Over Easter, I walked into a fruit shop and eavesdropped on a discussion between the shopkeeper and a customer.
They were lamenting that it was beginning to look like Nairobi governor Mike Sonko and his Kiambu counterpart, Ferdinand Waititu, were not up to the job.
I did my shopping slowly because I wanted to hear the rest of the discussion. The customer then began naming the qualities needed for the complex and difficult job of running a capital city or any a county.
Among the qualities and requirements, he talked about academic qualifications, personal integrity, and leadership skills tested at the highest possible levels in the private or public sector. The shopkeeper was nodding his head vigorously.
This discussion was in the Kikuyu language, and because of the way we vote in Kenya, I knew that the two discussants in all probability had voted for or supported the politicians under discussion.
Then they began mentioning names of individuals who, according to them, possessed the qualifications they had enumerated. What amazed me was that the names mentioned were of people from different ethnic groups and political parties.
I had tried to conceal my eavesdropping by pretending to be busy, picking and retuning items on the shelf, but I surrendered to the temptation to join the conversation.
I said: “Excuse me, but isn’t the discussion you are having exactly the kind we should have had before the elections, evaluating candidates against a set criteria without regard to their political party and especially their ethnicity?” The gentlemen paused.
As an abstract discussion, they were comfortable. When forced to see themselves as players who were involved in making the choices they were now critically reassessing, they became uncomfortable. I twisted the knife.
“But if anyone had tried to bring up such a discussion and proposed the names you have mentioned, they would have been shouted down or roughed up by supporters of the two politicians.” The shopkeeper was squirming.
He confessed that he had voted for the Nairobi governor because he was the Jubilee party candidate. No doubt, he had recognised himself among the people whose actions he and his companion were castigating in their discussion; people who had voted on the basis of party and tribe without any consideration to merit.
There is great shame in seeing your own stupidity. The customer did not utter a single word, and kept his eyes trained on a bunch of bananas. Judging by his demeanour and expression, he must have been glad when I walked out of the shop.
I was astounded, not because they had voted for the governors, but because they were engaging in a process of critical assessment of political candidates against an objective criteria without giving any consideration to tribe or party, not before the election when it would have made sense, but after, and then only in an abstract way.
Democratic theory makes the assumption that people are rational and they will critically evaluate candidates in order to make the best possible choice, not just for the sake of it, but because there is a direct relationship between a qualified and competent leader and improvement in the quality of their lives.
That is why democratic theory makes the further assumption that should their rationality fail them, people will act on self-interest, that is, they will choose the best possible candidate as an act of self-interest.
Curiously, rationality or self-interest do not play any part in how Kenyan voters make their political choices. Their actions thus contradict a fundamental assumption of democratic theory.
And here is the thing students of political science find very puzzling: The Kenyan voters act that way, not because they, as the shop discussion above demonstrates, lack rationality or because they have no interest in improving their own welfare, or because they cannot see the relationship between good leadership and the quality of their welfare, but because, for some mystical reason, what motivates them before the election is an irrational fear of the “other,” a state of mind that will continue to make a farce of Kenya’s efforts at becoming a democracy.
Nairobi and Kiambu, and other counties, will experience a worsening of the problems of extreme poverty, crime, chaotic planning, corruption, etc, for the simple reason that the voters did not elect the governors for their leadership abilities.
I can bet my last coin that come 2022, my two friends at the shop will not critically assess the integrity and abilities of candidates before they vote. They will vote first and make the assessment later.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based social and political commentator. E-mail: [email protected]