For the past few years, Kenyans have become accustomed to politicians controlling their life and being the first and last voice on every critical governance issue.
A friend used to joke that when the late Otieno Kajwang’ used to quip that “we are the people” he may have meant politicians.
While politicians are an important part of any society, in Kenya they have acquired a larger than life status. Most citizens aspire to join politics, due to the privilege politicians enjoy and the power they carry. In almost every debate, their word became law. So much so that most professionals started aspiring to abandon or pause their engagement and join politics.
The first two months of this year was a perfect demonstration of the nature and place of politicians in Kenya’s societal life. Following the 2017 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga had a handshake moment, to not only quell the tensions that had reached boiling point but also provide a framework for resolving some of the far-reaching and intractable problems facing the country. Thus, was born the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Task Force.
When BBI released its interim report, citizens were urged to study it and give views. Instead, politicians took the centre stage and started squaring their interests. Their perspectives became that of Kenyans. Citizens took up their place as spectators and cheerleaders. Then coronavirus struck. What initially was a far-fetched calamity quickly struck the country, and like the rest of the world, became the single most defining event thus far for the current decade.
For close to three weeks that it has occupied the minds of Kenyans, the class of people who have been accustomed to occupying public space and shaping opinion on all discourse in the country have been largely silent.
They have become the subject of Twitter jokes, with some asking where they have gone, while another group wondering why they have not travelled to either China or Italy for benchmarking.
The more important issue is to reflect on the real role of the political class and the quality of politicians that straddle the country’s landscape. The Covid-19 pandemic will change many things in how we conduct business across the globe. We should use the ensuing space to interrogate the space that politicians have appropriated for themselves. The Constitution stipulates that elected politicians are responsible for legislation, representation and oversight. There is sometimes debate as to whether budget making is part of these three or distinct.
A review of the political class engagement around these three areas begs the question as to whether they are playing their rightful role or, whether this is not one of the areas where they have enough qualifications to engage and provide their normal leadership.
Does the parliamentary Committee on Health exist? What of the ones for water, and that responsible for human rights? Or even the economic committee? One would wonder whether they are waiting for the pandemic to end and then sermon the government agencies which had been working for questioning?
Some politicians have taken action to either participate in representation or oversight, especially on the first day of the curfew when the police overstepped their powers and went on a spree beating up citizens and taking action that may have exposed citizens to even more threat of contracting the virus. However, these actions by politicians have been too few and far between.
If politicians cannot provide leadership amid this crisis, save for those in the relevant ministries, does it mean that the political class is overrated? Do they focus the country on politicking at the expense of the many fundamental challenges that face the country and that require their interventions? If the chair and members of the parliamentary Committee on Health and their counterparts at the county level are not able to contribute to the country’s efforts, one wonders when they will be able to justify their existence. Do we need those committees? The fact that our Public Health Act is of colonial origin and orientation raises questions about the legislative action that those designated to be in this sector in the National Assembly have been doing.
It should be a wake-up call for the politicians to realise that they are elected to help solve real and practical challenges and not solely to settle political scores among themselves. This requires a more focused and technical approach to their task.
Kenyans too must recognise that solving the country’s problems is not the preserve of politicians. In several instances, the skill sets required and the solutions lie in other sectors of society and not politicians. It is time citizens reclaimed their sovereign space from the political class. The Covid-19 pandemic has already given us the cue.