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Call out the demagogues ahead of 2022 polls

By Charles Onyango | July 18th 2021

In a job interview, there is what we call a unique value proposition (UVP). It is what distinguishes you from the competition. Every five years, we hire our leaders based on their UVPs. For most of history, this has meant what is said in their manifestos. 

Surprisingly, oratory prowess is emerging as a significant criterion as we approach the 2022 elections. A friend recently said when a specific politician speaks, he feels enchanted and fascinated (and he thinks he’d vote for him).

He chastised me for supporting a mumbled, rambling candidate. This last point didn’t hit me until I introspected. They say a naughty boy enjoys hiding behind the semantics.  Now, can our people tell the difference between a demagogue and a gifted speaker?

Franklin Roosevelt famously quipped that, in these days, it may be impossible to shield the bright light of democracy from the blackout of barbarism. He was correct, but he didn’t go into detail about some of the roots of this barbarism. One of them is the emergence of demagogues.

Indeed, the biggest threat to a democracy is a struggling populace looking for easy answers. The German example also demonstrates that when citizens’ problems are persistently concealed in politics, and a political language emerges that no longer has meaning for the people, it is time for the actor to seize the stage. But not just any actors; those willing to leave their own stage and convert the real life of a country into a theatre. The audience is stunned at first, then enchanted. The inebriated audience then transforms into an inebriated country. And from the recent US experience, we learn that when social and mass media feast on over-the-top statements, the incentives for demagoguery increase exponentially.

As populist politicians gain voters’ favour around the world, the very old questions about democracy resurface. Democracy provides a fecund environment for the production of demagogues.

In his last year’s Madaraka Day speech, President Kenyatta warned Kenyans to be wary of “political indecency”.

Usually, a leader whose speech is designed to excite popular passions is considered politically indecent, and therefore, a demagogue. 

As we approach polls, we must identify some of these leaders and their messages. I would suggest that there remains one simple test that will allow us to identify a demagogue. If the would-be leader promises to give, restore, provide, insure, or enhance this country but never asks “the people” to sacrifice, pay, serve, or simply work, then this leader is a potential demagogue.

-The writer is a Global Impact Fellow at MWI.

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