18 December 2012

Africa: Obama's 'Nyayo' for the Continent


The word "nyayo" (Swahili for 'footsteps'), was introduced into Kenya's political arena by President Daniel arap Moi to reassure those who vigorously contested his succession to power following the death, in office, of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's founding ruler.

It was a slogan which would be pregnant with authenticity as cynical use of power. This was shown in three important areas. Just as Kenyatta followed in the ways of the all-powerful colonial governor who appointed and received reports directly from District Commissioners, so did Moi. While the colonial governor used District Commissioners as intelligence officers to harass and imprison cheeky nationalist politicians, both Kenyatta and Moi used them to prevent and break up political rallies by opposition parties.

Kenyatta, popularly referred to as "Mzee" (or Elder), also followed the colonial governor's use of administrative power to grant land titles, business and mining licences, loans and agricultural extension services primarily to members of his race- European Settlers. Kenyatta was accused of favouring selected elites from his Kikuyu ethnic group. Moi would favour those from his Kalenjin ethnic group. And just as colonial economic racism aroused bitter African opposition, including armed struggle through the Mau Mau revolution, both Kenyatta would share the similar ethnic opposition. The two leaders shared blame for the economic frustrations which fed the horrendous ethnic killings that followed the elections of 2007.

After 1966, Kenyatta turned to his academic training in Anthropology to get turn busloads of Kikuyu urban and rural poor to take oaths to prevent political power from being taken away from their son and themselves. The assassination of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya and Joshua M. Kariuki were seen as Kenyatta's way of punishing bad manners by those expressing interest in succeeding him while he was still alive and eating power. Arap Moi gave a cynical twist by inciting ethnic groups whose lands had been sold to "alien settlers" from other ethnic groups to physically attack such groups and their properties and ensure that they did not cast their votes for the opposition. The 1996 assassination of foreign minister Robert Ouko was widely blamed on Moi's suspicion that the United States government showed interest in Ouko as his successor.

These footsteps of power may have a lot to learn from Barrack Obama's recent election politics. In the 1970s American political commentators began to complain about rich politicians building racial, religious and ethnic prejudices and hatreds in voters rather than inviting and training their minds to choose between different policies or "party platforms". Phrases like "promoting law and order" was a code for throwing more African-Americans into prisons rather than allowing them demonstrate for their civil rights in the streets. Calls for "States' Rights" was a code for ensuring that federal funds were not used to improve the quality of run-down primary and secondary schools for poor African- American and Hispanic children. Romney's contempt for the "47 per cent of Americans" who expect free things from government was part of this tradition of political prejudice. "Tea Party" zealots were more openly racist and willing to resort to violence.

The current hostile political rhetoric in Kenya's campaign for the March 2013 elections in which Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement is associated with Luo ethnic support; Uhuru Kenyatta with Kikuyu solidarity, and William Ruto with Kalenjin ethnic solidarity, is very much in the nyanyo of negative racial, religious and ethnic emotiveness of American politics. Romney spent 319 million dollars in advertisements. Only 20 per cent of his messages made positive references to Obama. His call to white voters to "take back America" was racist in vital echoes.

Obama overcame Romney's negative messages by grounding his campaign speeches in benefits he had already given or promised to provide to specific groups. To students he offered loans with very low interest rates so that more students could get college education. To retrenched and unemployed school teachers he promised to employ bigger numbers. To unemployed adults he promised work in companies that would be given contracts to construct bridges, schools, roads and rail lines. To gays, lesbians and women victims of rape or needed birth control funding, he offered support which religious fundamentalists who voted for Romney rejected. He promised health insurance to disabled and elderly persons. He fought Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala out of heading the World Bank in exchange for votes by Korean-Americans; and other Asians. He appointed a Chinese-American to be America's ambassador to China. He persistently explained to the middle class that Romney wanted to continue past policies of making them pay various taxes while exempting the very wealthy - including his family and company - from paying tax on their wealth. His rhetoric was combative and inciting. He told rallies: "The folks at the very top in this country, they don't need another champion in Washington. The cooks and waiters and cleaning staff working overtime at a Columbus hotel trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college - they need a champion." It was direct down-to-the-heart talk. It explained why 60 per cent of women voted for Obama; so did 55 per cent of youth across all races.

It seems plausible to surmise that Obama used the "rope-adope" tactic in his first presidential debate with Romney as a strategy for sending his various actual and potential beneficiaries into a vital and well-timed panic. His campaign team needed that panic to enable them use personal cell phones for reaching and hunting supports all the way to voting boxes. The strategy would mock predictions that youth, workers, African- Americans and women had become disillusioned with Obama's first four years in power.

The last time African politicians reached down to chat with the intelligence of peasant farmers, primary school teachers, market women and servants in houses of 'big men' was when liberation movements were educating and recruiting fighters Obama shouted himself hoarse in showing a nyayo to Kenya's politicians.

Oculi is a member of the Editorial Board of Daily Trust

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