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Kenya’s elite must think, dream big to pull us out of this cesspit

By Makau Mutua | June 30th 2019

Every Kenyan who has had the opportunity to travel abroad – especially to the West and the emergent countries in Asia – knows first-hand what development looks like. 

Of course, real problems persist in these countries, but the fact that they are developed – compared to Kenya and other African states – cannot be gainsaid. Yet Kenya remains mired in poverty, disease, and ignorance. The question is why. 

Are we doomed to live in squalor? How have other peoples – and states – been able to unlock the genius of development? Who is responsible for our backwardness? When will our people stop running to the West to escape privation? In other words, how shall we get our dignity back? I offer basic ideas here.

I am going to stipulate to a number of antecedent factors for our backwardness. The triple traumas of slavery, colonialism and the cold war top the list. These evils set us back. That’s because they created a scandalous international political, legal and economic order that continues to ravage us. 

That’s why we envy the West, and want to be its dumb copies. My stomach turns when I see simple manifestations of inferiority. An example is the obsession by black African women to look white, or European.

You just need to look at Kenya’s female celebrities and their fake long wigs to get my point. It’s sad – and extremely depressing. It shows a total submission to myths of white beauty.

We know our recent history, and it’s not very constructive. On top of the post-traumatic stress disorder that’s been inflicted on us by the West – and now the East – we have engaged in self-cannibalisation and self-mutilation as a people and as a state. Our elites have been excruciatingly myopic. 

Too much individual ambition in a blind quest for power and no vision for the country. Political power in Kenya is the sine qua non for looting the public purse. Power serves no other purpose.  None. It’s for the pigs to feed at the trough. Just go back to the village, or town, where you were born. If you are over 50, you will realise not much has changed.

The place of your birth, even if it includes Nairobi, is a human wasteland. Open sewers, dirt or dilapidated roads, water that’s unfit for human consumption when it’s available, lack of electricity which is characterised by blackouts (more like whiteouts) and astronomical charges when you get it, sorry hospitals and health centres which lack medicines, poor schools, and unsightly garbage heaps strewn everywhere. 

These are the hallmarks of a society with a deep psychosis. Yet our leaders fight each other every day about who will preside over the looting of the garbage heap that our country has become.

But our people – the victims of this cruel reality – wait patiently.  They don’t rise up and demand change. They cower in fear.

The people – the hoi polloi – need to put the elite in a pressure cooker or nothing will ever change. The people need to pose an existential threat to the elite. We have hit rock bottom, and the only place to go is up.

I have also said before, and will say it again. No society in history has ever advanced without a great and insightful elite – none. 

The elite must take purposeful steps to dig Kenya out of the hole. This is what happened in all other societies in the West, and more recently, in Asia. It’s not rocket science. It’s genocidal futility to borrow gobs of money from China and then unbelievably eat all of it through corrupt cartels.

This is what we must do. First, we must develop a sense of the national interest that’s separate and apart from the personal interest. And stop invoking the tribe every time we are caught stealing. Those fighting the state’s war against corruption by claiming that it’s politicised are yo-yoing like a thin reed because only the guilty are afraid. 

It’s corrupt and hypocritical. Tell us where you got the money to buy your helicopters and mansions when we know you were a pauper just the other day. Second, let’s punish corruption without pity. I mean mercilessly.

Calamitous times call for drastic measures. Make officials publicly declare their wealth on the pain of perjury and forfeit the wealth if it’s unjustifiable. 

Third, we need to develop a deep hatred for mediocrity. This is one of the banes of the psychology of Kenyans. We don’t hate mediocrity. We say failure is god’s will. That is utter nonsense. While failure is an opportunity to learn, it’s not the will of the metaphysical. It’s our own shortcoming.

Finally, we need to develop a national consciousness. Let’s stop hiding under the tribe’s skirt at every turn. Let’s think big. Let’s dream big. Let’s act even more boldly.

- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua.

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