The year is 1789 in France. The country is governed by a king and an aristocracy. France is industrialising and thousands of people have flocked to Paris to work in coal mines and other industries.
These multitudes are poorly paid and live in conditions not much different from those we find in the slums that keep mushrooming around us.
Again like in our slums, there is little to do after slaving away in the factories. So they drink and brawl in filthy drinking dens. Like the peasants in the eponymous short story by Anton Chekov, the system has taken away their dignity and they now dwell in a Hobbesian state in which life is “nasty, brutish and short.”
By contrast, the monarchy and the aristocracy live in magnificent palaces and castles. Life here can only be described as decadent opulence.
I imagine life in these fabulous homes to have been similar to that of noblemen in ancient Rome who would spend the whole day feasting. When their stomachs became too full, they would have their servants tickle their throats with a feather and cause them to vomit and create room for more food and wine.
The French monarchy and aristocracy have created a parallel world in the same country. When a shortage of bread occurs and the cost becomes prohibitive for the hungry masses of Paris, they pour into the streets in protest.
What is that noise outside? French Queen Marie Antoinette asks, probably fanning herself to cool off after a heavy meal. She is told it is because of the shortage of bread. She asks: “If they don’t have bread, why don’t they eat cake”.
Historians dispute whether she actually said those words. American writer Alex Haley was once pressed about the historical accuracy of some of the claims he had made in his 1976 book, Roots, which traced his family’s journey from West Africa. He conceded that some of the incidents were not literally true but they had “symbolic truth.”
Similarly, we can argue that even if Marie Antoinette did not say these exact words that does not change the fact that the ruling class in the France of her time lived in a reality vastly removed from that of their subjects.
It is uncanny that the situation we are facing in Kenya in the 21st century is in many respects similar to that in 18th century France. Like France of 1789, we have our version of the monarchy and aristocracy who live in a reality removed from that of the ordinary subjects, er, citizens in whose name they govern.
We have 349 MPs, 67 Senators, hundreds of MCAs, Governors, county ministers, Cabinet Secretaries, and the presidency. They earn huge salaries and allowances, travel First Class, dine in expensive hotels, drive huge fuel guzzlers, or if the potholes bring discomfort to their overfed bellies (remember the Roman noblemen feeding all day?), they hop onto helicopters. Some carry millions of shillings in bags to give away at harambees.
Many have mansions in this or that city. Their children go to expensive private schools here or abroad. When sick, they go abroad for treatment. And as the presidential appointments show, they have jobs for life. Should they, for some reason, lose their job, the president is on hand to appoint them as parastatal heads or as ambassadors.
Meanwhile, a mother in Kibera or some other city slum is at her wits’ end trying to budget her daily earnings of 100 shilling. The inconvenient truth is that the world of our “monarchy” and “aristocracy” is as far removed from the reality of the wananchi as that of the French monarchy and aristocracy was from their subjects.
The parallel does not end there. The divided reaction to the Financial Bill which introduced a 16 per cent tax on fuel recalls the divided reaction to the high cost of bread in 1789 in France.
In Kenya, the citizens cried foul loudly, arguing that putting food on the table was already difficult enough.
Our “monarchy” and “aristocracy,” probably rubbing full bellies to ease digestion, wondered what the fuss was all about and gave lectures on the importance of being responsible and balancing our books. Of course, the question of who shirks their responsibility when every year the country loses more than Ksh300 billion, or $3billion, to theft was omitted.
Then the Senate, forgetful of the austerity measures promised by the president, decided to have one of their useless sessions upcountry.
Our ruling class, in other words, were telling us: Why don’t you just eat cake?
Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi