Nineteenth century American philosopher and essayist Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) is largely remembered for his firm belief that bad government must be resisted. He is remarkable for his skepticism about the institution of government generally, and distaste for bad governments in particular. Governments, he said, are typically more harmful than helpful. Accordingly, they cannot be trusted. And because of this dubitable character, governments should not be justified. Unfortunately they can always buy apologists who justify them, especially when they are wrong.
Thoreau, in the end, saw government as a necessary evil. It was the duty of every citizen to contribute towards realization of tolerable government. The best way to do this is to resist or disobey bad governments. Regrettably, even democracy was not a cure for the flaws of bad government. For being in the majority does not necessarily give you the virtues of wisdom and justice. It is no wonder that in Kenya, for example, we preach the gospel of tyranny of numbers when we should preach wisdom and justice.
The notions of tyranny and democracy should never travel together. As pure numbers, African majorities have been no more than ignorant crowds. They are therefore dangerous crowds. Such majoritarian mobs should not be trusted with important issues like deciding who governs. The wisdom of a ballot paper in ignorant hands is questionable. Universal suffrage in an ignorant population is certainly one of the drivers of bad government. In situations such as ours ignoramuses who don’t know why governments are formed easily outnumber the few people who know better. Yet, provided that ignoramuses are the majority, they will install government anyway. In 1998 Ahmadou Kourouma of Ivory Coast wrote about the African electoral condition as a matter of waiting for the wild beasts to vote.
Kourouma painted the tragic but realistic of democracy driven social and political hopelessness. You have landscapes full of bad leaders put in place by what passes for democracy. If savages are in charge, it is because “the people” decided. Kourouma cannot see the difference between such “people” and wild beasts. Hence the Kenyan political class has today retreated into ethnic enclaves pleading with local wild beasts in their corner to begin preparing to vote. They are not talking about the virtues of government or the good that they purpose to deliver. Focus is squarely on capturing power, or remaining in power. After that, you stay away from the “beasts” until it is time to mobilize them again for your selfish ends. And they often have no capacity to recognize that they are only “voting beasts.” But even if they do, they cannot resist.
Deputy President William Ruto has this week apologized to the people of Kericho “for having forgotten them.” The loss of a by election in a county ward in Bomet has woken up the ruling Jubilee Alliance to the reality that democracy is not just about raking in the votes. It is about distribution of the good life. When government forgets this, at some point even a docile majority will revolt. Kericho is sending a warning signal to the Jubilee Government. They will have to ask themselves a few honest questions on the sharing of the good life across the country.
The Deputy President has attempted to tease the unhappy people of Kericho with the thought that he has given them a Cabinet Secretary in the person of Energy CS, Charles Keter. But he will need to do better than this. People soon come to realize that they cannot eat a Cabinet Secretary. They also get to realize that what a Cabinet Secretary eats goes into his own stomach. He cannot eat for them, despite the merits of the feel good factor of being part of the government. If the people of Kericho feel excluded, the tokenism of a Cabinet position may not quite do the magic that more honest proactive inclusion could have done.
From another point of reckoning, Thoreau was a vehement tax resister. He believed that taxes should only be paid to governments that are truly accountable. Thoreau would hardly understand why we pay taxes in Kenya. Our leaders seem to believe that our taxes are theirs to loot. It is sad that all we seem to have heard of this government these past three and a half years is theft and cover up of theft. Institutions charged with prefecture excel in obfuscating things. The comedy of errors by the Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission in this regard must fill us up with grief. This is an irrelevant institution that should be abolished.
It is up to the citizens to decide whether this is how they want to live, waking up everyday to mind boggling narratives of stolen billions of shillings. The people stealing from us did not blast their way to power through the barrel of the gun. They are at once philosophers, custodians and products of the cherished notion of tyranny of numbers. Yet it is just this tyranny that we are whipping up today.
Registering as a voter is itself a good thing. It is even a better thing to vote. Yet what is the value of your vote if it only perpetuates the same old rot – under the old guards or new guards? Indeed, those who rape our country take comfort and courage from the fact that no matter how badly they mismanage public affairs, the beasts will always be there – waiting to vote for them. After that the beasts can begin another cycle of lamentation about thieves until it is time to vote again. As Albert Camus would say, Sisyphus must be happy rolling his rock up the mountain, only for the gods of mischief to send it hurtling down again.
If Thoreau thought that bad government must be resisted and removed, in Kenya do we seem to believe that bad government must be supported, protected and encouraged? Whatever wretchedness we wake up to every morning, we have got just the kind of government we deserve.