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Chinua Achebe’s prophesy in ‘A Man of the People’ comes to pass here

Last week, Kenyans were treated to an entertaining circus when our honourable Members of Parliament ended the year in style. Many Kenyans were shocked at the display of violence, dishonour, shame and crassness exhibited by people’s representatives in the august House. However, I was neither surprised nor shocked at the behaviour of our so-called leaders; they did not do anything out of the ordinary.

What we saw on that memorable Thursday is really the stuff politicians are made of and any show of surprise or shock on our part would reveal that we are either naïve or duplicitous. Our political leaders often behave in a revolting manner but their actions in Parliament last week only served to bring to pass Chinua Achebe’s prophesy in A Man of the People (Heinemann, 1966). I suggest we read, or reread, A Man of the People to enable us see the kind of characters who represent us in the National Assembly and Senate and understand why we should not be shocked.

Derisive laughter

Achebe’s A Man of the People is a satirical novel in which Odili, a young university graduate, tells the story of his relationship with Chief Nanga, a Member of Parliament and minister in the government. Nanga is a corrupt, reckless, promiscuous and selfish politician representative of the African political class. Odili is an idealistic young man who greatly desires to see change in his country. Unfortunately, his contact with Nanga threatens to transform him into a Nanga, demonstrating how greed for power and wealth can easily change hitherto insightful people into vile beings.

The scene in parliament during the reading of the Security Bill last week reminds one of a scene in A Man of the People when members of parliament shout down the Minister for Finance as he tries to propose a plan to deal with a slump in the coffee market. The Prime Minister, not wanting to risk losing the next election by reducing the amount of money paid to coffee farmers has ordered the National Bank, the equivalent of Kenya’s Central Bank, to print 15 million pounds.

The Minister of Finance is opposed to the idea and he and his team are accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Members of Parliament allied to the Prime Minister gang up to persecute the Finance minister and his team as they unanimously pass a vote of no confidence in him in parliament.

What happened in Kenya’s parliament last week is similar to the scene in the novel where members shout themselves hoarse and the narrator’s reference to the members, led by Nanga, as “a pack of hounds” aptly captures how the Kenyan parliamentarians behaved on that day – like animals. Odili describes Nanga thus: “Perspiration poured down his face as he sprang up to interrupt or sat back to share in the derisive laughter of the hungry hyenas.”

Indeed, only animal imagery can suitably illustrate the scenes witnessed in Parliament last week. Unfortunately, while the parliamentarians in the novel are opposing a good proposal, one that would help the country, our leaders were fighting to protect a bill which is not well thought through and about which there has not been sufficient consultation. This is not to say that those who were opposed to the bill are not culpable – they too participated in the shameless display instead of seeking a sensible way of airing their opinion.

Achebe may have been writing fiction but what we witnessed last week in Kenya was real. Kenya’s political class is resplendent with Nangas – individuals who do not know the meaning of the words honour, propriety or respect. How do you explain the exchange of blows in the august House? What happened to sobriety and pride among elected representatives of the people? Parliament is supposed to make and pass laws, not through violence and chest thumping but through respectful debate.

Leadership is not about coercing or beating one’s opponents but about convincing them of the validity of one’s opinions. Unfortunately, none of our lawmakers, both in government and in the opposition, has displayed such leadership. How can we be convinced about the soundness of a law that was passed in circumstances of violence; with the speaker of the national assembly surrounded by ‘bodyguards;’ with members of parliament literally standing on the floor of the House? How can we trust the opposition to keep government in check when they too chose to express their displeasure through violence?

Eat-and-let-eat regime

How will the young ones in this country, our Odilis, learn to be respectful when their leaders treat them to such exposes? A senator had his pair of trousers torn and we were exposed to his nakedness; isn’t it taboo for one to see their father’s or grandfather’s nakedness? Another character in the circus had his finger bitten; do we have vampires in parliament?

Perhaps the civil society was right when they dropped some blood licking pigs outside parliament some months back—the metaphor was quite appropriate. This country is surely headed for doom since, just like Odili learns ill manners from Nanga in the novel, the youth in Kenya are daily imbibing lessons in delinquency from our leaders. The younger members of parliament have quickly learnt the ropes and their shameful conduct is even ‘better’ than that of their older colleagues.

Achebe does not place blame squarely on leaders but the media and the masses as well. Kenyans voted for the characters misbehaving in Parliament. We often trade insults, fight and even kill one another on behalf of our representatives. How then can we turn around and pretend to be shocked at their behaviour? Aren’t they just displaying, at the national level, the rot in our society?

Kenyan voters have often been known to vote for the man or woman who dishes out the most money or who makes the most noise regardless of the person’s integrity. We should, therefore, not be shocked when the same person reveals their disgusting self in the very space where they are supposed to make laws and maintain order.

The media, just like in Achebe’s novel, has totally forgotten its role and taken sides in the debacle that is Kenya’s leadership. Instead of unpacking and systematically discussing matters of national importance, and therefore informing and educating the people, the Kenyan media only reports what is going on. The fourth estate has let down the citizens of this country and it stands accused of being an accessory to the anarchy that has besieged Kenya.

What this country needs, just as happens in Achebe’s novel, is change but it will not come by way of our political leaders – they are too greedy to want any meaningful change because the chaos provides fertile ground for them to eat.

What we have is an “eat-and-let-eat” (even if it is fingers) regime. We need a complete overhaul not just of the political class but of our national psyche as well. May this need become our collective desire as we move into the new year.

The writer teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]