Celebrating Kenya @ 50: Who’s Hosting?

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In colonial Kenya, long before I was born, the government was a foreign entity only domiciled in Kenya. It came with its structures and practices from yonder and paid little courtesy to what the locals felt or thought of its ways. If anything, the government’s goal was to subdue locals so the protectorate could advance the Queen’s agenda. That is how the fertile highlands were settled by the rulers and not the locals. To ensure the locals remained on their knees, the government decided what activities anyone could do. For instance, locals could not grow coffee or tea; Kenya’s black gold back then. If a local got within the white man’s circle, it was for their role in keeping their fellow black man subdued. We therefore had chiefs and askaris who were meaner to African Kenyans than the supposed-oppressor White rulers were.

At independence, for some strange reason liberation carried with it the animosity that existed between the privileged few and the masses. The police continued to be agents of torture and repression. The average public servant was not accountable to the ordinary citizen but to the new black “white” man. Colors changed but the relationships did not. Citizens were liberated but were still supposed to remain in their pre-independence clothes. The rulers meanwhile conveniently grabbed the white man’s wardrobe and did not care to turn out in the white man’s best attire.

Today, 50 years later, your average public officer will easily lose their job if they went against the grain of the establishment. Even when their action was in public interest! We still cherish the GSU for their ability to reign terror on fellow citizens. We still clothe our tribal demigods in the colonialist’s garbs; irreproachable, benevolent and with a free will to tread over us as they may please. The ordinary citizen has remained at the same spot he was at independence; unwilling to upset the leadership with uncomfortable questions, unquestioning when called to vote and always sorry for his own sad plight.

In the last week, two events got me thinking of how stagnated our society has remained in leadership and accountability. On Wednesday 14th, former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr and his wife were both sentenced for what in Kenya would be called corruption. Jackson was sentenced to 30 months in jail for stealing Ksh 65M of public funds. While that may not be big news in Kenya, the news is that these public funds were donations by the public to Jackson’s election campaign kitty. Now that would get most Kenyan politicians and citizens in serious thought trying to contemplate what the offence was! And as if that were not strict enough, his wife got a sentence for falsifying tax returns to hide the theft. The Jacksons were condemned and chastised for what in Kenya would never be known in the first place. A man once touted as potential president climbed down the public moral altar in disgrace courtesy of greed and public accountability.  Jackson displayed a kind of greed we are not strange to in Kenya. He spent the money on a Rolex watch and few other little luxuries at a time when his family’s combined annual earning was over Ksh 26M. In essence, Jackson stole money he already had to spend on things he did not need. The Kenyan public sphere is replete with supposedly honorable men who steal money they have for things they do not need but get away with their impropriety. Sadly and oddly, the ordinary citizen is firmly stuck to his colonial mindset; not asking questions and worse, swearing support when tribe is appropriate.

The second event was in Germany. An 8-year old boy was bitten by a turtle while swimming in a small lake. The boy sustained an injury but nothing life threatening. However, what followed is unimaginable in Kenya. The entire lake was drained and residents and firemen searched for the single 40cm turtle in the mud all weekend.  Such is the value of human life. And such is the epitome of public accountability. It saddens that we lose thousands of innocent productive citizens in Kenya in such senseless ways as road accidents yet nothing is done about it by the responsible public officials. The idea of public officials serving the public is still a far cry. The colonial mentality of serving a boss has held our leaders from recognizing the dignity and potential of our own people. Instead, all decisions must conform to the interests of the establishment first before those of the citizenry.  This is why we will still cherish the GSU for their batons, fear the police for their handcuffs and hold leaders in awe for their positions. In the meantime, nobody will move to fix the carnage on the roads, the want in hospitals and the disarray in schools. All this while, the public remains firmly seated in their role as subjects rather than employers of the leaders. The few who try to make a difference are just that, few.  In Mandela’s words, it remains a long walk to freedom.

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