Thursday, March 14, 2013

Scaling Olympus

US psychologist, Dr. Wade Noble, defined power as the ability to define reality and to have other people respond to that definition as if it were their own. Taking this to heart, Kenya’s political class have become adept at translating their personal experiences into common realities. They are relentless in articulating their particular version of reality, and never miss an opportunity be it at community forums, social functions such as funerals and weddings, and even Sunday church services. Theirs is by far the dominant voice in our mass media.

As a result, their personal issues quickly morph into communal rivalries and, conversely everybody it seems has a stake in their personal success. Or should I say, perversely? For thus the victims of the 2008 post-election violence have become convinced that it serves their interest when no one is punished for their dispossession or for the murder of their relatives. And thus we are convinced of the overwhelmingly urgent need to investigate a helicopter crash involving a few VIPs while continuing to ignore the daily carnage ordinary folks face on our roads.

So what is the narrative they sell? First they have convinced us that the political space properly belongs to politicians. It is their very own Olympus. The rest of us mortals can once in a while help decide who ascends into their blessed company, but that is where our participation ends.

Secondly, Olympus does not operate according to the rules and values of ordinary men. While we down here may value honour and think that it has something to do with knowing and doing what is morally right, in the heavens honor is a title. One may lie, steal, and betray friends and confidences, conspire to maim and murder. But, as Mark Antony might say, they are all Honourable men (and women). Furthermore, once raptured to the heavenly kingdom, the gods are cleansed of all earthly transgression and so vast are their powers that they can swop right for wrong.

Finally, though the gods on Olympus are endowed with infinite wisdom, they dare not waste it on the mundane problems of mortals. They have bigger fish to fry (and eat) which imposes considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs.

This narrative about politics needs to change. For as long as we see it as a dirty game played by politicians, it will continue to be about power and position, not about solutions. Today’s political narratives are divorced from people’s everyday lives. All politics is local is a maxim that doesn’t seem to apply to us. Even at the local level, it is not local issues that matter. We may have devolved our system of government but our politics remain stubbornly centralised. Ask any elected official about his programme and he will in all likelihood point you to the manifesto his national party issued a few days to the election and which he has probably not been bothered to read.

During the campaigns, it was notable how much the Presidential race overshadowed local races. Figures from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission show that on Election Day, communities with no direct ethnic stake in either of the two major coalition presidential tickets were less likely to get out and vote. This is illustrative of the low priority local issues are accorded. We are probably more invested in who wins the English Premier League than in who runs our county assemblies. As one commentator put it : “Down-ticket candidates ... allowed their individual positions to be subsumed by the presidential contenders. Instead of running on local issues, which will ultimately have the most impact on the lives of individual voters, most [were] hoping to ride the top-of-the-ticket platform to victory. Which [left] voters looking to make informed choices with little information.”

We have allowed our politics to become about coronating a President on Election Day, not about choosing between competing  visions on how to solve people's problems. We have reduced citizen participation in our democracy to standing in line and stashing ballots into ballot boxes once every 5 years. The rest of the time, we let the politicians do their thing, meaning voters have little involvement in local institutions. Civic education, again is reduced to the art of teaching voters how and in which box to cast their vote and how to distinguish between green and peach (or whatever that colour was). There is little effort expended to explain to citizens how devolution works. Two years after it was passed, the constitution passeth all understanding except to those privileged with a law degree.

As a result, instead of helping us truly and honestly identify issues and resolve differences, our politics generates a narrative that, as another observer noted, sweeps differences under the rug and replaces them with nationalistic propaganda. The lack of genuine interaction, dialogue and reconciliation perpetuates a culture of fear. Fear of the other, of history, of reality.

We need, instead to build a new brand of politics from the bottom up; to re-imagine Kenya as a nation that attracts, and not compels, the loyalty of its people, both as individuals and in their communities. We must reclaim the spaces and vernacular for honest conversations. Words like equality, justice and truth must cease to be old shibboleths rolling off politicians’ lips and become our real passwords to a better Kenya.

Our politics should give our people the means to discuss local problems without being drowned out by the national conversation; to ask the questions they really want answered and raise the issues close to their hearts without the fear that they will be ignored, prosecuted or labelled "tribalists" or "hate-mongers." In short, give them the means to articulate their own reality and get the politicians to respond to that as if it were their own. After all, that is what democracy should be all about.


Anonymous said...

Truth! Politics = solutions and not just power.

Empty Debe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Empty Debe said...

True. The question I have been asking myself is this, why haven't we as a country been demanding for this from politicians? Why do we instead attend these functions and hang on to their every word, laughing loudly at stupid jokes without realising we are the butt. Whether, illiteracy, 8-4-4, colonialism or the abusive relationship we have been in with our leadership since then are to blame, what is clear to me is that we as Kenyans are suffering under Lukes' third dimesion of power, that invisible one that lowers our self-esteem, naturalises the status quo and renders us unable to ask questions and make such demands.

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