LYING 101

Always trust politicians to lie

In Summary
  • The majority of today’s Kenyan politicians are as idealistic as those that went before them
  • The majority wish to serve their constituents and to contribute to the task of building a better nation. So, what has changed?

If there were a course of study for aspiring politicians in Kenya, then it would be a common unit at first year in the university – ‘Lying 101’.

The person behind this comment was not joking. She or he had passed the point of cynical humour or indifference. Like the majority of us, she or he now believes life in politics to be essentially shabby and dishonourable.

Was it always so? If not, then what has generated the deep cynicism that infects discussion on politics across the Kenyan society?

There is always a temptation to ‘romanticise’ the past – to long for a lost 'golden age’ in which virtue and patriotism reigned unimpeded. As with every other arena of human endeavour, human frailty has been at the heart of some of the greatest dramas in political life. Yet, for all this, it does feel to me as if we have moved beyond the usual ebb and flow of trust in politicians.

The majority of today’s Kenyan politicians are as idealistic as those that went before them. The majority wish to serve their constituents and to contribute to the task of building a better nation. So, what has changed?

One suggestion is the power of modern communications technology and inquisitive media have combined to ensure that citizens know far more about the occasional unethical conduct of politicians than would have been the case in the past.

At the same time, there would seem to have been a decline in popular understanding of the political process and how it works – both in theory and practice. Without the benefit of a proper understanding of the workings of our political system, it becomes difficult for the common mwanachi to judge the context within which political behaviour occurs.

Given this, popular stereotypes take root in our minds and feed on whatever prejudices already exist. Or so the argument goes. There is probably something in this – but not enough to explain the current level of dissatisfaction.

Instead, I think that the move beyond mere cynicism to justified scepticism can be traced to four significant changes in the way politics is practised at present. First, there seems to have been a wholesale abandonment of the principle of political responsibility.

We want politicians who see engagement in public life as a calling and not just a dirty game. We want politicians who will speak the truth – even when it harms them to do so. We want politicians who respect us as citizens and not just as voters.

Second, there has been a progressive corruption of the notion of ‘public interest’ so that it now means little more than the interests of the party in power and with that, the politicisation of public service.

Third, there has been a loss of faith in the possibility that power can be won and held without having to sacrifice one’s commitment to a guiding set of core values and principles of governance.

The fourth change is, however, the most significant. I believe that the decline in the standing of politicians is directly linked to the perception that they have given up on the challenge of appealing to the common good that is within us, as a people.

Instead, the current fashion has been to play on our greed, fears, apathy and prejudices. They do this in the belief that the end justifies the means, that politics is pointless without power – often without a moment’s reflection about the effect of such tactics on the soul of the nation.

Of course, we could refuse to be bought or bullied into surrendering our right to vote. But in many cases, we don’t. Either way, respect and trust for politicians go into a steep decline once this pattern of politics becomes established.

Those of us who resist such tactics end up despising the politicians who are prepared to use them. Ironically, those of us who succumb to their siren song end up loathing the politicians for seducing us with such ease, and for making us confront that part of ourselves that it suits us to deny.

For all the talk about a ‘tall poppy syndrome’, I believe that Kenyans want leaders who they can look up to and trust. We want leaders who can shape a vision for Kenya that is worth striving for. We want leaders who have the moral courage to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.

We want politicians who see engagement in public life as a calling and not just a dirty game. We want politicians who will speak the truth – even when it harms them to do so. We want politicians who respect us as citizens and not just as voters.

There is no simple solution to the task of rebuilding trust in the institutions of government and our political class. It is a complex task but one that I am convinced can be achieved – but only when real leadership replaces the counterfeit version that often masquerades in its place.