Friday, July 18, 2014

Wishing On Alfred Mutua's Falling Star

A version of this was published in The Star

Legend has it that wishing upon a shooting star makes the wish come true. These broken pieces of rock and dust, burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, have for ages been thought to be signs that the gods are listening particularly attentively.  I think it is time to make a wish.

For more than a year, Dr Alfred Mutua, the media savvy governor of Machakos county has been a star in the Kenyan political firmament. His revolutionary idea, that government was instituted to deliver timely service to the people at a price that didn’t break the bank, is said to be causing major disquiet among the rest of the political leadership and even in the civil service. He is a darling of development-addicted Kenyans who for too long have been waiting for their fix. Today, his slogan - Maendeleo chap chap! – is the political drug of choice, swallowed whole and requiring little chewing over.

 His every move, announced by amazing pictures on social media, was met with universal acclaim. Ambulances, police cars, stadia, a people’s park, a road. For a population more used to government being run for the sake of those in government, this seemed a godsend. A model for other counties to emulate. The proof that devolution can work.

It is only of late that his record has started to be questioned. In the past, so enthralled were we that when uncomfortable questions threatened to rock this narrative, we were quick to dismiss them. When the Auditor-General pointed out some strange accounting practices –including a Kshs 7.5m “confidential expenditure” by the Governor that was paid out in cash and no receipts ever provided, we chose to ignore it. Questions as to who would drive the police cars and man the promised police stations given that security was not a devolved function were swatted aside, just as the purchase of ambulances and building of health centres was presented as comprehensive health policy.

So what if the police cars were still registered to individuals? Why worry about the suspicions of corrupt contracting coming out of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission? Who cares that the newly built pitch is unplayable in the rain or that the newly built road has developed potholes after less than a month? We have development. And we have it cheaply and quickly. The government is working for us.

However, the sad truth is that what we have been given is fake development. It is the illusion of progress without the substance of it. And you would think that a country built on grand illusions and vacuous promises would be quick to spot it. But, as the Ethiopian proverb goes, “fish discover water last.” Like fish, we have become so immersed in political and economic phantasmagoria that we have lost the ability to perceive it.

From colonial times to the present day, we have been treated to government that claims to rule on our behalf, to deliver la dolce vita, to educate and enrich, protect and provide. But it has always been the providers who have grown fat as our own waistlines have receded. They have given us a democracy where our votes and our problems don’t count. They have created for us a free press that neither articulates our issues nor holds the powerful to account; a police force that only serves to protect them from us; education and health systems that they wouldn’t dare put their own children through. And we have applauded them for it, spilt blood and treasure on their behalf and sang the songs of a fake patriotism.

 Nothing epitomizes this than the refusal to interrogate what was happening in Machakos. The ease with which we are ready to believe that anyone questioning this must be doing so in the service of a political witch hunt bespeaks a terrible desperation for anything resembling good governance and an unshakeable, delusional belief that if only we persevere, good things will eventually come. It is a test of faith. We must keep the peace. Accept and move on. Maendeleo will come.

After analysing its budgeting practices, Jason Lakin writing in this week’s edition of TheEastAfrican, has noted that what is happening in Machakos is pretty typical of the county experience so far. “Miraculous? No. Menacing? Not really. Just decidedly mediocre,” is his damning verdict. Our celebration of this mediocrity should give us pause. What else are we glossing over? What other questions are we not asking?

Therefore, my wish upon Dr Mutua’s falling star is that as it burns up in our angry and self-righteous atmosphere, it will spark of a moment of national introspection. That we will rediscover the real meaning of terms like accountability, development, democracy, rights. That we will be less vulnerable to sweet words and empty actions but rather more insistent on truth, even when it is ugly.  That we will discover water.

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