By MAKAU MUTUA
Today I write to you, not as a columnist, an intellectual, or a pontificator.
I write to you simply as one of you – a brother and a compatriot.
I am doing so because our country is now at an “inflection point”. In differential calculus, this is the point on a curve at which the most dramatic change occurs.In social science, an “inflection point” is like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid, or independence from colonial rule.
It’s an epic cataclysm, or the birth of a new age. Either things fall completely apart, or they cohere.
Such moments are rare in a nation’s history. We are there today – staring at the barrel of a gun.
Never before has Kenya been faced with such absolute danger. But never before has Kenya been presented with such an opportunity.
It’s boom, or bust – feast or famine. What we do today will determine what we will become for next millennia.
Are we going to shrink from ourselves, succumb to our worst proclivities, or are we going to pursue that shining city on a hill?
Why, I ask, can’t we be the cradle for one of the greatest civilisations ever known?
Who says that we are forever doomed to accept crumbs from the “master’s table”? But yet that will be our fate if we don’t conquer our demons.
But first, we must acknowledge those demons. What do I mean? I have identified four demons that haunt us, and make all of us small.
These demons eat at our core, victimise us with small dreams, and make us worthless. We must conquer them for our better angels to emerge.
The first is the demon of identity. Identity – or difference – should be a strength, not a debilitating weakness. But in Kenya’s case, identity – and the politics of it – is a killer curse.
By identity, I mean our “richness” across ethnic, racial, gender, religious, social class, sexuality, and regional cleavages.
I have sadly concluded that we “hate each other” because of our identities. These are hatreds of fear and insecurity. They are founded on ignorance and a bitter contest over resources.
These hatreds have narratives. The narratives are homespun and usually bigoted. Let’s sample a few. Kikuyus are thieves.
Kalenjins and Merus are violent brutes. Luos are immature. Kambas are highly sexualised. Kenyan Asians are unpatriotic. Somalis are untrustworthy.
The Mijikenda and Swahili are lazy. The Luhya are disorganised and subservient. The Maasai are untamable barbarians.
The truth is that none of these stereotypical narratives is true. But they have entered our zeitgeist and wreaked havoc with the project of nation building.
They are the proxy for the tribalisation of our politics and the state. The narratives obscure bitter elite contests for political power and scarce resources. But the tribal elites have perfected the art of forging siege tribal mentalities.
By themselves, identities aren’t toxic. But their demagogic politicisation can often lead to the retardation of the national project.
In extreme cases, the state fractures and gross atrocities like genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity result. That’s what happened in Kenya in 2008.
The embers of identity hatreds exploded into an inferno. Tribal elites cocooned “their people” and turned them against one another.
In the mayhem, virtually every identity – including the female gender – was viciously attacked. I fear that we crossed a red line.
What I don’t know is whether we can put the genie back in the bottle. We could – and can – but the matter of the Ocampo Four is an “inflection point”.
Demon of impunity
The second demon is impunity. We have refused to live in a civilised society. Our elites – since independence – have taught us that obeying the law doesn’t pay.
In Kenya, the only way to win – and be rewarded in life – is to be a lawbreaker. Virtually the entire political class is untrustworthy. Others are spousal batterers.
None of them is ever convicted. The rare arrest is followed by an acquittal or an inconclusive trial.
These people – “demons” – own the courts. In fact, you can hardly be elected to Parliament unless you are a lawbreaker.
The “little people” – ordinary citizens – admire these “demons”. Many average citizens now aspire to be demons. Have we become a nation of demons?
The third demon is fatalism. We’ve become a fatalistic people. We don’t expect good things to happen unless we either “cut corners” or the glory of providence shines upon us.
We don’t believe in ourselves and in our ability to excel. We believe we are mediocre. We dream small dreams. We have accepted a racialised “African standard”.
The “African standard” holds that in the hierarchy of human races, blacks will always bring up the rear.
We think we are everybody’s “pit latrine”. That’s why Kenya, and Africa, has one of the fastest growing Christian and Muslim populations.
We’ve “given up” and turned our fate over to messianic faiths. We must turn away from fatalism and recapture our agency.
The last demon is infertility. Our minds seem to be infertile and barren. We suffer from a poverty of philosophy.
We suppress our intellect through culture, religion, social stigma, and the tyranny of the state.
I have one unarguable example – we’ve refused to reward our thinkers. Look at the miserly pay for our university professors.
That’s why some of our leading minds have fled the country. No country has ever become great without a formidable intelligentsia.
Let’s invest in education to fight the demon of infertility. We must conquer all four demons to turn our “inflection point” into a renaissance.
Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC.