Nowadays, barely a week passes by before I hear a friend or an acquaintance say of his or her elected representative something like, “We made a mistake voting in this crook (or liar, or fool or thief) Never again.”
But I know very well that a good number of these supposed crooks, liars and thieves will be voted back in with a comfortable majority in August.
We tend to focus on the roughly 60 per cent of the elected leaders who can be expected to lose their seats in any election. But how do we explain the other 40 per cent, most of whom are really no different, and yet manage to get reelected? Or that the newly-elected leaders will in the end prove to be no different from those who were shown the door?
To me, what illuminates it best is a parallel I have seen used before in explaining Kenyan politics: The psychology of abusive relationships. Not in the interactions between Kenya’s different communities as some have suggested, but rather in the relationships between voters and elected leaders.
Now, when we speak of a person in an abusive relationship, we almost always mean that this is a woman whose husband or boyfriend routinely subjects her to verbal or physical abuse.
This man seeks to dominate the unfortunate woman psychologically until a time comes when she can neither think for herself, nor act on sound advice as to what would best serve her interest.
The standard narratives of such abusive relationships are to be found in the interactions between Kenyan voters and those they help raise to high office.
There are the lavish promises which are never kept, the deceptions about how much worse things would be if a different choice was made, the occasional impulsive generosity, which is merely symbolic and never lasts, and so on.
But what most clearly defines the abusive nature of the relationship between voter and elected leader is this: That in time the voter gets used to being mistreated and comes to see it as simply “the way things are”.
Many stories have been written, as much in our own newspapers and magazines as in scientific studies, of this phenomenon. And one of the underlying patterns is that even that which is undoubtedly painful and humiliating, if it goes on for long enough, eventually becomes familiar.
It is very much part of human nature that we prefer to remain with what has become familiar rather than to take the risk of seeking out new horizons.
I remember a story I was once told by a friend, about his neighbour’s wife. This woman was beaten up whether the husband was drunk or sober, morning, noon, or night and even in public places. He just needed to be upset enough.
What my friend found most pathetic was it appeared the only thing that seemed to bother this unfortunate woman was her children should not hear her scream as she got beaten behind closed doors.
But according to scientists who have looked into this kind of situation, the children whose misfortune is to grow up in such a family always know their mother is routinely abused by their father. And what is worse is that the little boys in the family grow up to act exactly as their father did — abusing their wives in the most shameless manner. And when the little girls grow up, they will somehow — by some infallible instinct — find a husband who will treat them exactly as their father treated their mother. The curse of abusive relationships usually proves to be multi-generational in nature.
And, back to politics, that is why you find the letters to the editor pages of local newspapers filled with letters that are essentially screams of outrage, and which usually say something such as, “How is it that after 50 years of Independence, we still end up voting for a bunch of shameless thieves?”
Well, there is a better question which should be asked: “After decades of being in an abusive relationship with our elected leaders, what else do you expect?”