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Once upon a time, there was a strong institution known as a political party founded on principles as opposed to belonging to an ethnic group or an alliance thereby. Kenya’s first political parties on the eve of independence were such institutions. They were parties of principles albeit tinged with some ethnic element. Unfortunately, this ethnic tinge inadvertently, or otherwise, quickly and easily became the fulcrum on which our national politics revolved. It is then that we, as a nation, lost the opportunity evolve a clear-headed politics driven by pertinent issues. As a result, our stature in the community of nations and level of political, democratic and economic development remains wanting if not stunted altogether. To recapture the growth dynamic in these areas, we ought to recalibrate our mindset from thinking about our ethnic kingpin or our time to be in power to issue-oriented political agenda. After all, it is just a mindset.
The political party, the world over, has been at the center of galvanizing society and rallying people behind causes, great or great-turned nightmarish. Parties capture the imagination of the people and motivate them to political action. In a sense, therefore, parties account for political participation and engagement of the wider public in the process of governance. It thus, in many ways, enables the fulfilment of civic duties. In the absence of the development of stable political parties, political lethargy and apathy reigns supreme. That has been Kenya’s experience and portion except for one brilliant spot in its history between 1966 and 1969. Unfortunately, the nature of world politics at the time didn’t allow this glimmer to reach maturity. It was doused before it even started and we were back once again to ethnic-cocoon politics.
Although not a panacea for all that besets us as a people, we must all think seriously of the place of the party in our political system. One can hold up the world’s leading and largest democracies, the US and India, respectively, as shining examples of properly adjusted societies where parties play a big role in the execution of national agendas. Granted, it is not always smooth, and Washington, DC is known to get so stuffy that it becomes difficult for congressmen and women and senators to see issues clearly in the fog of party positions. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be held up as a reason not to emulate mature democracies, stimulate and recover the place of the political party where there seems to be almost none at all.
What, one must wonder, are parties in Kenya but opportunistic and ramshackle political dhows to survive the monsoon of general elections and ascend to positions of power and authority every five years? Some might even venture that the situation at some point, save for the 2010 constitution, got well out of hand such that political parties became articles for buying and selling. For the most part though, and as a result of this marketization of party politics, parties have been, and remain, personal property. Chama kina wenyewe is not an unusual or new political statement, and it doesn’t refer to rank and file. No. It means political investors and financiers of a party. This has served to further aggravate and trivialize our national siasa to the politics of personalities, and where revered people of means are elevated to divine status, personal cults are never very far behind. But then, one can argue that even where single or monopoly parties have held sway, personality cults have been known to take root. That, however, is beside the point herein. Such arguments may easily lead to cul-de-sac debates answers for which don’t exist as yet. Otherwise, how might one explain the growing from strength to strength of Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapenduzi despite having to deal with a far more complicated issue of the union, and the diminution and eventual demise of its Kenyan equal, the Kenya African National Union?
Be it as it may that the jury is out on the question above, there is no question that the institutionalization and entrenchment of party politics in the political culture of any society lends it continuity and a reference point of and/or for being a single but culturally diverse collective, and evolution as a nation-state; and gives stability to the political system, and the country by extension. The opposite doesn’t belabor the imagination by any stretch because that would be our story. That’s Kenya’s narrative of near collapse and utter disintegration in the face of multiple bifurcations of political parties. In the wake of atomized differences reigns confusion of identities up to and until they reach the bare minimum, ethnic identities, and parties that appeal to them.
There is, therefore, need to build the old broad-based traditional party with longevity as opposed to the next elections in mind. Although with its own woes, there is a lot to learn from South Africa’s African National Congress. It is not only a party with institutional memory but also acts as the reservoir of a people’s national memory of struggle and the promise that it held a hundred years ago as it still does today. I suppose if we were to do so, we have to start with the last place we saw that champion cockerel of independence, reviving it from its comma on issues and refurbishing it back to the reservoir of our collective memory and vehicle for pertinent agendas that have nothing to do with which ethnic group is in State House. (An entire ethnic group cannot and will never occupy that august house. Only one individual does so at any one time). Or we could just start on a clean slate and form real parties as opposed to personal fiefs.
Admire and love him or disparage and hate him, Raila Amolo Odinga is the most seasoned prominent politician still active on the national scene. The man has a career spanning over thirty years something that is unrivalled by any of his contemporaries. It is, therefore, little wonder that Kenyans are wont to bestow him with the endearing reference, “baba.” Only President Moi (Rtd.) and, especially, the founding President Jomo Kenyatta, were referred to using this fond title that once evoked the image of the people of Kenya as a single united nation made up of diverse ethnic groups. And it must be said, in the case of the former, the president did not become Baba Moi overnight. This is why Raila needs to pause and reflect on the role that he should play and the kind of footprints he wants to leave on shores of Kenya’s political history. Although made light of, or coined in sheer jest, this political christening, owing to his rather long absence from the political scene, I posit, was by no mere happenstance. It was a cryptic political script that either Raila failed to read or just misread. I suspect that he must have read it but read it slightly wrong hence the national rallies that were to reach the apogee in Saba Saba, and a series of monthly campaigns to collect grievances from wananchi.
It is this kind of thing that sets the man apart. On his sojourn to the US, “baba” had time to reflect and it somewhat paid off. He got this epiphany that was going to be a lightning rod of Kenya politics in 2014 but upon embarking on it, it immediately backfired. Yet there was the shinning promise of a radical grassroots movement culminating in an elections game-change in 2017. This, however, blew up in Raila’s face, within his party where trouble is brewing and political alliance where smoke is yet to be detected.
But there was nothing wrong with the vision and cause that must have consumed Raila’s heart and passion. I can hazard a few guesses why things didn’t work out the way they were expected. One was the political modus operandi. Raila and his advisers failed to read the signs of the times choosing mass rallies during a period of heightened insecurity in the country. It is no wonder that it didn’t take very long for this strategy to play into the hands of the government following the first attack in Mpeketoni. This dealt a serious blow and halted these rallies before they could even get started. Secondly, and this is, then, the gist of my argument, Raila was a little rash if not brash even, in unleashing his chosen political weapon. This resulted in the serious flaw of making the cause a party and political alliance affair. Subsequently, many a small minded demagogues and party hacks without a clue of the magnitude of “the cause” started pouring vitriol that bordered on ethnic hate speech a few weeks before “baba’s” return. That was strike number two and Raila has these loose cannons to thank for the temporary shallow backwaters that he finds himself and ODM in. Strike number three was failure to own his cause and make it his own personal cause. After all, isn’t he easily the first amongst the great generals of the so-called Second Liberation struggle? Hasn’t he tried every trick in the book including political marriages and alliances and, if you like, sleeping with the enemy? The last weapon that he ought to resort to is to change tack and with this, resolve some of the problems bedeviling him including the rift between the old and young politicians in his party.
Raila must start this process from within himself. He must dig deep within the recesses of his closet of tricks and strategies to recover his political mojo. Once and if he does so, he will come to the obvious appreciation of the fact that what worked in the 1980s or early 1990s might not always work right, work right now, or right away. Raila will value the fact that this is not time for political experiments where burning fingers in the process of learning is allowed. I would rue seeing Raila in an awkward “groundie” fashion under a wooden platform in a cloud of teargas reminiscent of a similar situation many years ago in Thika Stadium. He might also find that he might no longer have a taste for building and repairing political fences. That would be the whole gamut of the known three political cycles of this political giant whose full relevance and value Kenyans are yet to see: Raila of the burning fingers phase early in his political career; the boat-rocking Raila and running street battles in the early and mid-1990s; and Raila the fence-builder from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
However, the question still remains, “what will his fourth and last political phase be?” In my books, that will be the Raila of “the baba moment.” An elder statesman, who is idolized, proffers the olive branch and gives an entire people reason to hope. This, I believe, is what the man set out to do when he suggested dialogue between the opposition and the government an offer that was quickly bastardized and, appropriately, discarded. I suggest that Raila needs to reinvent and repackage himself and play pater patriae: the peacemaker, the joy bringer, the provident protector who, although doesn’t have all the answers always, utters weighty words of authority that are listened to without question. This is a role badly needed within his ODM party that isn’t the same since its botched elections, and in the country. So, step up baba.