“The Center Cannot Hold”

Amos Wako has recently stated that he will not resign following a devastating report that claims he embodies impunity. Wako follows a well-paved highway trod by many Kenyan politicians. Over the past seven years of multi-party rule, several politicians and public servants have told us that they will not resign, no matter their alleged crimes or bungled operations. In fact, the “not-resigning politician” has become a recurring figure in our ongoing national tragic-comedy.

To be sure, this figure has been an ongoing facet of Kenya’s political life. Jomo Kenyatta was president for life, a feat that Daniel Arap Moi would have liked to reproduce, and almost did. Mwai Kibaki went back on his promise to be in office for only one term, and our political highway is filled with politicians who, like bad pennies, keep turning up in administration after administration, clinging on like tenacious ticks while sucking our national lifeblood.

Indeed, even non-elected public servants have embraced this “I won’t go” mentality. We need only think of the saga of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, whose members have fought very hard to keep their jobs.

At stake, as Martin Kimani explained in a recent forum, is that to be a politician in Kenya is to be in a position “to eat.” Once out of office, former politicians rapidly lose weight, become less rounded, walk less slowly, and are forced, sometimes, to join the Kenya hustle. They are no longer “mheshimiwa,” and those who were too honest or too careless do not have massive piles of money to maintain themselves in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Before I continue, a caveat. Public figures are vulnerable precisely because they are public. They are easy and convenient targets, and so all accusations against them and calls for them to resign need to be carefully considered and deliberated. Public service cannot be reduced to a game in which figures are replaced as often as possible. In that direction lies further instability.

That said.

The arrogance with which Kenya’s public servants announce they “will not” resign is breathtaking. Each such announcement is a slap in the publics’ already heavily battered face. What is even more stunning is the presumption that public servants are not accountable to the public and to their offices and do not ever need to pay attention to how we feel about their performance.

In Kenya, public office is a life-time ticket to a privileged club populated by the rich and indifferent. Indeed, Marie Antoinette of the infamous “let them eat cake” comment might have taken lessons from our politicians, whose cupidity is matched only by the contempt in which they hold us.

We citizens are a country of “small people,” as Binyavanga Wainaina recently told me. Small enough that our politicians do not see us, do not hear us, and do not bother to respond, except when we are in crisis and the world is watching.

Daily, I am reminded that Kenyan politicians are not “of” the people and “for” the people.

As political repression continues to increase—an increasingly gagged press, brutalized activists, policemen turned into death-squads—our politicians make vague pronouncements about the future. In response to the UN report on the police death squads, for instance, Martha Karua promised us that plans are in motion. I could only wonder how many of us will be dead by the time those plans unfold.

In what is surely the most disappointing moment of his entire tenure as president, Mwai Kibaki faced the nation to tell us that he has “one wife.”

We are dying and being killed. We are being repressed and oppressed. We cannot even buy books in our bookstores. Our intellectual lives are being stifled. Our social lives circumscribed. And, in a strategy reminiscent of Moi’s time, some of the loudest voices can afford to be loud precisely because we live outside the country.

And Kibaki talks about his intimate life.

In 1958, Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart, a title that, sadly, has become an emblem for Kenya’s politics. He took the title from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart,” Yeats writes, “the center cannot hold.” Continuing, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” This dystopic image with its chilling invocation of “mere anarchy” describes a world that is tearing at the seams.

Yet, it is also a world created by those who inhabit it. As Yeats writes, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” These last two lines return us to Kenya, where our better and best selves often cede political responsibility, withdrawing into the more secure private worlds where we can make money and be comfortable, or at least critique politics from a secure distance.

We citizens are as culpable in government mismanagement as our public servants. We have let ourselves be de-fanged and disempowered. We have stood by while our fellow citizen-activists are arrested and harassed. We have allowed ourselves to believe that our only option is to whisper and “lay low.” We have allowed ourselves to believe that we can complain, but that we also cannot change the system.

No more.

We are citizens. We outnumber the politicians. We even outnumber the police, no matter how much violence they use. And we need to stop letting fear and cowardice rule us.

If Kenya is to change we must change it. No one else will do it for us. And we need to set the timetable, not wait until the politicians tell us it is time for change.

Change begins now. With us.