Candid Comment

The real lessons from Kenya


By Joram Nyathi

A LOT has been said about the Kenyan election debacle. Lessons have been drawn locally on both sides of the political divide. Unfortunately most of these

lessons are no more than self-serving wishes. In my view, the real lesson is the danger of obsession with change for its own sake, and in that quest, embracing every claimant to power as the Messiah. Zimbabweans are guilty of this propensity.


South Africans look worse. Reading the South African media about President Thabo Mbeki’s alleged autocratic rule in the few weeks before Polokwane made me feel like we in Zimbabwe were ruled by angels. So intense was the hatred for Mbeki that his rival Jacob Zuma was assured of the ANC presidency despite his soiled name. It was as if the name Zuma represented a cure for Aids, crime and racial inequality in SA.


It is perplexing. Here is a man who answers to every act of misdemeanor from rape to influence-peddling to outright corruption and tax evasion being elevated to the pedestal of a saint who is being victimised by a cruel sitting president whom he has challenged for office! In any civilised society, the accusation of corruption, let alone rape, should make any decent person recuse himself from the presidential race. Zuma would have magnified his own stature. He doesn’t need to be convicted.


Things were never going to be easy for Mbeki from the start: matching Nelson Mandela’s affability, dealing with a recalcitrant ruler such as President Robert Mugabe who is universally reviled by those he has hurt, and given growing anti-intellectual sentiment in politics in Zimbabwe and SA. But in Zuma we have a man who can stand up when later accused of rape, violence (leth’ umshini wami), corruption, racketeering, fraud and philandering and say with a straight face: “When I campaigned I didn’t hide who I am.”


In the face of all this grunge you have influential organisations such as Cosatu threatening the judiciary with a “bloodbath” if Zuma is brought to court.


The biggest lesson from the Kenyan post-election violence is the danger of electing into power democratic charlatans without institutional fireguards to ensure such people can be removed later without bloodletting; and our fascination with the politics of tribe and other irrational considerations which blind us to people’s motives for getting into politics. It is the danger of choosing leaders for where they come from ahead of enduring values necessary in nation-building.


Anyone who opposes a hated sitting president automatically becomes a democrat. Mwai Kibaki was feted as a democrat for defeating Daniel arap Moi without anyone examining his democratic credentials. The election was judged free and fair. In five years the guy has shown his true colours and those who elected him are shocked by his “transformation” from what he never was to a corrupt dictator and tribalist. To me there was no betrayal of the people but an exposure of bad choice.


The irony is that Western democracies which are quick to point to us torch bearers of democracy subject their would-be leaders to a very rigorous vetting before they are elected. I am fascinated by the ongoing campaign by the Democrats in the United States. This is not a country in any serious political crisis like we are, yet its leader must pass through the crucible of public scrutiny and explain fully what his policies are, what he wants to do and how. It is not enough to chronicle the current leader’s failures. Any imbecile can do that. Talking democracy and human rights is cheap — the test is on delivery.


Unfortunately in desperation for change, any change, we are shy if not afraid to confront our future leaders with hard questions about who they are and their shortcomings. Yet it is the political leader ultimately who gives the nation its international character.


The other lesson from Kenya is not the threat of violence if elections are rigged. Forcing people to vote in a certain way on the threat of violence amounts to democracy by fear. It does not represent the free will of the people. It is the need to select for leadership people of integrity. We need leaders who are able to accept loss and victory in an election with dignity and know when to quit.


Kenya’s Raila Odinga might have a cause to complain, but to me there is no point in voting for a leader of hooligans, who, after a disputed electoral result, rampage in the streets, burning, raping and murdering people in church. There was nothing among the poor Kikuyu in the slums of Kibera and Mathare to show that they had unfairly benefited from Mwai Kibaki’s rule ahead of other tribes. Nor is there evidence that those being targeted for attack voted for him. Yet we read that boys and girls as young as six years are being raped for voting for Kibaki or for simply being Kikuyu.


In any case, if the Kikuyu are being targeted as an ethnic group because Kibaki is Kikuyu, then by inverse rule Odinga forfeits the claim of a “people’s president” if only his Luo clanspeople and a few others voted for him.


The trouble with wanton violence is that it never affects the criminal leader himself. Does anybody for once nurse the illusion that Charles Taylor or Joseph Kony will ever fully pay for atrocities they have committed against their people in Liberia and Uganda? Or that Odinga is justified in causing the deaths
of over 600 Kenyans because he wants to go to State House?


Broadly, the Kenyans are paying for what has become the bane of African politics — short-term and opportunistic considerations in the selection of national leaders. Lack of long-term vision in the beginning comes to haunt us in the end.