The Kibra and Ganda by-elections in Nairobi and the Coast, respectively, have proved once again that Kenyan political culture is tribal and rides on insults and violence.
For some reason, the media, civil society, professional bodies, churches, students’ bodies, and intellectuals have been unable to counter this culture and help create one of ideas, civility, and peace. In fact, these alternative voices seem to aid and abet that deplorable culture.
The media, for instance, unwittingly glorify tribal demagogues and warlords by reporting their actions and utterances in neutral terms. In other words, without a context that links their behaviour to our society’s retrogression.
Panellists, too, often discuss toxic political actions and utterances in non-condemnatory terms. Churches will launder politicians by giving them special mention and elevated status during their services. As a result, the most popular politicians in Kenya today are not the ones who have sponsored impactful legislation, or the ones who help us change outdated ideas and practices, or the ones who, by example, promote a new work ethnic based on personal integrity and principles. Oh no! The political stars are the ones who have gained some form of notoriety. Politicians know this is their ticket to stardom, so they court scandal, try to outdo each other’s insults, and do everything they can to cultivate the image that they are able to protect their turf.
A few years ago, a relatively unknown Ferdinand Waititu was catapulted to prominence when he was captured by media throwing stones, then inciting people and generally being a rabble-rouser. In the Kibra by-election, politicians were caught on camera hurling stones. In Ganda, a politician stormed his rival’s meeting and in the ensuing fracas, someone was shot dead.
We have seen politicians violently disrupting meetings, claiming they were not informed about such gatherings in their constituencies. Who told politicians they own the regions they represent? All these acts of intimidation, insult, and violence are the tools by which political careers in Kenya are built.
In earlier decades, media reports, by conscientious use of context and angle, glorified human rights activists or oppositionists. Churches gave elevated status to those sacrificing everything to challenge the Kanu state. Students’ bodies gave their support to men and women of conscience. Academics engaged political debate on their own terms, defining a vision quite different from that of Kanu. As a result, though the Kanu government was all-powerful, it was not its demagogues or those who headed its violent militias who captured popular imagination or whom people looked up to as true leaders. On the contrary, it was those who stood for human dignity and those who campaigned on the platform of transforming society.
CHANGE THE CULTURE
Concerns about our violent and tribal political culture are not just academic. The scuffles in this ward or that constituency reported in glowing terms by the media, or the elevation by the church of unsavoury characters, or the popular belief that crude insults equal political accomplishment - in short, the elevation of thuggery to a legitimate political tool - will soon lead to large-scale breakdown of law and order, and catastrophic violence.
This trend, therefore, must be stopped. Media can help by adopting a reporting style reminiscent of the late 1980s and 1990s. The Church can help by elevating morally upright politicians. Academics can refuse to discuss political trends in terms determined by the political class. In other words: Stop discussing who is a better stone thrower or tribal mobiliser. Instead, talk about who has better leadership qualities. Students’ organisations should refuse to be a microcosm of Kenya’s political culture of thuggery and reclaim their nationalist and progressive heritage.
There must also be robust legal and administrative action. The police must swiftly prosecute any acts of intolerance without fear or favour. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission must impose sanctions on individuals who contravene electoral guidelines and laws. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission must re-establish ethical behaviour in the public sphere. Political parties’ disciplinary organs must rein in their war-mongers and other miscreants. The National Integration and Cohesion Commission cannot continue to just sit and watch. The violence in Kibra and Ganda and endemic acts of intolerance indicate the commission is redundant. Finally, the president of Kenya cannot afford to be aloof. He must help define and enforce the vision of a peaceful and progressive country.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.