Raila Odinga is right. We are all either hustlers, or we have been. The unstated thing is which type. It is a conversation Kenya must have, free of the animus that has informed the discourse this far. Deputy President William Ruto has framed the 2022 election as a contest between what he calls the dynasties and the hustlers. This has been understood differently by different persons, depending on where they stand.
Of particular interest is the conflictual definition of a hustler and the so-called hustler nation. Going hand in glove with this is the perception of who is corrupt, and who is not. Again, this is a conversation we must engage in, but not in the manner we have done so far.
The challenge with the hustler idiom is that it is what in linguistics is called a contranym. A contranym is a word that has two or more meanings as opposed to each other. The word apology, for example, is a contranym. If you do something that offends other people, you can give an apology. One way to apologise is to admit your mistake and take responsibility. You show remorse. But you could also stick to your guns. You deny any wrong and, instead, justify what you have done. This, too, is to apologise.
Such is language. It baffles us. You peruse a document by taking a cursory look at it. But if you also study it closely, you have perused it. You dust something to remove the dust. But if you add dust to something, you have also dusted it. You consult, when you give advice. Yet you also consult when you seek and receive advice. So, now, which is which? To continue is to suspend activity. Yet to keep doing it is also to continue. Oh, this beautiful and yet ever so confusing language! Refrain is to stop, but it could also be to repeat!
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So, who is a hustler? Some will tell you a rogue. A male prostitute. A fraudster. But others will tell you that a hustler is a diligent person. A hardworking and focused individual, who strives against hardship and wins. A go-getter. And both are right. In Kenya, therefore, we must agree on the possibility of both applications of the idiom. There are those who have defrauded the country. And there are those who have dashed worked hard. There is even the possibility of someone being both. The issue is that we must have this conversation.
One thing is not in doubt. Concert with the state. Proximity with the state seems to create billionaires. Kenya has had five states, if we could use another linguistic notion – metonymy. There has been the colonial state, the Kenyatta One state, the Nyayo state, the Kibaki state and today the Uhuru, or Kenyatta Two, state. Phase two of the Kibaki state has also been called the Kibaki-Odinga state. Each of these states has generated billionaires.
Whichever way you look at it, there are wealthy state-generated billionaires. How did all these previously poor people become so vastly wealthy? They hustled. If you were not directly involved, your progenitor did it for you. What we need to know is whether it was an honest hustle, or a fraud. But we cannot hold this debate selectively. Hence, one day some governor somewhere is as holy and clean as grade one cotton. The next day he is being dragged to court, kicking and screaming. On the third day he visits some office where he is sanitised, and the case is forgotten.
Elsewhere, Prof Makau Mutua will write in the weekly press praising Martha Karua. He will patronisingly say how she has neat anti-corruption credentials. Then he will go on to liken these credentials with those of governors Ann Waiguru and Charity Ngilu. He will conclude with what must be assumed to be unsolicited advice to Karua. That she must remain like Ngilu and Waiguru. She should not allow herself “to be a running mate to a thief” in the 2022 presidential race. Prof Mutua, now this is a perfect linguistic oxymoron. You don’t compare oranges with tomatoes. Waiguru has some well-known economic and financial credentials. Are they comparable to Karua’s? Is she politically comparable to Ngilu and Karua? Really?
Part of our challenge is a surfeit of disingenuous professors, like Makau Mutua. If Karua will not be with Mutua’s preferred hustler, then she should be blackmailed not to be anywhere else.
That is the game. This bloviating scholar called Mutua was my contemporary at the University of Nairobi in the early 1980s. Let us just say the “puppyism” of the 1980s has matured into full blown dogmatism, 40 years later. Hence if you can prostrate yourself before Capitol Hill, or before the Big House on the Hill, the focus on your economic crimes simply evaporates.
If you say no to these two edifices, they will haunt you out of office and public space with all manner of accusations, and with full backup and apologia from bloviating and ingratiating scholars.
I repeat. The debate on corruption and on the hustler nation are two obligatory assignments Kenya must undertake. But they must be reframed. We cannot get anywhere with the present framework, where the pot is calling the kettle black.
How have Kenya’s billionaires made their wherewithal? As Odinga says, either the billionaires themselves, or their progenitors, were just as poor people as the rest of us. We also know the offices they have occupied and the take-home. So how did they become billionaires? We must hold this conversation.
- The writer is a strategic communications consultant