MUGWE: Washenzi: Dog whistle politics or cheap insult?

President Uhuru Kenyatta, AU envoy Raila Odinga and Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho at State House, Mombasa, on Monday, January 7, 2018. /PSCU
President Uhuru Kenyatta, AU envoy Raila Odinga and Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho at State House, Mombasa, on Monday, January 7, 2018. /PSCU

“For a Black woman? She is usually so well spoken for a Black woman. Isn’t that what you meant?” This was how Marcus, the Black Gladiator retorted to reporters accosting him with questions about his boss, Olivia Pope, in the TV series, The Scandal. When confronted by his fellow Gladiators, who were both White, on why he went off script from their agreed position with the media, he unveiled to them the coded meaning behind this line of questioning by the reporters. He schooled them on dog whistle politics.

Dog whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different and more specific resonance with an intended targeted sub-group. The analogy is drawn from ultrasonic whistling sounds that are heard only by dogs but are inaudible to human beings. The key feature in dog whistle politics is plausible deniability. The dog whistler can always later say, “I didn’t mean that, I meant this instead”. Those who are not the intended audience of a dog whistle take the statements or phrases at face value and do not perceive the layered or multiple meanings. Sometimes a dog whistle, in the appropriate circumstances, can be to maintain a conspicuous silence as others make intolerant remarks.

Dog whistling was illustrated as early as the 6th Century by Sun Tzu, who was a Chinese general, military strategist, author and philosopher. In his book, The Art of War, he opined that all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when you are able to attack, you must appear unable; when using your forces, you must appear inactive; when you are near, you must make the enemy believe you are far away; and when you are far away, you must make him believe that you are very near.

As Clausewitz, the Prussian General and military theorist once said politics is war by any other means. And in the last couple of weeks, there seems to have been a war of words between politicians in the Jubilee Party, couched around politics of development and succession in Central Kenya. It reached its peak with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who, by choosing to wear his heart on his sleeve, labelled some unnamed politicians as washenzi.

He was addressing residents of Mombasa, where he had ironically gone to launch some development projects amidst other State and social functions. This label irked some Mt Kenya leaders and voters to no end, even resulting in a dismal demonstration in one of the Counties. And as the Central Kenyan’s entrepreneurial spirit organically took over, all manner of merchandise was immediately available, branded as #wahshenzi.

Conventionally, most politicians always bend over backwards to appease their political base because they do not want to alienate any voters that may cost them an election. This is why some appear irrational and almost comical by the decisions and positions they take on matters politics. Case in point was when one politician in the Rift Valley rhetorically asked his voters if rain comes from the sky or from the Mau forest from which they were being evicted.

It therefore appears improbable that the President would advertently rile his vote base by acting contrary to their development and political succession expectations and gentleman’s agreement.

Many politicians the world over have used dog whistle politics to communicate to a targeted voter base. President Ronald Reagan constantly used the phrase “The Welfare Queen’ in his campaign rallies to rally support for reform of the welfare system. This label was used as a stereotype against Black single mothers who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment or manipulation.

Adolf Hitler popularised the term Volksgemeinschaft meaning people’s community during World War I as the Germans rallied in support of the war and appealed to breaking down elitism and uniting people across class divides.

Begs the question, is the washenzi label a grand scheme of dog whistle politics? Is there a resonance with an intended sub-group of the Kenya populace? Is there a coded message that is only audible to a targeted group but not to the general populace?

We are a very excitable people with a very short attention span. By this time next month, this washenzi hype will be a distant memory and we will have latched on to the next fanfare trending at that time. We are also lazy thinkers who do not make the effort to connect dots, even imaginary ones, but instead choose to react to everything at face value, depending on the wisdom of the crowd. This is why we don’t read the Constitution because Baba amesoma and so his word is the gospel truth. This is why we don’t read the Bible because the pastor has read it and will interpret it to us every Sunday morning without being challenged. This is why we do not rationally analyse the political phenomena because the political pundits will do it for us on television and radio every morning without our rebuttal. And the best part of it is that politicians know this and have perfected the art of manipulating us as their live marionettes.

I submit that it is highly plausible that Jubilee leadership has a completely different face behind closed doors. Perhaps they are all wining and dining together, all the while ‘high fiving’ each other, while in public appearing to be overnight foes. It would not be surprising that they are actually closer than they were when they faced the ICC debacle, but portray a frosty relationship in public. It could very well be that they are playing a well-choreographed script that portrays one meaning to the general public while communicating subtly to an intended audience. But then again, my submission may as well have missed the truth mark by several miles.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to President Kenyatta; you are fond of using the word irregardless in your speeches. The prefix ir- means not and the suffix -less means without. In essence, it contains a double negative and becomes an antonym of the word regardless rather than a synonym. It is, therefore, an incorrect usage of the word in standard English.

In order to maintain the state, a prince is often obliged to act against his promise, against charity, against humanity and against religion; at the same time, the ideal leader should seem merciful, faithful, human, trustworthy and religious to his subjects - Machiavelli