Endnotes: Parrots and Development

On September 13, 1984, Daniel arap Moi, then president of Kenya, argued that citizen-subjects should “sing like parrots,” as it was Kenya’s political tradition. He claimed,

I call on all Ministers, Assistant Ministers and every other person to sing like parrots. During Mzee Kenyatta’s period I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune until the people said: ‘This fellow has nothing to say except to sing Kenyatta.’ I say, I didn’t have ideas of my own. I was in Kenyatta’s shoes and therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted. If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should also put a full stop. This is how this country will move forward.

Sources are important: I take this paragraph from a document assembled by UMOJA, a political organization of Kenyan exiles in London. I do not have the Kenyan archives here to substantiate this quote. That said, I am interested in the kind of work it can do to situate a relationship across Kenyatta, Moi, and Kibaki, to think of the work of “singing” and “free speech.” And birds.

Sessional Paper 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya (1965) is a blueprint for the Kenya we have created and inherited, less because we adopted something called “African Socialism,” strategic non-alignment ostensibly based on “African” principles, and more because it outlines a vision of the relationship between citizenship and governance. It is, to extend the bird metaphor, the moment when the parrots are brought home from the shop.

The key moment happens in Kenyatta’s introductory statement. It reads,

To the nation I have but one message. When all is said and done we must settle down to the job of building the Kenya nation. To do this we need political stability and an atmosphere of confidence and faith at home. We cannot establish these if we continue with debates on theories and doubts about the aims of our society. Let this paper be used from now as the unifying voice of our people and let us all settle down to build our nation. (emphasis added)

Those more familiar with Kenya’s political history will recognize the less-than-veiled threats at political figures worried about Kenya’s direction (Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia). Kenyatta establishes an opposition between, on the one hand, patriotism and development, and, on the other, political dissent and critique. Indeed, I take this document as the founding gesture that “creates” the Kenyan dissident as a threat to the nation.

If less direct than Moi, we see in this instance the expansion of desire as mode of leadership. “I have but one message” becomes “we must settle down”: the work of representation becomes the labor of domination. One need not agree with Caroline Elkins, but this anecdote is illuminating:

In the fall of 1965 Sir Evelyn Baring stood inside what had once been his office. Since leaving Kenya and the governor’s post nearly six years earlier, when the country was still under British rule and the Mau Mau politicals remained safely locked away, the country had changed. Kenya was now an independent nation, Government House had become State House, and what had been the former governor’s command site throughout the Emergency now belonged to Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

It seems remarkable that until that October afternoon in 1965 Baring and Kenyatta had neither met nor spoken. In fact, the last time the two men had been in the same room was at Senior Chief Waruhiu’s funeral thirteen years earlier. Baring was uncharacteristically nervous as he visited his old office, especially because Kenyatta was standing just opposite him. Indeed, what do you possibly say to a man whose trial you rigged and who, because of your signature, spent years of his life banished to a desert wasteland? There was no avoiding the subject, so after some initial pleasantries the former jailor turned to his onetime captive, gestured, and said, “By the way, I was sitting at that actual desk when I signed your detention order twenty years ago.” “I know,” Kenyatta told him. “If I had been in your shoes at the time I would have done exactly the same.” The nervousness evaporated, and the room erupted in relieved laughter. With everyone still chuckling, the new president chimed in, “And I have myself signed a number of detention orders sitting right there too” (Imperial Reckoning 354-5).

If we are to read these two moments contrapuntally, the release of Sessional Paper 10 and this conversation with Baring, we see how the labor of development functions alongside political dissent—briefly, the two do not mix. And while I cannot follow through with this now, it might be possible to track the intertwined histories of political dissent and development in Kenya, to examine their discursive and material fissures. More broadly, I am interested in how the discourse of development has emerged alongside political radicalism—a ground for evaluating Vision 2030 and also the many claims made for Kenya’s development under Kibaki.

My speculation at this point—not yet firm enough to be an argument: an antagonistic relationship exists between Kenyan political radicalism and discourses and practices of development. This antagonism while sometimes rooted in ideological differences—Marxism vs. African Socialism, for instance—is not reducible to those differences.

Development names less an easily identifiable series of statements, policies, or material implementations, and, rather, a complex, a bundle of dispositions and material actions sutured in uneven ways and upheld by an ideologically diverse cast of characters. It is where, for instance, the Non Governmental Organization (NGO) meets the Constituency Development Fund (CDF); where local farmers meet their regional and transnational partners and are all transformed into “stakeholders”; it is the place where “the political” is banished—where young Kenyans “invested” in Kenya become “apathetic” on facebook—and Kenyans turn to “real work.”

Politics is not defined as “real work.” And, here, it is telling that the biggest critique we have of Kenyan politicians and, implicitly, “the political” they represent and embody, is that they are “lazy.” They “do not work.” The “disposition” of development becomes a point of critique against a truncated notion of “the political,” understood as development’s “other.”

Were this more than an “endnote” to 2010, I would spend a little more time outlining how “development” is a crucial site for Kenyan action, and even agency. To think of how “doing something, no matter how small,” a Kenyan credo, helps to suture the “union” Kenyatta invoked. But since I am not after the Freudian endnote, a thing of wonder, let me return to Moi, to the “hum” of development,” and then try to add something about Kenya under Kibaki.

Development has a “hum,” a work song called “parroting.” It is a tune that is composed by leaders and adopted by wananchi. Fugue-like, this hum is “magical,” the kind of “mindless” hum that passes unnoticed, until one notices themes, variations, returns, a grand melody disassembled into pieces. This humming reminds us that “work” matters more than “politics,” and becomes itself a form of “work” away from “the political.” This “hum” allows one to be “left alone.” “Humming” is distracting work, and work enough—some might say “busy” work. “Humming” accompanies one’s move “away” from the political, even when one claims to be “working” in the name of “the political.” It is, in fact, a symptom of that move.

I am interested in Sessional Paper 10 and the relationship between “the political” and “development” because of the claims made for Kibaki’s leadership. The most astute minds have claimed that Kibaki has made Kenya “safe for investment.” While most remittance funds still go into domestic spaces and private needs—education, healthcare, food—rather than into creating businesses or the stock market, it is also true that diaspora-driven SMEs are on the rise as are other forms of investment in Kenya. Reports from friends indicate that Kenya is “exploding” with jobs right now—the savvy, the smart, the educated, the well-trained have options hitherto unimaginable.

While we experienced a “slight bump” because of the post-election violence, the economy has continued to grow at an average annual rate of 4-5% under Kibaki. Kenyans are “doing well.” If we are not yet in the “golden years” of development, we are in a period of sustained “growth.” (I bracket for the moment how the “crises” of the Kibaki presidency feed “development.”)

If we no longer feel as coerced to sing as we did under Kenyatta and Moi, it is because we have become habituated to humming. We are “moving forward” to a half-remembered, well-internalized tune. But it is difficult to sustain this humming and a belief in “the political,” especially when “the political” has become part of the tune—reduced to a few “half-notes” that provide a little dissonance, enough to flavor but not disrupt the main development hum.

The story of Kibaki’s presidency, I want to suggest, is not the triumph of “the political,” not the “overcoming” of systems under Kenyatta and Moi, and most certainly not the “second liberation.” It has been, instead, the finessing and privileging of development over the political. I have used “the political” here as shorthand for “dissent,” not as mere disagreement, but as an engine that enables multiple futures to be imagined and inhabited. Here, taking from Rancière, politics “invents new ways of being, seeing and saying, engender new subjects, new forms of collective enunciation.” Politics works against “consensus,” the belief that “the experience of the social order” is “common and non-litigious” (Dissensus).

Kibaki has taught us to “look ahead,” to “forget” “little mistakes,” to understand development as what is most at stake. And to understand development as the basis on which we should judge our “progress.” As we have hummed along, it has been easy to forget what it means to imagine genuinely new possibilities, easy to forget that the political is about engendering “new forms of collective enunciation.”