Third Eye

Why leaders trash reason to win power at any cost

Thursday, February 24th, 2022 06:00 | By
President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), his Deputy William Ruto (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga. PHOTO/Courtesy
President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), his Deputy William Ruto (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga. PHOTO/Courtesy

One of the wonders of democracy in our country is that it regularly allows for the transfer of the instruments of power without bloodshed every five years. This is an extraordinary achievement. For large numbers of people around Africa, power only passes at the point of a bullet; at the cost of innumerable lives lost, destroyed institutions, property and reputation. Kenyans have opted for a gentler contest—at least for most of the time, a series of trials that test politicians’ character and intellect rather than their bodies and souls.

This is not to imply that conducting political campaigns and modern elections are a walk in the park. There are real threats in a contest where protagonists may not risk losing a limb but instead, their soul or even those of their opponents. Of course, the aim is to win and retain power. But at what cost and benefit?

Our democratic election is turning out to be a ‘cold war’ and one of the most potent weapons available to contenders is the well-crafted fear question. The capacity of a good question to strike fear into the hearts of politicians is directly proportional to its focus on issues or policies that they would prefer to remain in the shadows of vague utterance, uncertain policies, or public ambivalence. Policies that can revamp our ailing economy, cut down unemployment, improve shelter, education, bring down the levels of corruption, improve food security, lower food prices and more so put money in the pockets of citizens. To avoid having the dark veil pierced by the light of such questions, politicians are sorely tempted to shield themselves with a range of devices: equivocation, deflection, obfuscation, half-truths, the non-core promise, unfulfilled empty promises and political lies.

Experience taught me that politics is rarely about telling the truth. Normally, it’s about telling people ‘nice’ things they want to hear. And indeed our politicians have mastered this art by monitoring the public opinion, determine what electorates believe in and package their best lines and sell them back to the voters. It will always be thus as the primary concern of a politician is winning.

Politicians are not indifferent to the costs of misleading or deceptive conduct, and rarely employ the ‘shield’ for personal protection. Rather, its use is rationalised in terms of the public common good. The reasoning is seductive and simple. First, party nominations on April 30 will be an ‘all or nothing’ affair. Second, if you honestly believe your leading contender in any position offers the best prospect for good government, then perhaps the end will justify the means. Being ‘economical with the truth’ may be wrong, but a cost to be borne for the sake of winning power.

As we approach August, there are bound to be countless times when politicians will be tempted to dodge the question because they fear the electoral consequences of telling the truth. With luck, those facing the temptation will take a moment to consider the wider context in which their decision must be made.

Whether myth or reality, democracy in Kenya rests on one central idea—that political leaders are elected and governments formed with the consent of the people through fair and free elections. The better the democracy, the better the quality of the consent. We all know the gold standard is informed consent—something that can only be attained if truth and honesty are adopted as the standards for campaigns.

When defeat means ruin for an individual or even political party, then of course there is pressure to compromise the standards. That is why elections are a crucible in which the characters of politicians are so sorely tested. We must hope they do not fail. Individual politicians may emerge unscathed by acts of deception. But every hate-creating stories from politicians and the willingness of voters to listen to hatred, wounds democracy; and the scars run deep.

— The writer is communications and governance expert working in Nairobi

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