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Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Do Kenyan Politicians Dance?

Over the past few weeks, I've been obsessing with a single question. Why do our politicians dance? At every political function nowadays, it has become customary for them to do a jig before addressing the crowds. Where did that come from? When did it start? And, more importantly, why do they do it?

One thing's for sure. Boogieing politicians are a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that we danced for them. In the days of my youth, no political function would begin before a troupe of "traditional dancers" or some choir had performed for the big men -and they were almost always men. Of course, they would sometimes perfunctorily join but it was clear who was dancing for whom.

We danced for them.

Dancing for rulers' entertainment has a long and not too proud history around these parts. The colonials, in the era before late night radio jams and funk and discotheques enjoyed a little live performance by the firelight as they downed their evening drink. Further, parading the conquered folks has ancient roots. The Romans would do it at their triumphs. And our parading ourselves to our British conquerors was a demonstration of our subjugation; our "culture", our very lives, beliefs and existence, were now to be for the entertainment of our rulers, commodities and curiosity they could entice their friends to part with money to experience -and thus the tourism industry was born.

Following the charade that was independence, our newly minted black potentates adopted many of the old habits of the colonial society they had always secretly aspired to join. They moved into the colonial houses and neighbourhoods, became fellow members of their country clubs, took their kids to the same schools, and kept us dancing to the tune of oppression.

Wherever Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi after him, went, traditional dancers had to be hastily assembled to offer welcome. The book Kenya: The Politics of Participation and Control
by Henry Bienen speaks of regular reports of Kenyatta regularly receiving traditional dancers at his home. In a system where power was seen as both a source of prestige and patronage, our dancing for our Presidents and politicians marked them as purveyors of such. Just like their regular enthronements (again in the same manner as their colonial forebears) as "elders" of communities they have brutalized, our dancing was, and is, designed to curry favor.

So we danced for them.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Presidents started to dance for us -in a manner of speaking. At the height of the Nyayo dictatorship, a trio of three brilliantly impudent comedians burst onto the national scene. The climax of Redykyulass' shows, always guaranteed to floor audiences, would depict the then President Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man, breaking into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine -the Ndombolo. It was the first time any of us had seen the President, or in this case a parody of him, truly dance and the effect was electrifying.

As Prof Grace Musila recounts in her essay Violent Masculinities and the Phallocratic Aesthetics of Power in Kenya, "the very thought of the President dancing to Ndombolo was itself a powerful subversion of the carefully choreographed iconography of the dignified "father of the nation" who had hitherto been seen in local currency, on national television making speeches and staring out contemplatively in framed portrait photographs all over the country." Via their dancing, Redykyulass "removed President Moi from his revered position in framed portraits, legal tender, patriotic songs and various elevated podiums associated with political speeches on public holidays and, instead, represented him as an ordinary figure who Kenyans could laugh at."

Today, the dancing we see on political podiums across the country is similarly farcical. As we have seen, the state used to invest a great deal in "the carefully choreographed iconography" of power. So when we suddenly have State House releasing videos of President Uhuru Kenyatta doing the dab dance as his rivals try to out do each other in comical dance, something fundamental about our politics has changed. While the politicians doing the shakey-leggy are perhaps hoping their gyrations make them seem like one with the people, what stays in the mind is not the idea of common cause so much as that of comedy. It is the reverse of the Redykyulass skit. This time the joke is on us.

Politics has always had an element of performance, even farce. A good example is Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." During much of the post-independence era, Kenyan politics has been all show with and little substance, more about abetting elite plunder than fixing the people's problems. Still, there was felt a need to portray it as a game for serious people.

Not any more. Politics has become entertainment, our very own, home-grown reality soap opera. Making fun of a ponderous authoritarian in the 1990s was a way to undermine his grip on the people, to allow them to see him as someone they could hold to account. Comedic dancing today is a sign that both the politicians and the citizenry have abandoned even the pretense of seriousness. This is also reflected in the rise of farcical characters such as Mike Sonko, Ferdinand Waititu and even Miguna Miguna. You no longer need to be a serious person, or even to pretend to be a serious person, in order to participate. Entertainment is today's currency.

Compare our politics with soap operas. One study describes the features of a soap as 1) personal life is the “core problematic”; 2) they are marked by melodramatic excess, necessary for their emotional
impact; and 3) a lack of narrative resolution, thereby maintaining their continuous existence. Our politics problematizes politicians personal political fortunes, appeal to ethnic sentiment via exaggerating ideas of threat as well as fantastical promises, and issues, be they scandals or questions about the proper role of the state, are never resolved. Like soaps, our politics is infested by outlandish characters and insane plot twists incestuous and ever changing relationships between the relatively small cast of players, and death, murder and betrayal are constant themes.

And like all soaps, the objective of our politics is not just entertainment, but distraction. Just as many seek respite from reality by watching trashy TV, so too they entertain trashy politics. But for the politicians, the pay off is much greater. To understand why, think back to Roman times. The first century Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, referred to the provision of free wheat and entertainment as a means of achieving political power. He wrote:

"Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."

Kenyan politicians too have become adept at using their control of bread and circuses to maintain their grip on power. Aside from generating food crises -either deliberately or through sheer criminality, negligence and incompetence- and swooping in as saviors, they also provide the gladiatorial contests that keep the citizenry too distracted to concern themselves with the root causes of the country's problems. And like Juvenal's Romans, we too have abdicated our duties of citizenship.

But it would be a mistake to blame the citizenry, whether in Juvenal's Rome or in present-day Kenya for the state of affairs. The Roman Empire’s decline has been blamed by some, like 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, on the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizenry which allowed demagogues to gain power. And some have attempted the same explanation for Kenya's woes. However, this has it back to front. In both cases, the loss of public trust was a consequence, not the cause, of politicians misbehaviour.

As those in power concentrate on enriching themselves rather than on the interests of their subjects, corruption, incompetence and insincerity come to dominate mainstream politics. A disillusioned populace either switches off altogether or driven into the arms of populist demagogues promising easy solutions. The new rulers, unable or unwilling to deal with root causes, resort to distraction. Free wheat, circus games, and feeding Christians to lions in Rome; a political reality soap opera in Kenya. The sole purpose being to keep the commoners from focusing on the pillaging of society by the same politicians.

Berating ordinary Kenyans -or Romans- for their poor electoral choices thus misses the point. Why should they be invested in a game they seem destined to lose? Rather, we must seek to remove the wool that is pulled over their eyes and allow them to see the real roots of their immiseration; see how the game is rigged against them and the opportunities that exist to change it. This means learning, not ignoring, the history that politicians work so hard to hide. It also requires understanding that there are many different ways to approach problems and we do not need to be constrained by the frameworks and blinders they have imposed on us. In short, we must learn to look beyond the dance. 

Monday, May 01, 2017

Development Is About People Not Economies

Last week I was invited to what was described as a “Global Think In” event, basically a series of conversations between academics on Columbia University’s New York campus and scholars and participants in nine Columbia Global Centers in cities around the world. The question we were asked to ponder was: What issue relating to the changing world do you find most urgently pressing in your region?

Now the world is changing in many, quite drastic ways which pose serious challenges to people in Kenya and on the African continent. These include the perils of climate change as evidenced by the current drought ravaging the continent. The twin march of globalization and technology is both creating and decimating opportunities, jobs and wealth, and enabling small groups of disenchanted folks to terrorize entire nations. At the same time we must fight both newly emerging and more familiar diseases as a consequence of changing lifestyles, and figure out how to prepare our kids to deal with an uncertain future.

To do any of this effectively, we will need governments that are focused on and responsive to the welfare of their citizens as well as able to cooperate to address the wider, global issues.
Yet across the world, we are witnessing a retreat from these very values. While some may point to the rising tide of populism and xenophobic nationalism with the preference for “strong” leaders as represented by the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of far right in Europe, I think something more insidious is at play.

“My personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism,” Friedrich Hayek once remarked on a visit to Pinochet's Chile. Today many seem to lean simply towards economically astute dictatorship in the belief that democracy, especially of the liberal kind, has not only not worked, but actually militates against the ability to solve problems. The role models for this are regimes in China, Rwanda and Ethiopia, which foster high rates of economic growth while curtailing political freedoms and human rights.

Yet this privileging of economic numbers above people only produces chronically fragile states. Ethiopia, which has been growing at double digits for well over a decade, has been under a state of emergency since October sparked by protests over repression. Many here forget that the 2008 post-election violence which pushed Kenya to the brink of anarchy, came after the longest period of sustained economic growth in twenty years.

Economic growth is no panacea. It is no substitute for the real work of ensuring governments are rooted in and accountable to the people they rule over. And as the recent party nominations across the country demonstrate, Kenya has done little to ensure that political processes are an unambiguous reflection of the will of the citizenry.

Another thing to consider is that since the end of the Cold War, the international community has served as a critical check on governmental excesses in Kenya and the region and has been an important ally of those fighting for greater respect for human and democratic rights as well as better governance. The International Criminal Court, for example, was a big factor in tempering politicians’ appetites for violence and why we did not have a repeat the 2008 violence in 2013.

As Kenya gears up for another round of elections, the ICC’s stature has been badly damaged the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto cases and is now seen as little more than a paper tiger. Further, the rise of inward looking populists such as Trump means our governing elites will also be less concerned about international reactions to human rights violations and stolen elections. The fragmentation of the global liberal order and the growing international power and prestige of illiberal states such as China as well as the preference for transactional foreign policies that elide human rights and governance concerns means brutal and corrupt regimes here have little fear of international delegitimization and ostracism.

Given all this, there is thus a pressing challenge to recreate the coalitions of both citizens and international allies necessary to hold the political class in check during the elections and to deliver real reform in the post-election phase. We also need to build new development models, ones that recognize development is about people, not economies.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Uhuru Should Stop Getting High On American Supply

Much has been made about the alleged flooding of the Kenyan coast with illegal drugs. President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to stop them and to prosecute all involved in the trade. But like his “war” on alcohol, his stance against illicit drugs is informed less by reasoning and evidence but rather by hysteria.

Kenya is not on the brink of a drugs epidemic. As Kalundi Serumaga puts it in an article in The Elephant’s edition on drugs, “ordinary Africans simply do not have enough numerical strength to make up the necessary aggregated monetary demand, and rich Africans are simply too few to consume the volumes necessary to make fixed supply lines to them worthwhile.”

In fact, across the world, the criminalization of drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana has had little to do with public health concerns. Heroin was created at the close of the 19th Century by the German company Bayer, and marketed alongside aspirin as a remedy for coughs, colds and ‘irritation’ in children. Its criminalization in the US, along with opium from which it is manufactured, grew from resentment of Chinese workers and racist hysteria over accounts of white women being lured into opium dens. Cocaine, first isolated in 1859 and marketed as remedy for toothaches in children and as an ingredient in Coca-Cola, was similarly criminalized for due to US whites’ fear of economic competition from freed slaves. The banning of marijuana was a reaction to the influx of low-wage Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, sparked in part by the Mexican revolution.

The rest of the world has blindly followed the US lead with disastrous results. Not only has the drugs war failed to stop, or even significantly slow, their production, trafficking and consumption, it has destroyed countries and communities and made some of the most unscrupulous and ruthless people on the planet fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful.

The specific aim of the war was to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and thus unaffordable. That has only been partially achieved.

Prohibition has prevented some drug abuse by making forbidden substances less readily accessible and vastly more expensive than similar agricultural-based stimulants like coffee or tea but, despite this, the price of most illegal drugs has actually plummeted. The cocaine sold on the streets may be more expensive than coffee but it is much less expensive and much more potent than it was two decades ago.

A small part of this can be attributed to stagnating demand in the West. The 2016 UN World Drugs Report cautiously concluded that “the global cocaine market has … been shrinking,” and attributed this changing consumption patterns. Yet, perversely, it is on the producer and transit countries such as Kenya, that the war on drugs is focused. In fact, it amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to them. 

To paraphrase a thought experiment related by Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo in their essay, Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing?: “Suppose all cocaine consumption in the US goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up by 3000% in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is ‘perhaps not,’ well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the past 20 years.”

As their coffers swell up, narco-traffickers are able to corrupt governments and law-enforcement agencies and purchase political power across the global south. In Kenya, at least two County Governors, a Senator as well as members of the National Assembly have been implicated in the drug trade. Further, drug traffickers launder approximately $100 million a year through the country’s financial system, much of which ends up in the country’s real estate, inflating prices and making decent and safe housing unaffordable for the vast majority of the urban population.

By regurgitating the tough talk from the West’s failed war on drugs, President Kenyatta is essentially selling the country down the river. He would be better advised to adopt an approach more informed by the evidence of what has happened in the last century as well as by the interests of the people of Kenya. 

A version of this article was first published in The Elephant