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Freedom is coming: Dear Mr politician, we've heard it before

A sign of liberation. [iStock Images]

Two billboards capture the political mood in Kenya.

One by Azimio la Umoja proclaims: “Freedom is here,” while Kenya Kwanza’s screams: “Freedom is coming.” Remember the acclaimed movie, “Sarafina?” 

In the airwaves and through adverts, the political parties have promised voters an end to all their problems, liberation.

Great expectations fill the air, but I doubt if it’s in our hearts; we have been there before. The fear of low voter turnout is driving these adverts and the fact that Tuesday’s polls are too close to call.

The winner in this year’s polls will be determined by the voter turnout more than opinion polls.

Remember the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) muted attempt to register more voters?

Back to great expectations. Is voting this week more important than the coming of independence or the end of the KANU rule?

Both events had all the hallmarks of liberation, one from British colonial rule and the other from prolonged one-party domination.

In both cases, there was a semblance of political freedom; we got new political leaders from the president to local chiefs.

And until Africanisation, the economic and business leadership remained under the British.

The end of KANUism did not herald much change in economic leadership. Any keen observer will note that, unlike political leadership which has gone through lots of transitions, economic or business leadership loves continuity.  

Let me explain. We vote to get new Members of County Assembly (MCAs), MPs, the president and other representatives. But we never vote for CEOs in both public and private sector firms. We even have leadership shifting from father to son or daughter in family businesses.  

Both leading political contenders are right to talk of freedom coming tomorrow or now. You got the freedom to choose your political representatives on voting day.

But that freedom ends there. After that, we detach ourselves from politics, and our reps are free to do what they want. We rarely remind voters of their greatest obligation - to remain vigilant, demanding accountability from their leaders.

Emotional nourishment

In some countries, they can even recall their representatives. Is that provision in our constitution?  

It seems our freedom is short-lived, it’s only for the few minutes you vote. And even that freedom is interfered with by other voters; there is no guarantee whoever you vote for will win.  

The idea of freedom runs through politics, but it’s more of an illusion.

Think of how many people or things constrain your freedom - rules and regulations, traditions, religion, fear, parents, neighbours, geography and laws of nature. We all would want to fly but have no wings!

The day remains 24 hours no matter how busy we are.

Unless the Constitution is changed and new laws passed, the idea of freedom tomorrow or today is only good for emotional nourishment. 

It becomes even more interesting. Freedom from who or what?  

Politicians are quick to point out that they are referring to economic freedom. They claim they want to liberate you from corruption, inflation, joblessness, unhappiness and I guess even from those who have held power for so long. 

Economic freedom is the hardest to achieve. It can’t be achieved in minutes like voting in new leaders who hopefully keep their promises. Economic freedom is achieved over a long period of time or at times never.

How many die poor without ever getting the freedom to choose where to live, what to eat, their jobs, who to marry or even what or whom to worship? 

Think of the years of toil to get a degree, a profession or a trade. Think of apprenticeship, internships, probations, appraisals or performance contracts and the long wait for promotion and, if unlucky, a bad boss.  That limits your freedom. 

Others run out of patience and become entrepreneurs to enjoy the freedom to make as much money as possible. But that freedom is limited too with licenses and other permits, and you have to compete with others. You may need visas to cross borders and follow labour laws in hiring.

A few become thieves or conmen to enjoy absolute freedom with all the risks.  Even in free markets, freedom is not absolute. Regulators are busy. 

Yet political leaders are promising even the hardest freedom to get - economic freedom.

They probably know that political freedom is given; we shall not become a colony soon, a dictatorship or come under military rule despite careless talk that our military would intervene if one of the leading contender’s wins.  

Let’s be realistic, ensuring that every citizen has a job or a means to livelihood has been in our manifestos since independence.

But it has been an illusion. We blame nepotism, bad policies and external factors. We fail to consider the role human behaviour plays. We dislike work, particularly if it’s not correctly incentivised. 

The promise of freedom is ingenious. We have been made to forget our differences and focus on our economic suffering. That’s why factors like ethnicity are muted, economic suffering is invariant to tribe, race, colour or creed.  

Will freedom come after Tuesday next week? Political freedom is already here unless rolled back by the next regime either through a new constitution, insecurity or lack of confidence in the next leader.  

But economic freedom espoused by higher living standards resulting from expanding existing enterprises or spawning new ones through innovation is harder to achieve.

And it often comes in drips. That’s the hard reality we shall live with after August 9.

We hope freedom to pursue our economic dreams will ring.  

Finally, I hope the winner will not over-celebrate but get down to work. The voters are waiting with great expectations. Have you read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens?