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Kenya's lost decades of dashed hopes, and pain

By Andrew Kipkemboi | Jul 20th 2020 | 4 min read

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th Century philosopher, once wrote: “Freedom is a most succulent dish, but one that is difficult to digest.”

It was his thinking that citizens needed to “build up strength long before they are able to digest the life-giving nutrient of freedom.” He did (or didn’t have) in mind the other truism that people deserve the leaders they elect. So, in spite of the freedom, things have remained the same.

You could ask why, 30 years after the second liberation (or return of freedom), we seem to be going full cycle; history repeating itself. It is not unusual for a meeting among the chattering classes to degenerate into a lamentation of how something seems eerily amiss with the country.

I am an incurable optimist. I believe in today, tomorrow and the day after. I am also a realist who cuts his losses in good time. In other words, I am not one to say it could have been worse. Those who do, accept the average. I believe that things could have been better.

The week before, protesters marking 30 years since Saba Saba protests agitating for more freedom and the return to multiparty democracy were roughed up and arrested.

Elsewhere in Limuru - where it all started - there was a low key event that attracted less than a few mentions in mainstream media. 

Former Justice Minister Martha Karua and former Ethics PS John Githongo read out a script that were it 1990, would have been a headline.

In Parliament, the ruling Jubilee Party was taking the Opposition hostage with the old carrot and stick formula – one can’t help but chuckle at how Jubilee has spent half of its second term playing tricks on itself, seemingly forgetting that its job was to govern and govern well. 

After spending so much time telling us that it rather were they and not Jubilee governing - without demonstrating how – the Opposition is now sitting squarely in government in a trance, memsmerised by the trappings of power. With great merriment, some of them are not shy to demonstrate what it feels to taste absolute power. 

Why is Kenya’s case one of four steps forward and three steps backward? Why, for example, is it that those who question why the Opposition has gone to bed with an administration it fought so hard to replace are pilloried and trolled on social media? Worse still, those who question why things are the way they are, are told to take up the challenge and agitate. Increasingly, Kenya looks more like an unfinished mess of a business needing more than promises and a gift of the political garb and rhetoric to fix. 

Indeed, what we have witnessed the last three decades is motion without movement. All one sees are worst-case scenarios. We have not quite built the strength to digest “the life-giving nutrient of freedom.” In truth, our politics – and life – has been under the stranglehold of a tiny, self-serving and mischievous cabal. But then, the political class does not act on its own because it can do it. They do what they do because they know they have the public as willing accomplices.

The vision and resolve that ignited the agitation to end bad governance needs to be rekindled. One way of ending the travesty is disavowing ethnic mobilisation disguised as political choice.

Because that poses the greatest risk to our democracy and explains the growing cynicism from a public that is increasingly getting wearied of the experiment with popular government. In 2002, we were told that the politics would ride on the newfound purpose to push for reforms- economic social and political. Sadly, the new beginning became another false dawn. 

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We have done the same things expecting different results. Four election cycles later and incumbency is being rewarded over and over. The people have been fed on breadcrumbs and entertained by the circus of its leaders. Simply put, the dish has been difficult to digest. A degraded political environment is a zero-sum-game. And that seems to be the curse of our politics.

In 1819, Simon Boliver - who championed freedom in Latin America - despaired of the “triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny and corruption”. He laments that an ignorant people is the blind instrument of its own destruction and regrets that “there will be no way of persuading them that happiness consists in the practice of virtue that lawful government is more powerful than the rule of tyrants.”

That there were many in 19th Century Latin America who “confused licence with liberty and treason with patriotism, vengeance with justice” as they are in 21st Century Kenya is quite telling. 

Mr Kemboi is The Standard Associate Editor for Partnerships and Projects. [email protected]

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