31 May 2012

Kenya: Change Is Not Easy in Politics


Regular readers of this column will know that I often draw parallels between the ongoing presidential campaigns in America, with our own intensifying race for the Kenyan presidency and other top jobs now available under the new constitution. This week, I want to outline the odd way in which those who aspire to leadership come to the task proclaiming that they will bring "change" to the nation: and a few years later, we find that the only thing that has changed is the candidate himself.

When Barack Obama first ran for US president in 2007, his mantra was "change"; and he offered himself as a transformational leader who would end the increasingly toxic "partisanship" (something very similar to our Kenyan tribalism) which has come to dominate the conduct of American politics.

Now, four years later, there is no talk of transforming US politics or bringing about "change". President Barack Obama is conducting a rather traditional US reelection campaign which can be summarized as: "I may not have done anything I promised, but I did my best, and - in any case - the other guy is a lot worse than I am."

So what about Kenya? Who are the leaders who once seemed to be "transformational" and guaranteed to deliver "change" but have long since turned into run-of-the-mill politicians reduced to doing whatever will keep them in office? Well, there are very many of those, but my own favourites are the Minister for Medical Services, Prof Anyang' Nyong'o; and Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi.

Back in the 1990s, when they were both still opposition MPs, these men were regular newspaper columnists, dissecting the nation's problems with deep insight. It is easy enough to generalize about what should be done to bring prosperity and social justice to a country like Kenya. But when the writer is an elected leader as well as an intellectual, then what he has to say will always have much greater clarity and suggest practical and effective prescriptions.

I should add that both of them have defied the usual "political waves" that come with every election cycle. Kiraitu Murungi ran on a FORD-K ticket in 1992, despite knowing very well that his political backyard was solidly DP; and Prof Nyongo in 1997 ran on an SDP ticket, when it was clear that "Luo-Nyanza" had united massively behind Raila Odinga's NDP. Both still ended up in parliament despite the 'waves' around them: Kiraitu Murungi won outright in 1992; but Prof Nyongo only made his way back to Parliament via a nomination by his party in 1997.

So much for the heroic past. Where are they now?

Well, all I can say is that if anyone had told me back in the mid-1990s, that a day would come when Prof Anyang Nyongo would face ever-louder calls for his resignation, because there had been massive corruption in a statutory body directly under his ministry, I would not have believed it. Like so many others, I would most likely have argued that on the day a man like Prof Nyong'o was put in charge of the Ministry of Health (as it then was) the long-elusive dream of a comprehensive national medical scheme would be finally attained.

And Kiraitu Murungi, who was in many ways an even more inspirational figure than Prof Nyong'o has actually had it worse. The fabled former "anti-graft tsar" John Githongo, gave the world a tape recording on which Kiraitu Murungi (then Minister for Justice during President Mwai Kibaki's first term) was apparently asking Githongo to "go slow" in his corruption investigations. And in due course, Kiraitu had to "step aside" from his ministerial portfolio, and only returned to the cabinet after "being cleared" a year or so later.

Currently, of course, both politicians are unapologetic 'regionalists'. Prof Nyong'o is a key regional lieutenant of the PM Raila Odinga. And Kiraitu - yet again - is far worse off than Prof Nyong'o. If anyone had told me that a day would come when Kiraitu Murungi would set up a political party dedicated primarily to advancing the interests of "the Gema community", I would not have believed it.

But neither man can really be blamed for their recent actions. They are merely doing what other politicians also do - seeking ways of securing reelection. As I said, those who aspire to leadership come to the task proclaiming that they will bring "change" to the nation: and some years later, we find that the only thing that has changed is the candidate himself.

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