Courteous of Daily Nation By SUSAN MBOYA
- Today’s politicians are not role models; they say and do outrageous things to stay in the news and flaunt their wealth as they travel through their poorest constituencies.
- Some have acquired obscene, unimaginable wealth from inexplicable sources.
- A person who has never held a job or owned a business suddenly becomes a billionaire within a five-year term, which is not possible on their salary, exorbitant as it is.
- We, the forgiving public, tolerate that in the mistaken expectation that some of that wealth will trickle down for our benefit.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Tom Mboya, my father, on July 5, 1969, I describe him in many ways: Father, statesman, hero, leader, trade unionist, Minister and patriot.
But I have found myself strangely reluctant to call him the one word that best describes him: Politician. That’s because today, the word conjures a different image from 50 years ago.
I grew up knowing that my father was a politician and that the position came with prestige and dignity, giving people something to aspire to. It commanded respect. It was a position of trust. Politicians today are rarely accorded the kind of respect my father continues to enjoy. They are more often than not objects of ridicule and suspicion. They are treated like celebrities, known for shenanigans, entertainment and, sometimes, handouts. So, what has changed?
To begin with, motivation. In those days, one became a politician to dedicate their life to the service of the country. A politician was a patriot; these words could be used interchangeably. But I find the latter much easier to use on my father: He was a patriot, not just a politician. Today, not every politician can be called a patriot!
Indeed, only a handful of contemporary politicians can claim to have dedicated their lives to the service of country as my father and his fellow patriots did. Patriotism today means fighting for the rights of the common mwananchi, advocating for policies that protect us from inflation and unwieldy tax burdens. It is fighting for decent healthcare and housing and basic requirements such as clean water and sanitation.
Becoming a patriot was not easy; it required qualifications. Not the formal variety, like a doctor or a lawyer, but to demonstrate a deep understanding of the issues of the day.
That can only come from studying policies, talking with people who are more learned than you and spending time “on the ground” with wananchi.
My father, who did not have a college degree, was so knowledgeable about political and economic policy that he was selected among Kenya’s representatives to the Lancaster House Conference — for the Independence talks. He wrote policy papers and gave foreign policy speeches articulating what it would take for Kenya to become a successful independent nation. Being a patriot did not require a fancy degree but hard work and determination.
For politicians today, we have set the bar much lower. We do not require them to have much knowledge of our nation’s systems or what is most advantageous to the country. We elect them on the basis of ethnic affiliation or wealth. We’re programmed to vote reliably in tribal blocs, such that becoming a leader is based not on skill or ability to serve, but manipulation of basic ethnic arithmetic.
Being a patriot meant to be a role model, publicly and privately. Their behaviour shaped society and they set the bar. We held leaders to a much higher standard than ourselves, professionally and personally.
Today’s politicians are not role models; they say and do outrageous things to stay in the news and flaunt their wealth as they travel through their poorest constituencies. We, their adoring public, tolerate it because it’s entertaining and gives us a glimpse into a world more “exciting” than our own.
Our politicians are often careless with words, using them as weapons of war, to divide rather than unite the people. They use words in ways that would have been unthinkable to patriots. They hurl epithets at one another and make promises they have no intention of keeping.
Some have acquired obscene, unimaginable wealth from inexplicable sources. A person who has never held a job or owned a business suddenly becomes a billionaire within a five-year term, which is not possible on their salary, exorbitant as it is. We, the forgiving public, tolerate that in the mistaken expectation that some of that wealth will trickle down for our benefit.
As we commemorate my fathers’ life and achievements this week, I find myself yearning for the patriotic leaders of yore. Leaders who were dedicated to fighting for our country and not narrow sectarian interests. I yearn for a leadership that is value- and substance-based. I yearn for public debates that are civil and meaningful, that teach our young people how to disagree without resorting to violence. For fact-based, not politically motivated, war on corruption. A legal system that is fair and free of political manipulation.
Most of all, I yearn for a Kenyan electorate that can reject the politics of ethnicity and hold politicians to account using the standards and values of patriots. That is the greatest way to honour my father’s legacy and that of other patriots who sacrificed so much for us and led our country from colonial bondage to the independence that we enjoy.