• A Potemkin village is any construction, literal or figurative, whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to something that is faring poorly, with the intention of making people believe that all is well.
• Potemkin has also become a byword for the general idea of camouflaging reality by making things appear much better than they actually are, to please a tyrannical ruler.
Grigory Potemkin was a Russian military leader and a lover and consort of the Russian Empress Catherine II.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, Potemkin became the governor of the region. Crimea had been devastated by the war.
Potemkin’s major tasks as governor were to pacify and rebuild by bringing in Russian settlers.
In 1787, two major things happened; one, a new war was about to break out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire; and two, Catherine II with her court and several ambassadors made an unprecedented six months trip to the new Russia following Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire.
The purpose of the trip was to impress Russia’s allies prior to the war and after the acquisition of new land in Crimea.
To help accomplish his lover’s intention, Potemkin set up pretty “mobile villages” on the banks of the Dnieper River that appeared very prosperous.
As soon as the barge carrying the Empress and ambassadors arrived, Potemkin’s men would populate the village. Once the barge left, the village was disassembled, then rebuilt overnight along her route to be viewed again downstream.
Since then, a Potemkin village is any construction, literal or figurative, whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to something that is faring poorly, with the intention of making people believe that all is well.
Potemkin has also become a byword for the general idea of camouflaging reality by making things appear much better than they actually are, to please a tyrannical ruler.
This week, the not so secret Building Bridges Initiative report was revealed.
Contrary to its original intention as proclaimed by its name and as championed by its masterminds, it was rather unexpected — although not entirely surprising — that BBIs presupposed zeitgeist was brought into question, going by the heckling of Deputy President William Ruto by the attendees.
On one hand, those in support of the BBI are in a hurry to actualise it to the letter.
They have told us in no uncertain terms that the BBI is the undisputed antidote to the existential threat facing this country.
On the other hand, those opposed to it have questioned the solutions proposed therein. Led by DP Ruto, they have pointed out that the cure of the existential threat that has been proposed by BBI, maybe worse than the disease itself.
The BBI is crafted to appeal to various demographics and interest groups by subtly promoting a tunnel vision analysis.
It raises the hope of political kingpins to be part of the expanded Executive; it increases the expectations of populous constituencies to have equal representation commensurate with their electorate; it raises the aspirations of youth to be considered in the national discourse through creation of a youth commission; it elevates the dreams of counties of having more resources at their disposal, and promotes the MCAs desire for reelection through the promised ward fund.
Experts have told us the proposed BBI solutions are already contained in existing instruments such as the Constitution and recommendations from various task forces and commissions. They argue that the same could have been actualised if there was complete adherence by the powers that be to the same.
Begs the question, is the BBI Kenya’s rendition of our Potemkin village? Are we only being conditioned to look at what goodies it brings to each cross-section of society rather than its utility for the whole nation?
And if the zeitgeist of BBI is inclusivity, why are we being manipulated to analyse it as sub-groups?
Is this meant to numb us to the hegemonic power that wants to continue shaping the limits of our socioeconomic opportunities?
I submit that our tunnel vision analysis as respective demographics and interest groups is a pacifier.
The promised goodies are meant to soothe us; to distract us from having uncomfortable discussions, and to deflect us from asking the fundamental pertinent questions.
We are being conditioned to accept BBI in its entirety by being nudged to focus only on the gains we get as sub-groups; and to only see the beautiful Potemkin village that has been promised to our subset.
We are conveniently forgetting that membership in these subsets is highly transient.
You may qualify as a youth today, but by the time the BBI aspirations are implemented, if they will be, you will have transitioned from being a youth; or you may be in a populous constituency today, but through some gerrymandering, you may be in a minority tomorrow.
Therefore, to qualify the BBI as Kenya’s panacea will require a more holistic analysis of what your sub-groups presumed gain means for others not in your current category.
In economic-speak, this is called the Pareto optimality. This is an economic state where resources cannot be reallocated to make some individuals better off without making others worse off.
So the question we should be asking is, for me to gain, who will have to lose? And can I live with their loss? Or will I be that loser tomorrow?
The running thread of the BBI is all about gains to the politicos, the youth, gender, Helb applicants and to devolution.
To actualise these gains requires resources. According to Central Bank data, by the end of May this year, our total public debt was at Sh6.6 trillion consisting of Sh3.2 trillion from the domestic market and Sh3.49 trillion from external borrowings.
This is against a tax collection of Sh1.6 trillion as at June this year, according to Kenya Revenue Authority. So in simple terms, we are already heavily indebted, and running on empty, yet we are promising gains.
A roadmap towards legalising the BBI proposals has already been proposed. But have we paused long enough, and been sufficiently bold enough to ask how we will fund this wish list?
Are we going to incur more debts to make ourselves better off presently, while leaving our younger and unborn generation worse off? You be the judge.
Finally, my unsolicited advice is to Wanjiku is, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
If the powers that be have failed to implement and comply fully with the current Constitution and the various task forces and commissions recommendations, what guarantees do we have that the Potemkin mobile villages in the BBI, that are being used to lure our support, will be honoured?
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread - Alexander Pope