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After Obama: A return to reality, unless we work towards change

By XN Iraki | July 28th 2015
President Barack Obama, left, listens as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during a news conference at State House, on Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya.  [AP Photo]

Human beings have always looked for someone to solve their problems since the dawn of civilisation. That is why most civilisations had a religion with elaborate ceremonies and rituals to solve problems, from drought to infertility. One ineffective way to solve problems was to attribute them to someone or something, hence the popularity of witches and scapegoats.

Today, that thinking has persisted. We are still looking for someone to solve our problems. Obama is one such person. That is why he was awaited with so much anticipation. Through him, we saw solutions to our problems, from terrorism to slow economic growth.

Obama has now left for the US. He will leave us to solve our problems, from the obvious like unemployment to the less obvious like our dislike for each other based on ethnicity. We tried to copy the American political model, but forgot every country is unique.

Long before us, Nigeria tried to copy the US system with states, governors and elections every four years. It is still plagued by the same old problems.

Singapore, which we admire, tried a home-grown political system, it worked despite all its shortcomings. China is even more unique. It has built capitalism on a platform of communism, further buttressing the importance of national uniqueness.

Less than a decade after we got a new Constitution, we are complaining about the devolution of corruption to counties. It seems the Constitution did not solve our problems, despite all the excitement around it. No wonder we are still looking for someone like Obama to solve our national issues.

We are reluctant to accept that Obama is not our president — all 44 American presidents can trace their roots to another country. After all, there has never been a Native American president from Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Lakota, Navaho or Cherokee. Did the other presidents generate as much excitement when they visited their ‘roots’?

Tribal identity

Maybe we need to start by defining the national problems that have defied solutions for more than 50 years.

They start with national identity. Fifty years after uhuru, we still have not coalesced into a nation like the US, which despite its diversity is a nation. How come the US can assimilate anyone from anywhere in the world to become an American? Why can’t we do the same here? How come Kenyans who go to the US become so assimilated that they even ‘get lost’ there? Barack Obama Sr and hosts of other Kenyans who returned after their studies must be congratulated.

Let us be blunt, most Kenyans, education apart, identify with their tribes, and then the nation. That tribal identity makes it hard to recognise achievers from other tribes (or communities, to be politically correct).

We prefer achievers from other places like the US, hence Obama’s popularity. We name our children Kennedy, Washington or Marilyn, but rarely after local achievers. How many have named their children Wangari after Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s only Nobel laureate? Or even Otunga after Cardinal Otunga?

Identity gnaws on our self-confidence and makes us believe that other people are better at solving our problems than we are. That is why we are forever calling for foreign investors. Why don’t we call for local investors, like inter-county investors? If I am from Laikipia and I visit Machakos as an investor, how seriously shall I be taken?

We even give special privileges to foreign investors, like tax breaks. How can we beg people to come and make money when we can make it ourselves?

Our other problem is that we celebrate failure. While we are all celebrating Obama’s success, the truth is that most people rarely celebrate success unless it is their own. We try to cut others to size, disparaging their ideas. We believe that one person must fail for another to be successful.

In economic speak, of all factors of production, the most critical one is people and their mindset. Land and capital are innocent.

Obama has left, and the reality that our problems are best solved by ourselves is going to emerge.

Yet, that is not our mindset. We still prefer to blame each other. The various arms of Government often blame each other, county and national governments blame each other, yet they were elected by the same people.

Opportunities, not challenges

We filled billboards, newspapers and prime time on TV with President Obama. Unless we confront the reality, we shall be back to where we were before Obama. Retired President Moi once asked Kenyans if the number of sufurias of ugali would increase if he gave them a vice president. We might ask the same question as regards Obama’s visit.

After all the celebrations, it is now you and yourself.

I hope Obama’s trip will start changing our mindset to see opportunities not challenges, to see possibilities not impossibilities.

The entrepreneurship summit is over, what remains is watering the great innovations to build the next generation of Kenyan transnational firms that will create jobs and build our confidence, so that one day, this country will stand out among the nations, and when our president visits other countries, their citizens can be intimidated and awed by our products and services.

By the way, the visit by Chinese businessmen to State House, just before Obama’s visit was an interesting twist. It confirmed my suspicion that the US President’s visit had another objective — to serve as a countervailing force to rising Chinese influence.

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi School of Business. [email protected]

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