Give us a real ‘man of the people’ at the helm

Friday December 14 2012

Chinua Achebe’s A Man of The People might as well have been written with Kenya in mind — it describes the Kenyan situation almost perfectly. Photo/File

The world’s daredevils, doers and delinquents share one thing in common — courage. Whether they are politicians, writers, scholars or mountain climbers, it has been said that they are all driven “to a life of constant stimulation and risk taking” that demands tenacious courage.

Some of them have been refined, sophisticated and elitist. Others have been gruff and brisk in their manner. Some have been controversial, mean and unsmiling; with the austere demeanour of unappeasable warriors of justice. Others have been polished, friendly and affable. Indeed, great men and women who have shaken the world have come in all shapes and sizes.

However, it is probably writers who have left us most amazed or bewildered. Whether it’s William Shakespeare, the beloved bard of Avon, or Dante Alighieri or even Vladimir Nabokov, writers have taken the world by storm.

They have conquered the world, not by the power of the sword but by the power of lyrical pens and haunting, even devastating prose that shook nations.

One of Africa’s greatest shakers and movers is the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, known for his ever-green novels. However, as far as African politics is concerned, Achebe’s searing novel, A Man of the People, has no equal. As we gear up for the next elections, the absurdity, irony and grit of it all have already been captured in A Man of the People.

Achebe conjures up Odili Samalu, the protagonist as an ordinary, financially struggling young man who teaches at Anata Grammar School. The antagonist is Chief Nanga, the Minister for Culture, who rose from a humble beginning as a school teacher to the height of power and opulence.


Like our Kenyan politicians, Chief Nanga has an ego the size of China and an annoying sense of entitlement. Everything revolves around him! Personal interests trump national interests any time.

The conflict between Chief Nanga and Odili starts when the minister makes an official visit to Anata Grammar School, the school where he taught during his early career as a teacher before he became a politician. Odili, a teacher at the school, is annoyed by the ensuing celebration by the illiterate masses, who must set aside time from their miserable, poor lives to entertain Chief Nanga.

Odili complains, “As I stood in one corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the minister I felt intense bitterness welling up in my mouth. Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation. I wished for a miracle, for a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. But of course it would be quite useless.”

Kenya by description

The situation described could as well be in Kenya. We celebrate the same people who have overseen the plunder of public funds under their watch from one mega-scandal to another. We show up at their public rallies, shout ourselves hoarse and clap for them until our palms ache as if we have no brains of our own.

There will probably be no day we even ask them any hard questions, especially if they are “our people,” that is, from our ethnic communities.

In A Man of the People, Chief Nanga knew how to exploit minor loyalties like clan and community (read tribe) identities to maintain a firm grip on power.

Kenyan politicians are masterful at this. In this deal-making season of pre-election coalitions, one would be forgiven to think entire ethnic blocks belong to certain politicians.

They trade with us as one does with goods at the market – and some of us enjoy the transactions! From their own confessions, when one is asked what they are bringing on the table of a pre-election pact – that means tribe. Entire tribes are up for grabs and on sale! The assumption is that we do not care about issues but tribal identities.

And like Chief Nanga, they do it so “innocently,” with irresistible charm and heavenly eloquence (especially quoting Holy Scriptures) — sometimes we rarely see the diabolic personal interests behind it all — perfectly disguised as “national interests.”

Odili is also drawn by Chief Nanga’s charm. He observes, “The man was still as handsome and youthful-looking as ever — there was no doubt about that … The minister had a jovial word for every one. You could never think — looking at him now — that his smile was anything but genuine. It seemed bloodyminded to be sceptical.” No wonder, Chief Nanga claimed, when he spoke in perfect pidgin English like ordinary Nigerians, that he represented the “grassroots” and that he was “A Man of the People.”

This is the same dubious claim our politicians make, that they represent ordinary Kenyans and that they understand all our struggles. As we go into electioneering, we must clearly see behind the big rallies, the coloured caps and T-shirts to what these political leaders really stand for.

And we must be vigilant to differentiate between personal and national interests — and firmly reject the former. We need a real “Man of the People” for a president — one who has vision, focus and can offer meaningful solutions to the millions of struggling Kenyans.

The writer is the CEO of Phoenix Publishers. [email protected]