President Kibaki’s Little Things

President Kibaki is fond of little things.

In a recent interview with the Sunday Nation over the fast-approaching referendum, he quipped, “In the next few days, we will work hard to make sure that those opposing it over one or two little things change their minds and support us.” The statement seems innocuous enough—for now, I hold back on commenting at length about how genuine concerns are reduced to “little things” except to note that it is a political strategy.

The phrasing seemed familiar. And so I checked.

At a National Prayer Breakfast held on June 1, 2008, Kibaki remarked on the post-election violence: “What happened was because of our little mistake but every time something comes, it goes.”

Even now, I wonder about the singular “little mistake”: was it encouraging ethnic polarization? Corrupting an election process so badly that an investigative commission declared there was no way to determine who actually won? Was it remaining stubbornly silent and uncompromising as Kenya burned and as we hacked away at each other? Was it assuming the presidency in circumstances that can only be described as shady?

What exactly was the “little mistake”?

By using the word “little,” Kibaki belittles legitimate political concerns, effaces pain and suffering, erases the many who died needlessly, and urges us to normalize injustice.

“[E]very time something comes, it goes.”

This statement can only be made by someone who stands by the side watching the traffic of history, someone incredibly disengaged and detached.

Let us be clear here: I am not indulging in Kibaki bashing. That is easy to do, and the stakes are much too low.

I am troubled by the recurrence of the troubling adjective “little,” which evidences a dangerous, irresponsible, fundamentally un-democratic approach to the world. (I am in English. We believe that much hinges on small words.)

A recent article by Martin Kimani on the meaning of work in Rwanda,where “work” was understood not as a euphemism but as the accurate description for acts of genocidal murder, helps to frame Kibaki’s statements and approach.

When Kibaki speaks of “working hard to make sure” that those opposed “change . . . minds,” I wonder about the kind of work involved. Granted, I am on the far side of speculation. But, despite the glowing hagiography written by an increasingly irrelevant Makau Mutua bolstered by the fawning idiocy of the Sunday Nation interview, Kibaki was in power during Moi’s excesses.

He was complicit and is culpable.

And his efforts to claim he stood apart and watched “things” go strikes me as remarkably disingenuous.

To take just one egregious example: he blames the post-election violence on the extraordinarily “long campaign.” In a remarkable moment of disclaiming any personal responsibility, he claims, “Long campaigns get personal, but shorter campaigns enable the electorate and candidates to engage in deeper and meaningful debate.”

Yes, lives were lost because the campaign period was too long.

There are many problems with Kibaki’s “little.” Let me mention two.

“Little” urges us to pay attention to big picture politics and claims that political dissent and critique is always tendentious, that details do not matter. In other writing, I have argued that this petty concern/big picture model is anti-intellectual and anti-democratic and has a long history in Kenya. Don’t sweat the details. Because, as Sefi Atta has it, everything good will come.

“Little” also demonstrates the contempt with which Kibaki views multi-party politics and political opposition. Granted, as John Githongo has argued, we have no opposition politics in Kenya. Our so-called coalition government is a motley collection of favor-trading, salary-raising opportunists.

So, perhaps Kibaki is right.

There are “little” differences because in “Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo” what counts above all is the little thing.