Justin Muturi, Kenya’s National Assembly Speaker, is not someone I normally agree with. I rate his stewardship of Parliament to be one of the worst since independence.
If war, according to Carl von Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means, debate in our National Assembly has become the continuation of ethnic violence by other means. Instead of the great debaters of yesteryear, derided by Charles Njonjo, an architect of the Kanu dictatorship, as the “seven bearded sisters’’, we have parliamentary caucuses organised on the basis of tribe.
Thus, for instance, on important national questions, you just need to know an MP’s last name and you can predict what their stand will be. Parliament under Muturi’s watch is also the most avaricious, wasteful and, given the numerous allegations of corruption against its members, as well as instances of trading insults and blows, the most dishonourable in the history of Kenya.
But the National Assembly Speaker recently made an important observation about a national oddity. He talked to a gathering about the habit among MPs of introducing themselves as ‘‘honourable so-and-so’’ as part of their name.
The proper way to do it, said Muturi, is to say: ‘‘My name is so-and-so, MP for such-and-such a place.’’ It is up to members of the audience or others, he said, to prefix your name with the honorific.
The Speaker might just have been expressing an irritation with this habit. But this habit is symptomatic of an insidious affliction that is at the heart of our national dysfunction.
The affliction is an obsession with titles, form and optics. You will find a professor introducing himself: My name is professor so-and-so. Or an engineer: I’m engineer so-and-so. But would it not sound odd if we heard Noam Chomsky, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a premier crucible for life-changing technical and ideatic innovation — and who is arguably the greatest linguist in history — introduce himself as Professor Noam Chomsky?
Here, professors who have never developed any great ideas or theories will be tripping over their own titles because the titles precede them and their work.
For people like Chomsky, the title is a “by-the-way” appellation; what is important and what precedes him is the work he has done. Likewise, legislators in other regions of the world let the reputation of their revolutionary and transformative agendas say who they are.
We have come to substitute form for substance. We have a parliament devoid of a transformative mandate. We wave national flags and sing the national anthem – symbols of national unity — then pick up machetes to cut down neighbours because they speak differently. For the camera, officials speak about values in the constitution, then steal funds meant for the sick and dying. And we the public would rather die than forget to call our hollow demigods Mheshimiwa, Professor or Engineer.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator