An anecdotal story — some claim it to be true — is told about some farmers' ingenuity during the time of drought. They reportedly wrap green cellophane around the eyes of their cattle, through which the most dehydrated grasslands appear tantalisingly green and succulent. The cruelty of deceiving emaciated animals into eating thistles and briars and then extracting the last drop of milk, or blood, from them, stands out as an apt metaphor for the cruelty of the Kenyan political scene.
Yet in itself, politics is innocuous and even necessary. Someone said that Kenya's politics is 'very brutal, cunning, complex and demanding; the weak can barely survive. It has no respect for long-term planning and can upset and suck. It seems to stay on quick fixes while revolving around some key permanent personalities and brokers.
But as the cliché goes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Kenyan politicians have tinctured everything around us through incessant torrents of outright and subliminal messages, the incurably political 'cows', with the colour of politics. Most newspaper headlines, social media discourses, interpersonal interactions, entertainment, and increasingly, religious identities are politics by any other name. Are you Tangatanga or Kieleweke? We seem to eat, drink, breathe and dream politics. In the farmers' story, the cows at least get to eat the dry grass. The Kenyan political cellophane does not benefit the 'cows' at all.
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Kenya was once known as a rich nation of promise, endowed with natural wealth, swathes of virgin forests, game reserves, impressive human resources, fertile fields and a great future. The paradox is how a nation perpetually battling overwhelming challenges of poverty, despondency, moral decadency and suffering decades of poor leadership can also afford to lose its global reputation by wallowing into a never-ending cycle of ethnic politics. Even when the fog of despair hung over the land, Kenyans were always stuck in the politics of things.
But why are Kenyans so obsessed with politics? One reason is that Kenyans are idle. Witness the numerous youths who stand by the roadsides daily waiting to listen to politicians as part of their routine and as a form of entertainment. Two, Kenyans are hungry, both physically and metaphysically. For example, a political kerfuffle erupted in Murang' a during a visit by Deputy President William Ruto to a local church. The ensuing fighting was grim, with two unfortunate youths losing their lives.
On the other hand, unlike many other citizens of the world, it is mostly through politics that we Kenyans think about ourselves today. Quoting renowned Cambridge historian John Lonsdale, Kenyan politics is always centered around the belly. This author avers that 'in Kenya, if you are not eating, you are being eaten'. Politics is a topic that obsesses Kenyans to a great extent in all social settings, politics colours and shapes the outcome of most decisions. By our rough estimation 75 per cent, of the Kenyan social and print media output comprises politics.
Kenya has failed to take advantage of long periods of peace, stability, good weather and excellent human resource to nurture a homegrown scholarly and research tradition to match other middle-income nations. With so little attention being given to other issues more relevant to a developing country, nothing is more telling of the upended national priorities than how the remuneration of the academic community compares awfully with the hefty salaries for the political class.
In a bizarre political caste system that sets scholarship at naught, the lowest cadre in the political food chain (MCA) takes home a basic monthly salary of Sh123,750, which blows up to Sh500,000 upon inclusion of allowances. Meanwhile, the academic crème de la crème (professor) has a consolidated absolute maximum of about Sh250,000. For the lucky few higher up the political ladder, there exists a financial nirvana of bursting pay slips and endless allowances up for grabs.
Rampant pilfering of public funds meant to help the underprivileged — by politicians — and which has turned lowlifes into overnight millionaires has not helped matters, instead greatly disincentivising many people who are trying to earn an honest living. For example, distinguished professors have doubled up as charcoal burners, butchery operators and peremende hawkers to make ends meet, leaving the research labs empty.
Academic research in Kenya is no longer appealing for the simple reason that it does not pay. All these realities have had a cumulative negative effect on the national rate of development. Many academicians are simply marking time waiting to join politics at the opportune time and make a real living. The uninspiring 'hustler' lifestyles of university dons can no longer attract upcoming scholars.
The bitter fruits of this addictive political monomania are there for all to see. Since the brief world-class literary productivity of Ngugi wa Thiong' o and his contemporaries during the short post-independent period (unfortunately quashed by the then autocratic regime), there has not been as much creative or scientific effervescent on the Kenyan scene as there should have been with active and deliberate government support.
A point to ponder: Could this unfortunate scenario — dubbed by some as a 'Kenya's literary desert' — also be a reflection of the scholarly mettle of the leaderships of Kenya during the two eras? Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was studious, articulate and a published author. The current president's strengths probably lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, modern Kenya's politics has snowballed into a huge unending national preoccupation.
As the United States of America hurtles towards an election that promises fireworks, it is to the credit of the American people that their civilian institutions have barely been ruffled by the increasingly messy politics of Donald Trump.
The time spent by the Kenyan elites in energetic politicking could be better utilised in bench-marking with the Far Eastern quartet of countries known as The Asian Tigers. Some of these countries were economically at par with Kenya in the 1960s but have since joined the world's wealthiest nations' club.
Much can be said about the variety of democracy practiced in these countries, but suffice it to note that their dazzling economic trajectories owed much to strong, visionary leadership, a dedicated work ethic of the populace, and efficient governance. In contrast, our version of democracy seems to be all sails and no anchor.
Both Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University