Monday, February 12, 2018

Not our saviour

Boniface Mwangi is a talented and accomplished photojournalist. He is also a talented political activist -- his ability to shame men and women of political power is almost unparalleled. But Mr Mwangi is not a talented politician. I don't base my assessment only because he was soundly defeated by Charles Njagua Kanyi, better known as the musician Jaguar, when he stood in the last election for the Kamukunji seat in the National Assembly. I base it on the fatal mistake that guaranteed his defeat.

Mr Kanyi is nowhere near being a talented musician or politician; yet, both his jams and his political career have thrived (though, in electoral politics, six months is too short a time to measure success or failure). But he recognised an iron law of politics: unless you are a Nelson Mandela, a George Weah, a Kizza Besigye or a Raila Odinga, it is pointless to reinvent the wheel. Bar one or two anomalous ones, every single political party in sub-Saharan Africa has sang from the same song-book if not the same song-sheet: make Government more democratic; give the people more power; safeguard the people's rights; ensure the benefits of development are shared more widely; improve access to public services for the marginalised; uphold the rule of law; prudently manage public funds.

In registering the Ukweli Party, Mr Mwangi and his supporters trod a path that had been trodden before, in Kenya, by Kenneth Matiba, Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga, Paul Muite, Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua, Julia Ojiambo, Nazleen Umar, and Uhuru Kenyatta, among many others. In Kenya the most common political cliche is the registration of a new political party to correct the mistakes of all the political parties that came before. It is neither an original nor, in the vast majority of instances, a successful gambit as Mr Mwangi discovered (and as did also-rans like Ekuru Aukot and Mohamed Abduba Dida). If that were not bad enough, Mr Mwangi made the same promises every founder of a political party has made since 1963 with a dash of social-media-fed hubris thrown in for good measure. Mr Mwangi believed that his very public and very evocative campaign against "MPigs", his favourite sobriquet for parliamentarians, over their pay and other shenanigans was a firm foundation for a successful small-party career. He was wrong.

It is easy to start a political insurgency; it almost impossible to sustain one if you don't appreciate the situation on the ground. We have known this since 1992: new political parties are not the answer to Kenya's political crises or problems. They, sometimes, are the problem because they rarely espouse the democratic principles their founder-members spout in public. Almost all Kenyan political parties, if not all, are the personal political vehicles of heir "owners", owned and operated with the sole purpose of electing the owners to Government. As a result, while many are membership organisations when they are getting off the ground, they cease being so once an elite captures the party structures: governance bodies and fund-raising apparatus. And if a party is lucky enough to send a candidate to Parliament, he or she almost always betrays the party's rank and file, sinks his nose in the parliamentary trough and acquires airs and tastes that only a few months before he or she had railed against as being arrogance and theft. In Parliament, there are no saints.

Raila Odinga has done a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to changing the politics of Kenya and even he knew that Lone Ranger insurgencies almost always end in defeat. It is why he merged his party with Moi's Kanu in 2002 and another party with Mwai Kibaki's DP, with others, to form the National Rainbow Coalition. It is why he teamed up with Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Uhuru Kenyatta in 2005 to form the Orange Democratic Movement that defeated the Wako draft constitution. And it is why he had no problem being part of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy in 2013 or the National Super Alliance in 2017. Only once has his coalition building been a success; but just because he has not been elected president yet doesn't mean that he has failed. Indeed, Mr Odinga is the single most important political subject in Kenya today, obsessed over by supporters and rivals, friends and enemies alike. In the Government, Mr Odinga has stamped his imprimatur; Mr Mwangi, on the other hand, will probably merit only a footnote but not much more.

Mr Mwangi and the Ukweli Party, the hubris of the party name notwithstanding, don't have a monopoly on the truth or political good intentions. Therefore, they are not the only saviours of Kenya waiting in the wings. If he is incapable of joining or building a coalition with existing political parties, in which he must swallow his pride and work with some MPigs, Mr Mwangi will never set foot inside the august chamber of the National Assembly and if he does, one of two things will happen: his will be an acrimoniously short stay or he will bury his nose in the same trough just like the other MPigs. What will not happen is that he will not reform the National Assembly and he will not save Kenya.

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