I have followed with interest and consternation the sundry perspectives of Kenyans as the country marked half a century of governance by the black majority. I was particularly struck by the polarity of these perspectives. It was self-flagellation or self-idolatry. For the most part there was hardly any nuance or something in between.
This would seem perfectly understandable. Ours is a very young, highly ethnically polarized and fractured country. There are stories of triumph and reasons for jubilation. Similarly there are harrowing tales of betrayal and broken promises. But still, the brazen polarity within the Kenyan society astounds and disappoints deeply. Especially when even just turning 50 as a country is singularly momentous and triumphant.
But I think ordinary Kenyans are responding to something. My sense is that the vast majority of Kenyans are reading the hand of the state in the celebration and narrative around Kenya@50. And the Kenyan state, one of the most polarizing institutions, has created winners and losers. The whole saga about Kenya@50 has in many respects not been a celebration of the triumphs and failings or the tears and laughter or the fears and hopes of ordinary Kenyans.
Kenya@50 with all its symbolism is seen largely as a fete for the dominant political class. It is seen as a celebration of the endurance of the political establishment. Kenya@50 materializes as a shameless self-adulation of the royalty of the status quo. Kenya@50 is a celebration of the dominance of state power and with it the preservation of the fundamental entitlements and privilege of the royalty of the status quo.
Half a century after the colonist left, it is remarkable that the dominant logic of the colonial state endures. It is the logic of control and subjugation. It is the logic of unbridled state power and the magnanimous father of the nation. It is the logic of a patronizing state as the supreme authority. It is the logic of citizens as passive beneficiaries of the largesse of a government that rewards gratefulness and unquestioning loyalty.
Half a century after the colonists left, it is amazing to see how little agency exists among citizens. A majority of our fellow citizens do not understand that authority and power is in their hands. And politicians, as elected servants, not deities, must do the work of we, the people. We forget that we are the authors and protectors of our democracy. We give authority to the state. We are not subjects the state.
Kenya’s independence was marked by struggle and suffering. Hundreds of thousands of engaged and active patriots who challenged the hubris and legitimacy of the colonial state gave us freedom. These patriots believed that only the people, through universal suffrage, could confer power to the state. And the state would exercise power on behalf of the citizens. An engaged citizen movement was the lifeblood of our independence struggle.
Sadly, our founders and their predecessors have betrayed this fundamental ideal. For half a century, the imperial and patronizing state has diminished active and engaged citizenship. An autocratic state flourished for nearly three decades. But an active and engaged citizenship earned us multiparty democracy in 1990 and a new constitution in 2010.
Kenya@50 must mark the re-awakening of vigilant and engaged citizenship. This must become true for our young democracy to endure. This must become true for us to dwell in peace and liberty, and for plenty to be found within our borders. Engaged citizens must hold elected leaders accountable. The rise of citizen passivity and apathy carries significant consequences for the very ideals on which we won independence, multiparty democracy and a new constitution.
As Nelson Mandela said “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. Our education system is the purveyor of passivity. This must change. To achieve this we must transform our education from one that privileges passive memorization of facts for standardized testing to one that encourages active engagement and introspection. To be passive, the preserve of the so-called home guards, is to sell out.
Kenya@50 is not about self-flagellation by disgruntled citizens or self-adulation by the state or Jubilee loyalist. It should be about introspection, examination of our collective lives. Socrates is famous for saying, “ the unexamined life is not worth living”. And I dare say that passive citizenship is life unlived, and not worth examining.