One of the current achievements of Kenya’s ruling elite has been to over the last decade and half achieve a condition of literal social inversion in Kenya. Curiously this malaise usually grips the urban areas of countries heading into, embroiled in, or recovering from major civil breakdown. One of the characteristics is the dramatic cheapening of life in general and aggressive collective ownership by men of the bodies of women and children. Everything becomes commoditized from a child to a court ruling; from a new ID to your own life. This chaos has a dynamism to it that’s usually better managed by authoritarian leaders in contexts that allow them wide latitude to manage social conduct by force and fear. Kanu under Moi managed to pull this off in some respects. A regime that used patronage massively but a President who was at Church every Sunday, built schools for girls’ nationwide and placid choirs became the musical export that identified Kenya. Under the current regime, the situation is more confused. They want to pray but its good old voodoo style – a mixture of Christian ceremony performed at ancient totemic traditional ritual grounds.
Usually what politicians say in regard to the public good, they mean the exact opposite. They lie brazenly, steal openly, procreate assiduously and ensure the integrity of every institution both formal and informal is unsteady, confused and generally therefore unthreatening. For in this context the public good has been colonized, not privatized, but colonized by those who ‘can eat’. This minority of eaters can become a class but often start of as a kinship-based identity like a tribe, or maybe a religious sect or the like. The social dislocations that abound in this condition lead literally to the end of taboo. Fathers rape their daughters; young men chase after goats and chickens; mad men in public events are often indistinguishable because of the mixture of lies, bombast, wild claims and promises that fill the air is a heady smoke of nonsense anyway; titles are bought, professional qualifications too.
There was a time when the local headmaster or even an experienced teacher was the most respected person in the village. Today the local racketeer who everyone quietly accepts shouldn’t be asked how he or she is making his or her money is the ‘opinion leader’. In entire sections of the Coast, for example, pedophilia has literally been normalized. The reasons are many but in places like Malindi the ubiquitous Italian tourist with a penchant for children isn’t an issue beyond the odd documentary and op-ed.
Our ‘religious leaders’ who used to opine on the national condition and make the corridors of power quake have been literally stupefied – they stand like the statues in their places of worship. Those who’ve taken their place in the limelight are sometimes bizarre racketeers trading in faith and miracles and on the social dislocation of their congregations as if they were kiosk owners. Recently, one who’d been involved in a car accident in which an innocent victim sadly lost their life captivated the country. Still, the story was about the pastor’s limousine and his capacity to manipulate officialdom. More recently a quack posing as a gynecologist was filmed raping unconscious patients. Police were reported to be ‘searching for him’ while he mocked retained public sensibilities with Facebook tweets! Earlier in the year an MP was charged with enticing women into his office, forcing them to undergo HIV tests and then raping them. When officialdom got round to all these individuals and their situations one thing was clear – the accused had the wind in their sails.
Nothing illustrates this more than the current regime’s handling of the ongoing teacher’s strike. The circus has been going on since 1997 when the government made a promise it never meant to keep. It was one of the most brazen cons we’ve ever witnessed in Kenya. Partly due to global trends and also our new constitution, the government’s capacity to put the genie back into the bottle in terms of civic freedoms has been significantly degraded. Devolution, the most transformative part of the constitution, makes this degradation even deeper. Despite court orders ordering that the government pay the teachers they steadfastly refuse to claiming poverty while on the most unconstrained spending splurge on baubles, legacy projects and looting since independence. It doesn’t take nerve to con the largest section of civil servants in Kenya so blatantly it takes a perverse pleasure. What’s interesting is the normalization of all this. Only the President occasionally makes a cursory protest that carries some emotion. The Deputy President has his follow-up, hollow albeit well executed, sound bites. They are all delivered with the attitude – hey it does not matter!
The controversial polemicist, author and intellectual Christopher Hitchens once opined: “When people have tried everything and have discovered that nothing works, they will tend to revert to what they know best—which will often be the tribe, the totem, or the taboo.”
John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. Email: [email protected]