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February 21, 2019

Safety valve theory of politics

Map of Kenya./FILE
Map of Kenya./FILE

One of the problems for writers of my generation is that we did a great deal of our reading well before the age of the internet and the e-reader.

As such while we may have a clear recollection of an insightful passage or a well-made argument from over decades ago, we cannot go back into some electronic file of the kind we all take for granted these days, and quote precisely from the text.

I explain this because I cannot remember where I read of what I shall define here as ‘The Safety Valve Theory of African Politics’. Nonetheless, I shall do my best to explain what it refers to.

In an essay initially written perhaps in the late 1970s, the writer basically argued that the citizens of most African nations passionately believed in the Ghanaian Founding Father Kwame Nkrumah’s famous dictum: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you.”

This created a tendency towards fierce and uncompromising political competition in newly independent African nations.

Adding fuel to this brutally competitive political culture were ethnic or regional resentments; widespread poverty; enduring superstitions; limited economic opportunities; etc. This made for a uniquely combustible kind of politics that could blow up the whole country if not handled with consummate skill by the leaders of the day.

This theory further argued that “independence”, defined as the end of colonial rule, was a cruel delusion.

And that true independence – what might be called “economic freedom” in contrast to “political freedom” - would only come when a country had built a large enough economy, with a sizeable middle class whose spending created demand for the goods and services produced by an ever-expanding “working class”; and who also provided a tax base for government revenues which could be devoted to better healthcare, schools, roads, etc.

Most crucial was that between the nominal independence which came with the end of colonial rule, and true independence, which would necessarily lie many decades ahead, the country had to evolve its unique “safety valves”: compromises and adjustments which could be made from time to time to prevent the whole place from blowing up (consider current events in Zimbabwe).

In short, as a newly independent state, you could well make a good deal of initial progress in terms of “development”, but sooner or later a crisis – with the potential for unleashing massively destructive violence – will come to you. And when that happens, you had better have some effective “safety valves” to harmlessly let out the “steam” building up within your nation, or else it can blow everything up.

I have somewhat simplified a far more complex argument. But I think this was the heart of it: That developing nations will unavoidably face potentially catastrophic crises from time to time.

We are at this moment facing just such a crisis. We have had a paralysing political stalemate for about four months. And we are now at the point where for the first time in our nation’s history, there is the possibility of two “presidential swearing-in ceremonies”: One said to be “constitutionally mandated” and the other alleged to “reflect the true will of Kenyan voters”.

In many African countries this would signal the beginning of the Apocalypse.

But not here. Our national momentum is towards reconciliation and stability. And even though right now it might not seem so, I predict that it is in such a direction that we are heading.

About a month ago, I congratulated “some of the most famously independent-minded leaders in Central Kenya” for having bravely “called for a civil engagement between the two bitter rivals, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former PM Raila Odinga.”

On the very day that column was published, in response to his support for dialogue, one of this courageous group, former Mukuruweini MP Kabando wa Kabando, was declared a traitor at a demonstration held in his former constituency, and his effigy was burnt by the angry crowd.

Now, barely 30 days later, the conversation in Central Kenya has changed from such accusations of treachery, to when and how such dialogue would ideally take place.

With a bit of luck, our safety valves will hold, and Kenya will once again dodge the bullet.

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