Public insults are normally not associated with strong and confident leadership. Indeed, being role models, leaders are not expected to abuse each other or ordinary people in public. On the contrary, anger-driven insults are associated with weak leadership that has most likely lost a political argument.
Insults which mostly arise from political disagreements are deliberately used to provoke anger and force incoherence in political debates. Once provoked by insult, a party in argument will lose its temper, get angry, lose its cool, insult the other party, lose focus and most likely lose the case.
While politics and leadership are driven by argument and reasoned arguments are the hallmark of mature debate, seasoned debaters never insult in debate. In fact insulting in debate and argument are such a taboo that in developed democracies it could mark the end of a leader.
In Africa, however, persons of advanced age were permitted by culture a special privilege to insult as a concession to senility that could be punished mistakenly while punishing insults.
The insults that were allowed as a privilege to the aged could also be permitted in a very limited way to leaders who may apply them with great caution and tamper them with humor. Just being a leader alone does not entitle one to abuse other people, nor are people allowed to hurl insults at leaders. But should a leader insult, as President Mwai Kibaki used to call some people pumbavu or foolish, it must be used most sparingly and with great tact.
Men also use insults to demean their enemies, instead of fighting. Unfortunately, when used, insults will most likely be responded to in kind as failure to do so is taken to mean cowardice, submission or conquest.
But when used recklessly, instead of avoiding a fight, response to an insult in kind can also lead to a clash. Insults must therefore be avoided as much as possible, because their reckless use and response can easily lead to personal and inter-communal violence.
In Kenya, there has of late been an increased use of insults between President Uhuru and certain governors like Mombasa's Hassan Joho and Turkana's Josephat Nanok, who seem to use insults to attempt to demean the President’s stature or enhance their own by putting themselves at par with the Head of State through argument.
Here it is not meant that the President cannot be replied to or spoken to respectfully. President Uhuru can also be opposed politically by fellow citizens who differ with him politically and wish to let him know it. But, again, this too must be couched in as much respect as possible.
Notwithstanding it is quite easy to tell between counter-arguments and opinions in a debate and disrespectful insults. For example, when Millie Odhiambo called President Uhuru “mwizi, fisi, mshenzi”, she was obviously insulting as she later came to admit.
And there are of course other ways of insulting someone, including the President, like walking out on him.
It is also unacceptable for some people to take themselves as defenders of their party leaders by hurling insults at the President, clearly in defence of their party leaders who are themselves hesitant to directly insult the President.
Pushed to the wall, it is clear that President Uhuru in Turkana and in Mombasa was giving as much as he was receiving. In the circumstances, he used the same unbecoming language – calling one detractor shetani ashindwe –though he should have avoided it
Clearly, as the national leader, the President should not refer to Raila Odinga as kimundu, or human monster in his Gikuyu language. Nor should he use words like shetani ashindwe (down with the devil). And however provoked, he should not have told Joho I am not your wife.It is unbecoming of a president.
President Uhuru has said he is human and therefore quite capable of being angered by provocations from his opponents. But like Raila, who assigns his supporters to fight for him, President Uhuru should leave most of his battles to his supporters who should fight for him long before he comes to the scene and battle field himself. He should not personally respond to the opposition immediately after provocation, in the heat of the moment. He should always give himself time to reflect following provocations.
When the President says he is a man, he means to say he will not fail to respond to anyone who provokes or challenges him. But there are provocations that are best left unanswered or responded to by other people. To try and respond to every person who criticizes the President is to grant some of his critics undeserved publicity.
Most importantly, the President is not just a man. He is an institution and the custodian of the Kenyan nation and should never be taunted to kill anybody as Joho has been taunting him. It would be tragic if the President’s security men and women were to be tempted to respond to some of these taunts that could result in ugly consequences.
Unfortunately, insults between the President and others like governors must never be taken lightly.
In the past, people were detained and assassinated even without insulting the President. The only thing that most opponents of government did was to criticize, which was incorrectly termed as insults against the person and office of the President.
If more people continue to challenge or insult the President, given he is the custodian of all legitimately armed forces in the land, the enormous might behind him must never be arrayed against any of his critics. There is little doubt the game of exchanging insults and challenges with the President is hardly welcome or warranted.
From President Uhuru’s responses to provocations, it is clear that he shares a lot of temperament with his late father, the First President of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and his outbursts against challenge are almost “like father like son". The only things they don’t share is age.
In 1964, one of the strongest personal attacks was made by President Kenyatta against Bildad Kaggia, a would-be political nemesis and fellow freedom fighter:
“Kaggia, you are advocating free things but we were together with Paul Ngei in jail. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to Kubai’s home, he has a big house and a shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail. Now he is running his own buses. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself?"
In his autobiography Roots of Freedom, Kaggia explains how he handled the situation.
“Worse, all this was said in my presence and when he finished, I wanted to speak but Kenyatta was in charge of the meeting and he refused to allow me to speak. The meeting was broadcast on the radio throughout the country and television. But I bore the humiliation like a man.”
Unfortunately, this diatribe did not end only with humiliation. It concluded with Kaggia’s incarceration, physical attacks on him and total economic ruin.
The other historically known of President Kenyatta’s challenges to another politician on live radio and TV was the one he directed against Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, his first Vice President and fellow fighter for freedom for many years. The open exchange between Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga would result in the death of more than 50 persons and termination of one of the most beautiful friendships in history.
Worse, the public spat between Kenyatta and Jaramogi would, like Kaggia’s, also end up in detention for two years and economic ruin for the non-presidential interlocutor.
After the assassination of JM Kariuki, a great freedom fighter, Kenyatta would posthumously call him the Satan that he may have been called just before he was killed.
All these examples of the President publicly insulting his fellow politicians and vice versa suggest how dangerous public fights are between the national CEO and those who don’t have the power he has can be. They end in tears for the non-presidential party.
As we head to the election, public fights between President Uhuru and political detractors could become very dangerous in an ethnically divided country where entire ethnic communities vote to put into power their ethnic leaders and remove "ethnic enemies" from power.
In ethnically divided nations, ethnic communities blindly support their leaders and go to war for them whether they are right or wrong. Knowing how blindly leaders are followed and how their words are law to their most ardent followers, leaders should take great care of not just their dignity and respect, but, much more important, the safety of the nation.
They should do all they can to avoid public exchanges and insults as the consequences can be dire. Verbal wars between ethnic leaders are also verbal wars between communities and should be avoided at all costs. The truth is, angry exchanges between political leaders from different communities can easily ignite ethnic wars between communities.
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