As soon as the president received the much-awaited Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, Kenyans went into a frenzy. From expert to pedestrian, the Internet is suddenly awash with opinions on what the BBI is, is not, what it will or will not do and, therefore, why we should or should not support it.
In their characteristically humorous nature, Kenyans have also already made tens of memes on what the BBI represents and what they stand to gain (or lose) from the report’s propositions. Many people have, most likely, not even seen the document, leave alone read it. Shockingly, barely hours after the report was received, some politicians made public pronouncements that they had read the document in its entirety and could confidently confirm its benefits or lack thereof.
Sadly, many Kenyans will take the politicians’ word for it and will not make any effort to personally read and understand what the document proposes. See, many Kenyans are loyal to their political leaders to a fault. They trust the politicians with their lives, even literally putting their lives on the line to protect their political idols. There is no crime in idolising leaders and role models, whether political or otherwise. It is common practice for people to take their role models’ opinions as gospel truth. The youth will, for example, rush to buy a product just because their music idol endorses it. That is how celebrity endorsements work – they largely leverage on the referent power that the celebrity status bestows upon the idol.
Unfortunately, unlike in the advertising world, the world of politics can be murky, even life-threatening. Their charisma notwithstanding, blindly following a politician’s direction can cause long-term devastation for generations. Some political decisions are life-altering.
They can have a major impact on several generations, long after their makers have left. The BBI report is a document whose contents will potentially alter the constitution, influencing our lives and those of our children’s children. Recklessly following the political class in their sometimes-selfish attempts at satisfying their own political egos should not be the way to show commitment to making Kenya a better country. Every literate Kenyan should attempt to read the document, even if just to get the basic highlights. They should seek help in understanding the document from trustworthy, objective opinion leaders.
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To a large extent, the BBI debate is reminiscent of the 2005 ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ campaigns that preceded the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. Just like in the ‘banana’ and ‘orange’ campaigns, many politicians are likely to read and interpret the report on behalf of their fanatical followers. The result will most likely be omissions, understatements, hyperboles and half-truths based on the political leaders’ potential for personal gains. The debate is likely to degenerate into a show of might between different political camps. Besides, coming only two years before the next general election, the BBI debate, just like the 2005 referendum, is likely to play a key role in shaping the political landscape as the country gears for the 2022 polls. If the campaigns leading up to the 2005 referendum vote are anything to go by, then Kenyans should be wary of political rhetoric laced with divisive metaphors that could create unwarranted ethnic tension.
Granted, the report might contain technical language that may not be palatable enough for Wanjiku. However, it is government’s responsibility to utilise the mass media to ensure as many Kenyans as possible have the basic understanding of the report’s propositions and its implications on their lives if adopted.
Even more importantly, the professionally run mainstream media should strive to give objective analyses of the report, fairly guiding Kenyans through its pros and cons to aid their decision-making. The largely unregulated social media platforms will expectedly contain emotionally charged ethno-political biases that do little to provide a democratic space for people to express divergent views. Giving a fair chance to both sides of the BBI debate is not only an indication of democracy but will also ensuring that the country is not ethnically balkanised as different political factions give their views.
Reading and understanding the document will not only enrich the debate, but also eventually enable voters to make informed decisions on whether or not to support the initiative, based not on political affiliation, but its long-term effects on the socio-economic and political environments.
Dr Kalangi is a Communications lecturer and trainer, Kenyatta University