The allegory of TheEmperor’s New Clothes teaches us, among other things, the power of framing a discussion.
In the legend, everyone—high officials, common folk, wise old men—disagreed with each other on the quality, colours, and patterns of the emperor’s clothes.
The parameters of the discussion had been limited to commentary on the nature of the emperor’s clothes.
It took the innocence of a child to correctly reframe the discussion: But the emperor has no clothes!
When you control the question, you determine the answer. When you frame the debate, you determine the nature of the discussion.
If a Kenyan politician is charged in court with a crime, he says that it is the work of his political rivals.
The heated public discussion that follows centres on whether the accused is a victim of political mischief. Those who support him advance reasons why he is being “targeted.”
They draw misplaced historical parallels. They quote false “facts,” etc. Those on the opposite side of the discussion challenge the reasons given. They refute the parallels, and point to the falsehood of the facts.
The discussion has been cleverly shifted away from the facts and circumstances underlying the criminal charges.
In the ICC case, politicians indicted by the court for crimes committed during the 2007/8 massacres (understated as ethnic skirmishes) cast the indictments as part of well-calculated machinations by their political opponents.
There is no way, it was declared with appropriate drama, the opposite political formation could win the election other than through making certain the indictees were shut out of the race.
Then followed a back-and-forth that failed to touch on the facts and circumstances underlying the indictments.
Recently, the issue of the ICC has been revived and now, as in the past, the discussion is not why and how over a thousand people were butchered and hundreds of women raped in the most horrific ways imaginable.
Framed correctly, the discussion would be an uncomfortable examination of tribalism and the criminal nature of ethnic mobilisation, and whether justice for the victims has been achieved. But framed as a political witch-hunt, the discussion becomes shameless political jockeying indulged in with pleasure.
As a prelude to the 2022 campaigns, discussion now, as in the past, explores possible tribal realignments and formations.
How will the Kikuyu vote? Will the Kalenjin vote be split? Will the Luhya this time round vote as a block for a fellow tribesman? What about the Kisii?
Professors sit on TV panels and disagree with each other on these salient matters. Newspapers devote acres of space analysing why this or that ethnic group will vote this or that way.
Everyone, like the people in the legend of The Emperor’s New Clothes, is engaged in this shrill verbal brawl that passes for political debate.
Discussion on vernacular radio and TV stations becomes shriller. Why should our tribe support that one? It is also time for other tribes to support us.
New tribal formations are mooted – pastoralist community, Coast community, northeastern Kenya community. It is our time! We are not visitors in Kenya!
Engulfed in this tribal hysteria, a fundamental question is never asked: What are the qualities we need in a president? No one discusses whether the leading candidates for president have ever sacrificed their comfort for a noble idea.
Whether they have ever inspired people to be courageous in spite of great adversity. Whether these candidates’ personal integrity is beyond reproach.
Whether they demonstrated, when they were ministers, a work ethic that went beyond the call of duty. Whether they have advanced, at great risk of losing everything, ideas of freedom, equality and justice. Whether or not they are driven by a desire to transform Kenya and Africa and the world.
If we were to have these discussions, we would quickly realise that most of these leading candidates would not only fall short of attaining the requirements for president, but that they should not even be allowed near any leadership position, including Village Cattle Dip Chairman!
The debate has been framed for us. We have been limited to discussing the emperor’s clothes. The debate, however, should be whether the emperor has any clothes, and if not, why he is walking naked in the streets. In the legend of the emperor, when the debate was correctly reframed, the truth was revealed and a revolution ensued.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.