Populist ideas may surprise you in next year’s elections

President Uhuru Kenyatta's motorcade, Parliament, 2018. [Beverlyne Musili, Standard]

This is “them against us” season. In America, Trump’s shocking 2016 win rode on a wave that demonised “them”; liberals, accused of “contaminating America’s values” and allowing “brown-skinned immigrants and Muslims” into “our America”.

In Britain, the shocking loss of the Remainers in the Brexit referendum was about “them”; that lot in Brussels putting Britain on the periphery of its own affairs, including having to answer to European Courts and allowing all manner of undesirables into the “Queendom”.

In the rest of Europe, populist parties, who have found a bogeyman for a population feeling disenfranchised, have won or increased their parliamentary numbers in hitherto unimaginable proportions. While Hungary’s Victor Orban is the poster boy for extreme right populism, parties espousing anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-vaccination and other populist themes have grown in France, Spain, Greece. I raise this issue to bring to our attention that the wave of populism has hit Kenya. Anyone who thinks the elections 2022 will be won by boardroom negotiations, policy elaborations or our traditional ethnic mathematics may well be living in a fool’s paradise. Several factors make Kenya ripe for a populist win.

Many citizens, particularly our buoyant youth, feel disenfranchised and are reeling from the impact of a struggling economy. Related to this is the fact that President Uhuru’s greatest achievement, infrastructure, has opened people’s eyes to the presence of growth in parts of the economy. Evidence of growth is visible in all the construction and traffic jams, but the youth are not co-partakers. Unfortunately, the President’s central government-driven development has also had the unintended consequences of raising the profile of the Presidency.

The Presidency can guarantee roads, railways and dams in any corner of Kenya.  Governors on the other hand are weaker than Provincial Commissioners, always moaning the lack of resources. We are back to 2007 where all that mattered was the Presidency!  

Where did we lose the game and fail to recognise that part of devolving was to reduce the focus on the Presidency? This environment then becomes most ripe for a “hustler” movement that can win by creating an “us”, the excluded. Never mind that the sellers of the movement are the ultimate includeds. But so was Trump.

The billionaire who promised to “make America Great Again” for the “fellow strugglers” who had been forgotten in the “other America”; even though Trump’s America had always been great.

Kenya’s “them”, “the dynasties” are an easy target. It is because of “these dynasties” that we have suffered and are suffering. And that term can be applied liberally to anyone by virtue only of them not being hustlers. The latest slogan “sipangwingwi” coming after the people-centred “bottom-up” is another masterstroke. It speaks to the rejection of “being managed”, by “them” and rhymes neatly with the “dynasty” and “anti-system” tag.

I am waiting to see what the response of the anti-hustlers will be when proper campaigns start. Gratuitous advice; it cannot be solely defined by a preview of history or a listing of projects accomplished.

As Governor Mutahi Kahiga reminded us, Kenya’s history is contested. Our history also reminds many of brutal economic battery. As for projects, wrong season; these will only be remembered long after polls.

In the meantime, “will we eat tarmac?” is an infuriating but regular question. As Raila Odinga, one of our most uncelebrated revolutionaries knows, the most credible manifestos are easily forgotten in the muddle of politics of immediacy.

He must beware of being pangwingwid and get his team into overdrive to create a viable response to the increasingly attractive populist narratives. Failing that, he may end up in kaburi ya sahau, system notwithstanding. As for the Hustler team, whoever is coining your tag lines deserves an award.