Kenyans are gearing up to go to the polls on the 9th of August 2022 and, as elections draw closer, wondering whether their choices are going to make any difference. The country is at a fork in the road. It is certain that things will change. The concept of “Change” tends to be a cliché when used in the context of elections, but this one is different. This time, change isn’t coming in the manner we intended and we aren’t mediators of its advent. Something had to give and we are poised to be mere subjects of a fracture whose time has come.
As usual, we are going through the motions of a nation that regards itself as logical and as some kind of ‘leader’ in East Africa. This is replete with pseudo-debates, pseudo-opinion polls, and purported ‘expert’ analyses of the same. Yet, the change that is coming is not the popular cliché that comes round every election season in Kenya and that is so popular that even incumbent candidates tend to use it in reference to all the ‘new’ things and performance targets they intend to achieve if re-elected. It is rather the kind of change that stems from the collapse of forces that had held us captive for decades.
Ever since independence, we have been subject to a number of contrived election-time forces or ‘waves’ that have become so powerful and pervasive in Kenyan society to the extent that they effectively rob us of choice. These waves thrive on our allegiances to ethnicities, political parties, and different systems of government, families, and even religions. Normally, any society would be expected to push back and rebel against this kind of disenfranchisement, but that’s where Kenya departs from the norm. We are a nation that took to heart the ‘lessons’ that colonialism sought to impose upon us, so much so that we readily embraced the ‘liberators’ handpicked and groomed for us.
These ‘noble’ families, over the years, have created and maintained political silos that have become gilded cages within which our electorate have willingly resided for decades, simply going through election rituals and paying homage to the ‘nobles’ every five years. The ‘nobles’ rattle their sabres with varying degrees of violence every five years, not to decide absolute winners and losers but to decide who holds the knife as they divide the national cake amongst themselves. This may seem bizarre to people from outside Kenya, but this is de rigueur here. The decadence of these ‘nobles’ is such that they openly use the term ‘national cake’ when they dispense largesse and promises of access thereto in their election pledges. This absurd situation has persisted for many decades and resulted in an electorate that is intellectually indolent because they always have a groundswell or ‘wave’ to make the choices for them every time the polls come round. The greatest irony of this captivity is the level of comfort it affords citizens who end up blithely complaining about their own choices because their chosen ‘wave’ absolved them from any responsibility for their decision.
This time, we have no wave. We are living in a strange miasma where the opposition have joined the government and shunted a part of the government aside. As a result, the grand irony is that our two leading runners are 1) an ‘opposition’ candidate backed by a sitting President and state resources and 2) a sitting Deputy President, who in effect has become the ‘opposition’, confounding their respective vote bases. This has effectively deflated the sails that carried them both to the prominent political positions from which they are launching their respective presidential bids. The Kenyan voter is, therefore, faced with the daunting prospect of having to actually listen to or read candidates’ messages and base their choices thereon. This is a tall order for a society that is currently wallowing at its intellectual nadir, and this particular election cycle has ruthlessly exposed our indolence.
Our intellectuals and academics are completely unable to examine the issues at hand and elucidate them further for public benefit. Instead, they are competing to sell their credentials and parrot certain party lines in the hope of catching a candidate’s eye and positioning themselves for a state job (of any nature). How state jobs became the ultimate goal of Kenyan academics is a story for another day. Basically, we have an old, feudal system collapsing under the weight of the decadence of its own scions, and a new system based on interests (as opposed to selection and lineages) clamouring to take up the resultant space. The most vivid snapshot of this was when a professor of political science in a top Kenyan university was asked in a TV discussion for his opinion on a political manifesto released by the party opposed to the one he was serving. The most learned critique he could offer was that the document was “too detailed”.
The print media is no better, filling their premium weekend editions with op-ed articles from academics touting political party lines and aiming jabs at the opposite side. The one uniform feature of every article is the by-line at the bottom detailing the distinguished academic and professional credentials of the persons offering such poor intellectual fare.
Our deepening desperation at the impending need to think at the polling booth is clear from the manner in which discussions avoid meaningful topics and are increasingly revolving around personality attributes, looks, age, and gender of candidates. We are even arguing about candidates’ perceived piety, sincerity in prayer, membership of churches, and all sorts of minutiae in order to avoid discussing the governance issues that affect us as a society.
For example, Kenya’s entire education system is currently facing an intellectual, financial, and operational crisis due to a curriculum change nobody (including the government) was prepared for. Every single Kenyan is affected or knows a child affected by this impending disaster, yet it doesn’t feature anywhere in the political discourse or debates between candidates or voters. Such discussions would leave no room for the trivialities on which we customarily feed our minds as a nation.
In the absence of tangible ‘waves,’ we have even turned to the courts, imploring them to rescue us from the need to make our choices and take responsibility for them. In previous elections, our courts have only been involved in handling petitions by losers after provisional results. This year, however, the polls have almost been delayed by the sheer number of petitions aimed at keeping certain candidates off the ballot a priori. Our mental struggles are probably best illustrated by the amount of time we have spent interrogating the educational qualifications of candidates, while the most highly educated candidate has been achieving remarkable traction on a platform of trade in cannabis, snake farming, and the sale of certain parts of a hyena’s anatomy as solutions to Kenya’s huge public debt.
The empty ethnic and rhetorical “waves” we have relied on for political guidance have suddenly been exposed as crumbling bird cages. Sadly, we have been caged birds for so long that we began to regard flight as an illness. Freedom is coming, whether or not we like it. Some Kenyans will immediately thrive on the freedom and fly; some will gradually learn how to negotiate the new in order to fly; while some simply won’t make it. They will decline into desperate frustration, yearning for the cages that conferred upon them years of unchallenged relevance.
Freedom is upon us. May we embrace it with wisdom and grace.