When Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) leaders asked for dialogue with Jubilee leaders in May 2014, they did the right thing. Their attitude was probably wrong. Their idiom was certainly in bad taste. For they told President Uhuru Kenyatta that they would “shave him with broken bottles,” if he did not listen to them.
They were at once menacing and disrespectful. They scorned both the office of the President and its bearer. Perhaps they intended all along that their pleas for dialogue should be rejected? Hence they deliberately positioned it for rejection. They chose to anger the President and his team by open defiance and disrespect. Not surprisingly, Jubilee leaders rejected the invite. They were characteristically full of sound, fury and trademark arrogance.
We wake up each day closer to disaster and in greater need for dialogue. We say in Emanyulia that a wise man may refuse what you want to tell him. But he will never turn down the invitation to listen to you. We also say that those who will not talk to one another must prepare to fight. After they have fought, they will learn the importance of talking. They could then almost just sit down and talk, amidst pain, wounds and tears.
Going forward, Kenya must choose between decent dialogue and hostile conflict – and the consequences. Even wild beasts know this. For they recognize the importance dialogue in their lives. Lawrence Freedman tells us that since the beginning of time and space, survival has depended on diplomacy, coalitions and violence. In the volume titled Strategy: A History, we are told of a study among chimpanzees in the 1970s, “They built coalitions, offering grooming, sex and food to potential supporters – all in order to prevail in conflicts. But they also appreciated the importance of limiting their conflicts so that they could live cooperatively.”
Have we failed to see the need to limit toxic conflicts? Are we just slightly worse than chimpanzees, therefore? We have today an adult generation of Kenyans that knows that only knows grandstanding, insolence and hostile behaviour as the essence of political leadership. If you are aged about thirty, you have grown up on a diet of stormy exchanges among political leaders, teachers and even religious leaders.
Freedman tells us of the chimpanzee study by Frans de Waal in the ‘70s, “Actual fighting played only a small part in this process (fighting for masculine dominance) . . . The apes appeared to know that they should limit violence among themselves, for they might have to unite against external rivals. They also seemed to understand the need for mediation and reconciliation. Once a goal had been achieved, the patterns of behaviour changed – for example, both the winners and losers became less aggressive.”
In Kenya, we lack this basic capacity. We thrive on the fuel of permanent earsplitting intransigence. When CORD leaders call for dialogue, they do so menacingly. “They will shave the president with broken bottles.” Huh? Shave the president with broken bottles? But Jubilee leaders will not be outdone. From the lowest ranked levels to the very highest, theirs are profiles of furious impatience. They regularly engage in confounding hysterical outpourings at public gatherings.
The Deputy President is a permanently irate gentleman, preaching the gospel of rage and doom against “wale watu (those people).” Even when he smiles, the smile is filtered through an indelible sneer. The President is progressively hoarse voiced because of raining at his detractors. If this is the reward of high office, then I am happy with my humble station in life. For when will these people stop shouting angrily and begin living? The head of state proclaims almost on the edge of tears of desperation, “Tumechoka (We are fed up)!”
If those in government scream with the anger of frustration, those in the opposition scream with the bitterness of exclusion. The rulers wish they could be left alone “to fulfill our promises to Kenyans.” They actually mean they want to be left alone to enjoy “the good life” that should come with high office. Their lieutenants take the decibels of hostility to deafening levels. They demonstrate absolutely no capacity for independent thought. They are the willing sounding boards of tribal kingpins and masters of emotional arguments that appeal to the tribe. You will never get from them a reasoned argument that appeals to the nation.
The bad news is that the political class is slowly but surely pushing the country to the brink of disaster. Now we don’t want to talk to one another across a wide spectrum of leadership. This week the senators refused to attend the governors’ annual conference, in Meru. They said the governors were thieves. You would have expected them to attend the meeting to vent their unhappiness there. The Governor of the Central Bank, for his part, will not talk to Opposition chiefs. He denies them information that both they and the public are entitled to. The IEBC officials will not give audience to CORD leaders. And CORD leaders are sending us thinly veiled messages about the grand Armageddon that awaits us when we go to the polls next year.
Jubilee stokes the fires by taunting CORD leaders with words to the effect, “We are going to rule over you for ever! You will never rule this country – now or ever!” Put that together with perceptions about corruption as the reason why governments are formed. Add to this an expansive frustrated and idle youthful population. Throw into this hostile ethnic animosity. Seal it with reckless tribal pronouncements. You don’t need an oracle to tell you. Kenya is counting its steps towards Destination Disaster. Is it just about time we slowed down a little – just a little – and began talking to each other? Over to you, Mister Odinga and President Kenyatta.