Sycophancy is one of the most powerful causes of societal stagnation. This is because it denies a society the benefit of many viewpoints and visions competing with one another to propel the society forward.
The renaissance in Europe and the consequent industrial revolution came about when individuals offered, at great risk to themselves, alternative ways of looking at the world. The competition among these new perspectives and old orthodoxies propelled scientific, artistic and societal progress.
We in Kenya have firsthand experience of a time when perspectives that deviated from the official position could cost one their freedom or life.
Conformity of thought became a national goal, and sycophancy the only legitimate political expression.
Thus the absurd spectacle of intelligent, well-educated adults competing with each other to praise to high heavens policies, behaviour or visions they all knew impeded the socio-political and economic progress of the country.
In one surreal episode, a politician declared at a public rally that he was ready to die so that the remaining years he would have stayed alive could be added to the lifespan of the president! Professors, clergymen of great standing, scientists, and ordinary men and women gave the politician a thunderous applause.
The population had been reduced to mindlessly cheering the steady decline of the country.
That is why it is worrisome that sycophancy has been on the ascendancy over the last couple of years.
For instance, before the rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, politicians on both sides of the political divide spewed vitriol on one another. They told their supporters at rallies and funerals that the other side was motivated by ethnic chauvinism and was intent on destroying the country. On national TV, they continued, by sly innuendo, ethnic profiling and hate.
On vernacular stations, they cast off their educated air and launched into tribal demagoguery that was as vile as it was frightening.
At rallies, they urged their principles to maintain hard-line stances. They shouted: “Being silent does not mean cowardice.”
Then the handshake happened, catching these tribal warriors by surprise. These same politicians — in Jubilee and Nasa — now made an about-turn that would be the envy of a contortionist. The war dance was abandoned. Lofty praises were now showered on the principles for their wisdom and foresight.
During the push for the ouster of commissioners of the Isaac Hassan-led Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the same hate-laced speeches from both sides divided the country along ethnic lines. There was sabre rattling on both sides. They issued threats: “We will not allow them to destroy our country.”
A visiting foreigner could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a lead-up to a war, not an election.
Then in a surprising move, the leadership of the warring sides agreed to disband the commission. The about-turn of the fire-breathing tribal warriors was nothing short of spectacular.
Now, a few months after the election, campaigns for 2022 have begun, proving a point made in this column that elections have become an end in themselves.
It is tragic that in a country mired in the depths of underdevelopment, the population considers, as its most sacred national ambition, the holding of elections for their own sake, not as a means to anything.
But that, tragic as it may be, is a choice a populace makes. What should be of concern, though, is that campaigns for 2022 are being conducted in alarmingly shrill intolerant voices.
Again, there are veiled threats if people do not vote a certain way. Insults intended to intimidate other people with presidential ambitions are hurled with arrogant abandon. There are well-choreographed efforts to elevate individuals to demi-gods. The Bible is quoted as proof of God’s anointment of these individuals.
As in the past, lawyers and priests join the crowds in applauding these disgusting and blasphemous invocations of God.
Any country that has escaped underdevelopment was led by a political class that defined their personal success in terms of the part they played in the success of their country. They were ashamed of their country’s underdevelopment even when, as in some Arab countries, the politicians were fabulously wealthy.
In Africa, all politicians care about is their personal wealth and the political power to increase it or safeguard it. If it were otherwise, every Kenyan politician should be losing sleep thinking of ways of rescuing the country from the indignities of underdevelopment.
Instead, our politicians are losing sleep over the next sycophantic praise to unleash at the next funeral in order to endear themselves to their tribal demigods.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.