“Its name is public opinion.
It is held in reverence.
It settles everything.
Some think it is the voice of God.”
These were the words of Mark Twain (1835 – 1920). His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The American humorist and satirist is best remembered for the two novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you have not read them, you are to be envied.
As you continue to be envied, someone should tell you about public opinion as perceived here. Yes, we think it is the voice of God. And it thrives best where the ruling class allows vacuums to flourish. In Kenya, we need a Mark Twain in these days of political quarrels over mysterious Eurobonds and in unending tragedies from acts of terror.
Mark Twain was an enigma who spoke the truth to power and yet remained their friend. He was not bothered about the discomfiture of what he told those in power. He shot straight at them. Yet he remained friends with presidents and fellow artists alike. He was beloved of industrialists and the European royalty. Do the professionals who sit around our big guys in power tell them the truth, or do they just pander to their whims?
While he had political friends, Mark Twain would say things like, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” Or he might say, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.” And I sometimes wonder this way, too.
I stand with the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the wake of the El Adde, tragedy. The scarce information available speaks of a spectacle from hell. Our gallant soldiers were virtually pummeled and pulverized under the overwhelming enemy fire. What went wrong?
In the absence of official communications alternative narratives have emerged. They are mind-boggling narratives. They invariably begin with, “Do you know why they are afraid of saying what happened?” After this it does not matter what else official sources will say. They will be taken as lies. The State ought to know how to release sensitive information to the public. Denials and telling people to stop speculating or sharing horrendous images on social media is like pounding water in a mortar. The more you deny, the more the public believes the alternative narrative. Yes, they believe it is from God.
As Kenya mourns our valiant soldiers, therefore, the government will want to change its approach and attitude to public communications. Leaders like the Minister for Interior, Major (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery, will need to know how to address civilians. The cabinet secretary imagines that you can cover fire with palm of your heavy hand. He imagines further that stern military faces and brusque voices will intimidate people into line. The bad news is that it will not. He must learn the art of persuasion. The weapon of fear will always fail.
More significantly, Mark Twain would tell President Uhuru Kenyatta that he got his priorities upside down. Mark Twain would of course understand why the President has camped at the coast. But he would not accept. Mark Twain would have expected the President to pause in his charm offensive at the coast when he heard about El Adde. But then a by election is in the offing in Malindi. Does the Commander in Chief consider capturing that seat his most important task? Why have we seen photos of a hilarious President enjoying a good laugh with political cronies in these tragic times? Where is sense of occasion? We have previously seen images of the President in full jungle fatigues at odd times. If there was ever time for that regalia, it is now.
Going forward, government needs to wake up to public perceptions and expectations. It needs to act in a manner that shows that it is not pursuing limited political goals but broad national good. We have previously witnessed State sponsored political prayer meetings for people before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet we are yet to see any such prayers for our soldiers all this time they have operated in enemy space. We know about the diplomatic efforts to mobilize the world against the ICC. But we have not seen similar gusto in building global support against terrorists.
Government needs to get serious about the business of government and public accountability. We saw waste of space and funds when the National Treasury talked about the Eurobond. What they need to say is very simple. Did the Eurobond come in? Where did it go – to do what, exactly? Name the projects by name. If not, then allow us to believe that money has been stolen.
Conversely, the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga disappointed me. After months of saying he would drop a bombshell on the Eurobond he only came out with generalized innuendos and name-dropping. Then he self-importantly refused to appear before Parliament. Now this is how to lose credibility. Does he hold Parliament in contempt? What of the names he dropped?
Dragging people’s names through the sewage without anything to show of it will be counterproductive. Holding Parliament in contempt is equally in bad taste. Central Bank Chair Mohamed Nyaoga has raised fundamental questions about being dragged into the Eurobond. I have seen a copy of lawyer Paul Mwangi’s limping reply. I wait to see how this will pan out.
Meanwhile the challenge of government remains. Honestly, where is President Uhuru Kenyatta? Where is my President? I am not seeing you, I don’t feel you, Mister President. I only see your alter ego, a politician who is focused on the wrong things.