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February 19, 2019

Why do Kenyan politicians dance?

Nasa leaders ODM leader Raila Odinga, Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Mombasa senator Hassan Omar dancing in  Laare stadium, Igembe North Constituency, Meru County./DENNIS KAVISU
Nasa leaders ODM leader Raila Odinga, Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Mombasa senator Hassan Omar dancing in Laare stadium, Igembe North Constituency, Meru County./DENNIS KAVISU

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessing with a single question. Why do our politicians dance? At every political function nowadays, it has become customary for them to do a jig before addressing the crowds. Where did that come from? When did it start? And, more importantly, why do they do it?

One thing’s for sure. Boogieing politicians are a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that we danced for them. In the days of my youth, no political function would begin before a troupe of “traditional dancers” or some choir had performed for the big men.

Dancing for rulers’ entertainment has a long and not too proud history around these parts. The colonials, in the era before late night radio jams and funk and discotheques, enjoyed a little live performance by the firelight as they downed their evening drink. Further, parading the conquered folks has ancient roots.

The Romans would do it at their triumphs. And our parading ourselves to our British conquerors was a demonstration of our subjugation; our “culture”, our very lives, beliefs and existence, were now to be for the entertainment of our rulers, exoticised commodities and curiosities they could entice their friends to part with money to experience – and thus the tourism industry was born.

Following the charade that was Independence, our newly minted black potentates adopted many of the old habits of the colonial society they had always secretly aspired to join. They moved into the colonial houses and neighbourhoods, became fellow members of their country clubs, took their kids to the same schools, and kept us dancing to the tune of oppression.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Presidents started to dance for us – in a manner of speaking. At the height of the Nyayo dictatorship, a trio of three brilliantly impudent comedians burst onto the national scene. The climax of Redykyulass’ Shows, always guaranteed to floor audiences, would depict the then President Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man, breaking into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine – the Ndombolo.

As Prof Grace Musila recounts in her essay Violent Masculinities and the Phallocratic Aesthetics of Power in Kenya, “the very thought of the President dancing to Ndombolo was itself a powerful subversion of the carefully choreographed iconography of the dignified “father of the nation” who had hitherto been seen on local currency, on national television making speeches and staring out contemplatively in framed portrait photographs all over the country.”

Today, the dancing we see on political podiums across the country is similarly farcical. Something fundamental about our politics has changed and has become entertainment, our very own, home-grown reality soap opera.

Comedic dancing today is a sign that both the politicians and the citizenry have abandoned even the pretence of seriousness. This is also reflected in the rise of farcical characters such as Mike Sonko, Ferdinand Waititu and even Miguna Miguna. You no longer need to be a serious person, or even to pretend to be a serious person, in order to participate.

Like soap operas, our politics problematises politicians’ personal political fortunes, appeals to ethnic sentiment via exaggerating ideas of threat as well as fantastical promises, and issues, be they scandals or questions about the proper role of the state, are never resolved.

It is infested by outlandish characters and insane plot twists, incestuous and ever-changing relationships between the relatively small cast of players. And death, murder and betrayal are constant themes. And like all soaps, the objective of our politics is not just entertainment, but distraction. Just as many seek respite from reality by watching trashy TV, so too they entertain trashy politics.

But don’t blame the citizenry for the state of affairs. The loss of public trust is a consequence, not the cause, of politicians’ misbehaviour. As those in power concentrate on enriching themselves rather than on the interests of their subjects, corruption, incompetence and insincerity come to dominate mainstream politics.

A disillusioned populace either switches off altogether or is driven into the arms of populist demagogues promising easy solutions. The new rulers, unable or unwilling to deal with root causes, resort to distraction, the sole purpose being to keep the commoners from focusing on the pillaging of society by the same politicians.

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