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September 26, 2018

Only legacy that counts: Unity

Kenya
Kenya

An illuminating story I often tell my friends is of how back in the early ‘90s I knew a man who had just been elected to Parliament, and who had great plans for his constituency. He would talk endlessly about the new clinics, the water projects, the bursary funds, etc, that he was going to set up to improve the lives of his constituents.

Nor was this just empty talk. The MP was a man who previously had a long and distinguished career in the private sector. But even as he rose up the corporate ladder, he had not forgotten his humble roots. So many a child from a poor family in need of school fees had benefited from my friend’s generosity over the years. He had also helped build churches and schools “back in the village”.

And so it was that his good deeds paved the way for an easy landslide victory, when his name appeared on the ballot.

Very likely, some of you readers imagine that this story had a happy ending. If so, then you do not know very much about Kenyan politics.

In fact, my friend never ran for reelection. Depressed and frustrated, he gave up on politics after just one term. And was thereafter eloquent on the nightmare that he had found waiting for him in the political arena.

What I remember most clearly is a phrase he kept repeating: That for every problem he solved, 10 more problems would appear immediately.

For now that he was “mheshimiwa”, he was not approached cautiously by clansmen and acquaintances only, as had been the case during his corporate career. Virtually every weekend, he had to receive a delegation from the constituency who came bearing an extensive shopping list of “development projects” that they expected him to prioritise.

If he drilled a well, then 10 delegations of village elders would turn up, each claiming that their need for clean water was in fact greater than that of the village that had received that well.

For every child he sponsored through secondary school, 10 others turned up to beg for his help, their eyes brimming with tears of desperation. And so on.

It was this Sisyphean quality of the burdens that had descended on his shoulders once he was elected to Parliament which gave him sleepless nights. No matter how hard he tried, the problems that yet awaited his attention were always so much greater than those he had been able to resolve.

This was a totally disorienting experience to a man in whose previous corporate career it had been possible to complete all manner of projects, within budget and on schedule, and to thereafter be rewarded with a promotion.

I thought back on this friend of mine recently as I watched President Uhuru Kenyatta struggle to focus the nation’s attention on his “Big Four” national priorities, which are supposed to define his “legacy”.

On the face of it, the President had a fairly logical set of priorities, and by now our national debate should have been on ways and means of delivering on these pledges. But — as my friend found out two decades ago — Kenyan politics is the realm of hydra-headed nightmares, not Cartesian logic.

The only thing getting any attention now is the purely symbolic (but incredibly potent) ‘swearing-in’ of the opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Somehow this has put the President on a slippery slope, very much like what my MP friend experienced all those years ago:

Every attempt the President makes to counter the opposition’s manoeuvres only seems to energise opposition leaders as well as their supporters.

With every day that the TV stations that reportedly defied the President remain off the air, the only news about Kenya in global media is of “a descent into authoritarianism” and “the trampling of fundamental rights”.

At this rate, the point will soon be reached — if it has not been already — where the question of Uhuru’s “second term legacy” projects will not be about affordable housing, or food security, or industrialisation. It will be about what he does to keep the country united, amidst all this political turmoil.

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