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True leaders must be brave enough to confront poverty

By Barrack Muluka | January 30th 2021
Pupils head to a school in Kibera. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

The most discussed text in political scholarship in the last century opens with the words, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their famous work in February 1848. The Communist Manifesto sparked a controversy that is still raging. 

The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s invited into question the exciting ideas in the manifesto. Cynics and critics, especially, celebrated the “triumph of capitalism over socialism” with the fall of the Soviet Union and rebirth of Russia, with numerous sister states from the former union and her allies. 

Today, Leninist-Marxism is largely relevant only as a framework for scholarly discussions. Central in this framework is the notion of “class struggles.” Marx and Engels thought that from the day that society first happened up to 1848, the order of human relations was ruled by struggles. The struggles divided society into distinct classes. And the classes were permanently in competition against each other. They dreamt of an impossible classless society. 

These thoughts are relevant today, when Kenyans are confronted with a conversation on social classes, and class struggles. So far, political discussions and competitions have been hugely based on ethnicity. It is telling that the country finds it normal to mobilise along tribal lines, but is afraid of conversations on class struggles. 

Last Saturday, I sat through a funeral in my native home area, patiently listening to a self-tickling local political class. Oblivious of the sadness and tears of the bereaved, they took us through a chain of tirades on why and how our tribe should produce the next president. Visitors from other tribes listened keenly as we told the world that it was our turn. “We have occupied every important office in the land, except one,” a vocal youthful leader said, “Now we want to ascend to the very top.” And Kenya should make way for us.  Without a doubt, similar conversations are going on elsewhere. Alpha male politicians who preach unity among Kenyans retreat to their tribal backyards to charge the tribes with the feeling, “It is now our turn. We have been misused. We are owed debts. We are going for nothing less.”

In the end, therefore, it is acceptable to excite our tribes, even as Kenya moves towards next year’s elections. Any other platform of mobilisation is said to be “dangerous.” The hustler and dynasty narrative is especially considered very unsafe. Its detractors have said, “It can ignite a class war.”

Experience shows that Kenyans have had bloody ethnic conflicts related to politics, and especially to elections. Recent violent face-offs in Murang’a (Kenol), Githurai and Shauri Moyo Nairobi, suggest that we could be rehearsing for the next wave around August next year – with or without the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). 

Ironically, the rumblings this time are being generated by dispute about the BBI. Some say BBI is the silver bullet that will end all problems in the country. Others say it is a poisoned chalice. It will kill everything good. They say BBI is the property of what they call “dynastic families.” Through it, they say, five families can rule Kenya forever.  For their part, the accused have shifted the notion of “dynasty” to mean “the propertied.”

A dynasty is actually a ruling family, and not a propertied family. Whether there are dynasties in Kenya remains a debatable issue. It is a debate that could, however, be conducted without hostility and deliberate distortion. This distortion risks plunging the country into a mess. For, if people understand that their relatively better off neighbours are the cause of their problems, disaster is not too far off. 

A country that can scream about tribes for six decades ought to be able to hold a sober conversation on class issues and how to remedy them. For, as the scholars say, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. 

One hundred years after Marx and Engels, George Orwell wrote in 1948, “Throughout recorded time, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low... The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are.

“The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is the abiding characteristic of the low that they are too crushed by drudgery to be more than conscious of anything out of their daily lives – is to abolish everything and create a society in which all men shall be equal.”

Clearly, we are never going to create such a society. For the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. This is the case everywhere – without exception. It will be the same with all future societies. Yet the disparities between the classes ought not to be so harsh, so glaring. 

In 2015, Kenya joined the rest of the UN family in ratifying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2030. At the heart of these goals is the ambitious agenda of “ending poverty.” Kenya has signed up to ending poverty by 2030. She will not achieve this goal if her leaders are afraid of talking about poverty. And poverty remains the biggest threat to peace, everywhere. Instead of the violent rehearsals towards August 2022, is it possible for us to reboot the conversation? 

-The writer is a strategic public communications advisor.

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