening to people. Whoever doesn’t listen, your goose is cooked. The foul language and insults in Msambweni did not deter the people. Kenyans are now ready to make and write their own history. Leaders will ignore them at their own risk and peril.
-The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.