But we were in for a rude or pleasant surprise, depending on one’s political affiliation.
As a professional, I find that promise extremely important. Since independence, education has accounted for the single largest expenditure of our economy, and yet, administration after administration has trashed professionals and put politicians and managers in charge of essential social services. From wildlife conservation to health to education, opinions of Kenyan professionals are routinely disregarded and alienated from key decisions in such sectors. And the bottom line of such disregard is the feeling among government officials that they exist to control, police and inspect us, not to serve us. A change in attitude of civil servants alone will do a lot for institutions and services in this country.
But while NASA has offered Kenyans a new conversation, Jubilee has simply given us the same ol’, same ol’: yet another list of goodies they hope to provide in the second term in office. There is no allowance for the possibility that those projects might be too expensive to work, and with SGR, the president has already set a precedent of threatening that opposition to his projects could mean death by hanging. The 2017 edition of what the Jubilee Party calls a “manifesto” essentially treats human beings as goods, calling them “capital” (the word appears in the document too many times for comfort), and treats Kenya as a business.
The reduction of Kenya from a nation to a corporation has seemingly escaped mainstream media, especially since the Kibaki administration which promised the problematic private-public partnership as the solution to all the country’s development needs. And the reason this neoliberal definition of Kenya was so attractive to media was because of its characteristic deliverables. With deliverables, journalists are spared the bother of understanding the theory and context that inform key developmental considerations. Instead, they quickly judge the government by whether the landscape has changed in the first 100 days, without helping the public understand the challenges and achievements around any issue.
But the language of deliverables has been nothing but oppressive for Kenyans. That language, which Keguro Macharia discusses in his article on “political vernaculars,” alienates regular citizens from conversations about politics and public services. Any attempt to give a complex analysis, or to unpack important and even deadly issues from injustice, to culture, to economics, is attacked with the question "so what is your solution?" And in many cases, the answer is expected to be a materialist one, to do with goodies you provide.
This vernacular means that unless you are a politician or a manager who can order people to implement something or the other, you have no right to speak, even about issues that affect you so directly. Politicians like Sonko have taken advantage of this oppressive language by offering philanthropy where public services – which he was elected to enforce – are wanting. And true to character, any criticism of what he does is met with the response “at least he is doing something,” and a spoken or unspoken “unlike you who is just facebooking about it.”
And mainstream media has also tried to impose the same conversations, by faulting NASA’s manifesto for not having key deliverables. The initial reaction to the manifestos was that that there was nothing different between what NASA and Jubilee offered, except a re-enactment of the cold war. Others settled for comparing the deliverables in either document, completely missing NASA’s argument that “Jubilee’s mega-project preoccupation is a continuation of the trickle down economic model that has failed the people since independence.”
But the highlights of the confusion about the manifestos came from separate interviews of David Ndii by two anchors, Yvonne Okwara and Anne Kiguta. Okwara persistently pressed Ndii to name specific actions that NASA would take, and wouldn’t accept Ndii’s argument that actually, the problem of Jubilee politics was promising things without knowing whether they were achievable, necessary or affordable, or in his words, “proclamations [that make] complex policy things sound simple.” To which Okwara replied, “Isn’t that what Kenyans want to do, they want to understand it from a simple point of view?”
Anne Kiguta’s interview was, honestly speaking, very uncomfortable. Things started to go downhill two minutes into the interview, when Kiguta presented bullet points of key deliverables – number of jobs, GDP growth, interest rates and infrastructure, indicating the she (or her producer) had missed the whole principle of NASA’s approach to projects. And, unfortunately, Ndii’s immediate response was that those deliverables were not in the manifesto itself, which sent the conversation down an antagonistic path.
It became increasingly clear that Kiguta was not conversant with the manifesto and even with the Constitution, which Ndii was not gracious enough to avoid remarking, leading Kiguta to say, “There is no need to be curt in your responses. A simple yes or no answer will suffice.” Ndii responded by asking “but are you listening?” To which Kiguta replied, “I am listening, and if I think the answer is not sufficient, I will ask again. That’s my job, sir.”
The discomfort in both interviews was caused by the tension between media wanting to simplify political discussions into soundbytes, and a formidable - and admittedly intimidating - economist frustrated with not being able to give complex issues the explanation they deserve. The tension reveals a misunderstanding of the role of the journalist. As Edna Chepkirui said in the discussion of the interview on my page, the role of the journalist is to be the bridge between the complex idea and ordinary understanding. Indeed, she said, “there’s nothing like complex issues which can't be understood by an everyday person watching TV if the interviewer is competent.” In the case of the two journalists, rather than be the bridge between Ndii’s ideas and wananchi watching, they blamed Ndii for not being the bridge, and worse, thought that Kenyans expect simple ideas, rather than complex ideas explained simply.
Unfortunately, the public began to express displeasure with the two conversations using misogynist tropes. The irony is that the position of female journalists needs to be considered with the same complexity the journalists were resisting. The fact is that media houses play into the sexist expectation that women cannot discuss serious and complex issues without being called “aggressive,” and media houses are no longer investing in rigorous political training of their journalists, be they male or female.
Another issue to bring context to the conversation, is the issue of language. Often, as Sonko did with the gubernatorial debate, complex issues are dismissed as “kizungu mingi.” The reality is, though, that because Kenya has not invested in Kiswahili as an academic language, complex ideas continue to be explained in English. And so, the solution is not to dumb down politics to key deliverables, but to invest in Kiswahili for academic discourse, so that ordinary wananchi have greater access to scientific discourse. NASA has promised to pay more attention to Kiswahili, and I hope that it will invest in such a project, so that we don’t have to keep confusing dumbing down with explaining simply.
Whatever the case, the "siasa pap!" responses to complex issues, in this day and age, are unacceptable. We have invested in education and so by now, we should have a significant segment of the population able to understand complex issues. If we do not have it, then we should ask what is wrong with our education system.
And we have to collectively grow up as a nation. We have to stop running the state as a system of handouts and mega-projects with no consideration of the past or the implications for the future. We have to mature into a nation and stop being citizens who are spoon fed by benevolent thieves. Political conversations based on dismissive "what's your solution?" and reductionist “deliverables” are outdated, and are too simplistic for a 54-year old republic.