Debunking ‘siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya’ myth

Friday, September 8th, 2023 01:50 | By
Photo illustrator. PHOTO/Pexels
Photo illustrator. PHOTO/Pexels

What is the poverty story in Kenya? It is political. This goes back to the days of President Daniel arap Moi. “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”, the self proclaimed professor of politics used to say. Of course, to the late president “siasa mbaya” applied only to those who held views divergent from his.

Moi was rhetorically brutal when demanding conformity. He declared in his memorable statements in 1984: “I call on all ministers, assistant ministers, and every other person to sing like parrots. During the Mzee Kenyatta period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune…

“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 put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song, and everybody will sing it too.”

The region that often sang a different tune was Nyanza, specifically the section settled by the Luo and from which Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, famed as the father of the opposition, hailed from.

Odinga, and later his son, Raila, are in Kenya the posters of alternative views. Their backyard of Nyanza has often been punished with them and the letter “O” at the beginning of one’s name tends to be a marker for exclusion, icon of “siasa mbaya”.

To make a point, Nyanza has been showcased to lack “development” and that lack attributed to “siasa mbaya”. But are the four counties of Nyanza – Odinga’s home county of Siaya, its neighbours Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, the poorest in the country, a poverty occasioned by their “siasa mbaya”?

It is instructive that the grammar of siasa mbaya was not a preserve of President Moi. Successive politicians have dangled “development” as a tool to make Nyanza compliant with mainstream politics. Nearly every politician seeking to make a name has found advising Nyanza on what beliefs to assume a near sure path of access to media and free publicity and by extension access to state largesse.

This has created a binary school of politics in Nyanza now divided into the “Joluo mowar” column – the saved Luos referencing the system compliant politicians and their opposites, “Joluo molal”, the ones who have not yet seen the light, with the former drawing from the Moi rhetoric of siasa mbaya notoriety and seeking to lead their people to the light – salvation, if you will.

This grammar has become so dominant that even people who hail from regions that are doing much worse economically than the four Nyanza counties would rather focus on the presumed poverty of Nyanza attributed to “siasa mbaya” rather than structural frames that over the years have informed the allocation and pilferage of resources in the country.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, there are countries from both the larger northern belt of the country and the vast former Rift Valley Province that occupy the rungs of less prosperous than even the “siasa mbaya” Nyanza. Yet these regions have, if you like, always been in the column of the politically “saved” regions.

Migori may be the worst-placed county from a poverty index point of view among the Nyanza counties. But it is still more than a dozen places above the poorest of the 47 counties. It is followed by Kisumu sitting in the middle of the table.

Just over a dozen counties are doing better than Homa Bay according to the last available KNBS data. Nyanza could do better, but it is not, and yes, politics may have contributed. But accountability needs to be made for poverty in other regions as well.

Could the profiling of Nyanza as the home of the “lord of poverty” be a cleverly disguised rhetoric devised to label and cover critical questions that would otherwise lead to a proper assessment of the national spread of poverty? It may very well be that the “siasa mbaya” tag is itself the bad politics we should be running away from.

— The writer is Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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