Sandwiched between two Senators this week, I was pleasantly surprised that the media encounter didn’t turn into a violent gladiator contest. Post protest, the Azimio la Umoja – Kenya Kwanza cease-fire and the way forward remains shaky. There are many reasons why the bi-partisan committee must succeed.
The Roman empire was famous for gladiatorial games. The elite organised them to distract the population from the injustices of daily life. Condemned criminals, gifted swordsmen and wild animals fought to the death watched by thousands. The winner would be rewarded with their freedom. A late-night call to join Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna and Kakamega Senator Boni Khawale in television studio at dawn left me with some intrepidation. Both are seasoned debaters and the possibility of getting hurt in the crossfire was medium to high.
Both Senators are members of the parliamentary bi-partisan committee established to reach cross-party agreement on issues raised by the recent maandamano protests by Azimio la Umoja. Within days of the April 2 Ruto-Odinga declarations, MPs on both sides begun to claw back or muddy the prospects of dialogue by attacking the composition and mandate of the committee.
For the committee to succeed, it will have to leapfrog a couple of roadblocks being placed before them. Members must resist replaying reoccurring nightmares or apportioning blame for what has brought the nation to the current crisis. The committee must also avoid “us and them” mindsets. Kenyans expect the committee to offer hope and fresh national policy consensus. Whining about the past performance of the Jubilee administration or electoral commission will neither put unga on our tables or resolve the lack of confidence with the Electoral Commission today.
As we know from Germany (1930s), Rwanda (1990s) and South Africa (2000s), periods of financial distress and uncertainty are fertile grounds for extremism. Populist and demagogic leaders across all sectors emerge to breathe hatred and divide. As they do, acceptance of differences and diversity are smashed for an intolerance that seeks to deny minorities or marginalised populations the right to be equal under the law.
While our pockets are being rifled by increased taxes, excise duties, a collapsing shilling and a failing jobless economy, our hearts and heads are being traumatised by relatives grappling with depression, lovers being flung out of high-rise apartments and parents committed familicide. Scapegoating minorities as already begun. In February, it was the Chinese investors and in March it was the LGBTIQ community, who will we be distracted with next?
While not the focus of the committee, the leadership must keep in mind our open and democratic society is under threat. Failure to restore public confidence in the economy, public institutions, electoral system, and the independence of the national police service erodes the foundations of the state in ways that it may not recover for a long time.
The committee can find low-cost ways of bringing citizens into its deliberations. While our patience and the financial resources do not exist for another extensive public participation process, public opinion can be surveyed, and the committee can invite memoranda or virtual representation.
It is worth noting that both state and opposition is currently led by mostly men between the ages of 56 and 88. This old order doesn’t have much time to role-model vale-based leadership styles and inspire the next generation. With over 8 million currently disinterested with the elected leadership model but very concerned about their economic survival today, the failure to strategically use the next ten years could risk all, for us all.
Perhaps a public and bi-partisan party policy conversation is also needed on how to engage our external creditors and the Bretton Woods Institutions. Privatisation of state assets, civil servant redundancies, subsidy elimination and other austerity measures were not Kenya Kwanza manifesto promises. They are, however, classic International Monetary Fund loan conditions. Hardship and vulnerability for low- and middle-income populations is the consequence of applying them.
Is it also time to collectively reclaim national control over economic policy?
The morning panel conversation can be watched here