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NGUGI: No, ole Lenku, that wasn’t a review of performance but a deification exercise

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By TEE NGUGI
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Watching old footage of Independence leaders, Jomo Kenyatta, Kamuzu Banda, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, etc., one is struck by what Ali Mazrui called the “deification and personalisation of power.”

Effecting some traditional implement or garb, these modern presidents, channelling a traditional chief, stride among cheering and dancing crowds with studied aloofness and an affected benevolent air. Mazrui describes this phenomenon as “ancient kings and modern presidents sharing royal characteristics.”

The presidents arrive in motorcades of more than a dozen vehicles and army jeeps carrying gun-toting soldiers. Their faces stare back at you from the walls of shops, offices and currency bills. Citizens walk on streets named after them, children go to schools named after their wives. Their inane activities make headline news. They are spoken of in mythical terms.

African presidents, like the pharaohs of old, have transformed into living gods. Thanks to modern concepts of human rights, their servants, unlike the pharaonic era, will not be buried with them when they die.

The people at these gatherings, seeing a living god among them, cheer and dance themselves into a hypnotic state. A god has deigned to come among us, mere undeserving mortals. What love he must have for us, his people, to grace this occasion with his glorious presence.

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The people, some in tattered clothes, no doubt leading tattered lives in godforsaken villages, bow in supplication. Women swoon. The ululating rents the air and becomes a cry of faith. The gathering is now not so much a political rally as it is a congregation of the faithful. What the crowds have come for is not a political message, but a religious experience. This is what independence is about — a god of our own. As the crowds soon learn, not cheering hard enough, not dancing oneself into a hypnotic state in exaltation of the chief, is worse than treason. It is blasphemy.

Nkrumah, deluded by illusions of his own greatness, went off to solve an international crisis, and was overthrown. Jomo Kenyatta limped on, accumulating wealth and glory for himself, but poverty and tribal animosity for the country.

Kamuzu Banda ran out of accolades to his greatness, and made himself Life President.

Kaunda waved his magic white handkerchief, but could not exorcise the spirits of poverty. Then he preached a circumlocutory, non sequitur-ridden theory he called “humanism,” summarised by his exhortation of “One Zambia, One Nation, One People!” The practical result of this national “philosophy” was, as satirised by the writer Petina Gappah, “one Zambia, one nation, one robot (one working traffic light).”

Col Bokassa of the Central African Republic crowned himself Emperor of a conglomeration of poverty-stricken villages. Mobutu Sese Seko built an African Versailles in the jungle. After dancing themselves to exhaustion for the chief and his guests at the palace, villagers retreated into their villages in the jungle to lead lives that were “nasty, short and brutish.”

It is a disheartening experience to watch these videos of frenzied crowds performing an ode to their own emasculation and poverty, and the impoverishment of us, their children and grandchildren. It is even more disheartening to see today’s leaders aspiring to vainglory, and crowds dancing and cheering their exaltation, just as our parents and grandparents did.

A few weeks ago, Joseph ole Lenku, Governor of Kajiado, a county wracked by rural poverty, low literacy levels, and dogged by outdated customs, allegedly splurged Ksh22 million ($212,500) in one day on an oddity he called review of his performance over the past two years.

At the celebration (review, according to warped thinking), the governor recreated the ubiquitous drama of power and intimidation beloved of leaders of old and today. County askaris stood at attention, and then one of them, mimicking an aide-de-camp, invited the Glorious One to inspect a guard-of-honour. Afterwards, VIPs were wined and dined, and the crowds danced and cheered.

Mr Governor, a review of performance in education, roads, etc., is not a celebratory feast. It is an exercise performed quietly by experts during which an assessment is done as to whether every county shilling was utilised for the purposes for which it was meant.

Yours, Mr Governor, was not a review of performance. It was a re-enactment of the theatre of “deification and personalisation” of power first performed by the cast of so-called founding fathers, who conditioned African people to cheering their own emasculation and their own impoverishment, and the robbery of their future, and that of their children. 

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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