Facing Kiambaa: Why we must get our ablest and best into politics

Facing Kiambaa: Why we must get our ablest and best into politics

Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoyo (left), blogger Dennis Itumbi (centre) and politician Josiah Murigu (right) lead other supporters in celebration after IEBC declared that UDA's John Njuguna had won the Kiambaa Parliamentary by-election on July 16, 2021.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Kiambaa has become one of the idioms defining human history. It has entered the pantheon of such famous idioms as “cross the Rubicon”, in reference to the moment when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and sparked a civil war.

Another such idiom is “meet one’s Waterloo”, alluding to Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in the battle of Waterloo. The July 15 Kiambaa by-election has spawned a new idiom, “Facing Kiambaa”, connoting Jubilee’s humiliating defeat in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kiambu home county.

I was pleasantly surprised at the massive interest that my tweet (“With results in Kiambaa, President Uhuru Kenyatta effectively enters LAME DUCK phase of his presidency”) has drawn. Three weeks ago, I warned in this column that the “Kiambaa by-election is a waterloo for the Jubilee Party and Kenyatta’s legacy” (Sunday Nation, June 27, 2021). I argued that “Baba witu” (our biological father) must come home to defend Kiambaa from “Baba wa mugate” (father who brings bread).

We live in the age of perpetual campaigns. Every President is a politician until he exits office. Someone should have placed Kiambaa into Kenyatta’s diary. Had “Baba come home” – or even spoken through the usual vernacular channels –  I reckon the rival United Democratic Alliance (UDA) candidate would not have garnered more than 500 votes! We would not be here today. After the Kiambaa Waterloo, we will witness Mt Kenya politicians scampering in hordes to UDA and the Hustler Nation. Watch this space.

A new book, Beyond Politics: A Conversation with Kiraitu Murungi, launched on July 12, 2021, shed light on the complex and intense political dynamics in Kenya ahead of the August 9, 2022 General Election, which shaped the Kiambaa by-election.

Role of intellectuals

Kiambaa raised questions about the role of intellectuals in politics. Power is inherently anti-intellectual, and throughout the ages intellectuals have spoken truth to power. Kiambaa produced members of the first generation of liberators and intellectuals such as Mbiyu Koinange, Jomo Kenyatta’s life-time compatriot and brother-in-law. However, the Kiambaa campaign reflected the disappearance of intellectuals from politics.

Second, quality politics guided by a moral compass is central to the long-term stability and prosperity of nations. The dominant view, however, is that “politics is a nasty, dirty game of treachery and deceit”. In contrast,  Aristotle extolled teaching and politics as two “noble professions”.

According to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore became great because it put the “ablest and the best into politics”.  If you “vote in jokers, cranks, weak men and charlatans with the gift of the gab, you run a very serious risk of losing everything you have”. Lee warned: “Try to get the government on the cheap, you will end up with a cheap government.”

The founders of democracy in ancient Greece identified three types of people in society: idiots looking for their own self-interests; tribalists who are unable to think beyond their small tribes or groups; and citizens who are well equipped with knowledge and skills to lead a respectable life in the public realm.

In Africa, we are paying dearly for packing governments with idiots and tribalists, and excluding citizens. In Kenya, nobody is willing to elect a convicted criminal or person of low morals as the chairperson of their residential association. Yet, we knowingly and overwhelmingly voted in jokers, cranks and charlatans as members of Parliament and governors.

As Plato once quipped, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

The third idea is that all progressive politics must be ideologically anchored on a deep sense of nationalism – the devotion to one’s country, people, customs, values and mores. However, Kiambaa signifies a genre of politics based on a resurgent nationalism in its worst and most dangerous form– classism, chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and ethno-centrism. In 2008, ethnic nationalism propelled post-election violence, which pushed the country to the tipping point.

New swing zone

Fourth, Kiambaa revealed the crisis of political parties in Kenya, which has one of the highest mortality rates of parties in the world.

We have learned from the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, that without strong political parties, realizing stability, long-term development and poverty eradication will remain a pipedream.

After Kiambaa, the Jubilee party, which delivered President Kenyatta to power, is on its deathbed. Without a strong presidential candidate, the party, like PNU and Narc before it, will slide to the margins of politics. Jubilee must be re-engineered as a national heritage, not a special-purpose vehicle.

Finally, Kiambaa is the microcosm of the politics of the vote-rich Mt Kenya region on the cusp of a major political transition. The region is facing a double-succession; to inherit Kenyatta’s mantle at the national and regional levels. It is also at the vortex of a fierce new scramble for the soul of the region’s voters.

After Kiambaa, the region will gradually become a new swing zone where rival ethnic power elites go to hunt for votes in total disregard of the interests of the region’s people. Kiambaa is a wake-up call to the region to put its ablest and best into politics.

With an estimated 10.2 million votes by next year, the region needs a strong leadership to avoid internal polarisation and to claim a corresponding share of post-Uhuru governments.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is the Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute (API).

This article draws from a speech made during the launch of Beyond Politics: A Conversation with Kiraitu Murungi, edited by Njeri Rugene, at Serena Hotel Nairobi on  July 12, 2021.