John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Two developments of great historical moment were unfolding in October, 2017 whose repercussions were likely to remain unclear far beyond my looming, editorial deadline. For one, Kenya had had an election re-run on the 26th and, for another, Catalonia had declared autonomy from Spain on the 27th.  However, although there were obvious parallels, chief among them the passionate encounters of entrenched standpoints and their unpredictable aftermaths, it was the ‘home grown,’ Kenyan situation which immediately engaged my thinking more. As I watched my TV set, I noted the ever increasing ascent of self-styled political analysts who held forth for hours on end about what needed to be done to restore sanity to our crazed country: ‘Firstly!….Secondly…..Thirdly…Fourthly…..Fifthly!....’they pontificated.

Some stations contrived to pit spokespersons from what were described as ‘different sides of the political divide’ against each other. This perplexed me somewhat because my memory served to remind me that some of these antagonists had been vocal supporters of the now rival camp not that many years ago. Now, here they were, hurling abuse at each other with calls for outright secession and blood for blood. Faced with this barrage of bombast, it occurred to me that I too might have thoughts worthy of sharing on what had brought us, Kenyans, to this unfortunate pass. And so it was that, in my mind, I heaped an antithesis upon a hypothesis to create a synthesis which spawned a new hypothesis, whereupon the whole process began again in my quest to get closer to some demonstrable truth.

I remembered the 101 module on dialectical materialism that a subversive lecturer had delivered to me as an intellectually mesmerised first year, university student. Although no amount of hubris would lead me to compare myself to Karl Marx as a thinker, I was convinced of one thing. Marxist analysis did not apply to my country. We had not progressed from feudalism to an industrial society in which it remained for the workers to unite in order to usurp the bourgeoisie and to create a socialist society which would become ever more egalitarian, to result in communism as its highest manifestation. The major imponderables to that analysis in the Kenyan situation, and I daresay in other African contexts, were colonialism, which largely destroyed whatever social constructs had preceded it and tribalism which brought many distinct and unrelated peoples together within one boundary and under one flag. Granted, I am not the first to have recognised and drawn attention to those purely, historical facts. However, the waters become muddied once we begin to contemplate the repercussions of that heady mix and it becomes difficult to distinguish revolutionaries from reactionaries and heroes from villains. Should we agree that the engine of political engagement is the will to power then the following simplistic formulations can hold, always being mindful that generalisations are, by their very nature, limited and limiting.

Post-colonial Kenya has produced three groups among the natives. Group A has had education money and power; Group B has had education and money but no power and Group C has had little or no education and thus no money and no power. The non-natives, mainly of European and South Asian descent, have acquired great wealth through pioneering opportunities in agriculture and business and, therefore, education and power are of secondary significance to them, their only fear being that the natives wish to dispossess them of their money, unfairly. Add to this the neo-colonialist agenda of those outside countries which seek to influence proceedings for their own gain. Tribe has nothing to do with any of these constructs. Yet our politicians use tribalism to set off regular confrontation because they realise that the masses, with no ‘means of production’ to seize, simply do not comprehend the forces at play. The cult of the personality, devoid of any sort of ideology, urges them to go forth and die in the name of the Great Leader.

I believe that only a more generally informed and knowledgeable Kenya will rid itself of the constant call for division and fragmentation. We Kenyans do not really need leaders who respond acceptingly to the title ‘Baba’ or ‘Father’. Nor do we need leaders who call their opponents dismissive names like Kitendawili  or ‘Riddle Man’.   Just as, further away from us, we do not need to have our children hear one leader refer to another in a public forum as ‘Rocket Man.’ Our leaders do not have to explain to us that computers continued to spew out election results after the voting exercise had officially ended  . . .  because they had to. Or that we are at an impasse because we are in a driverless bus with no brakes, hurtling downhill to oblivion. We need to believe that our people are smarter than that and can be sufficiently aware of the issues to vote wisely at the ballot box without a blanket allegiance to certain individuals and certain groupings. Otherwise, as we assess our own social development, in Marxist fashion, we would have to accept the assessment of our detractors that we are not yet ready to embrace the notions of nationalism and democracy, seductive though they might be. To be discussed by bona fide political analysts.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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