What you need to know:
- The layabouts, idlers, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, conmen and illiterates reflect who we are.
- We have the power of vote, but commit treason by willingly electing into office known scoundrels.
‘Layabouts, idlers, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, conmen and illiterates’. This epic description of Kenyan leadership still holds true today as it did when penned 30 years ago by legendary journalist Philip Ochieng.
Clearly, despite all the seminal changes since that dark period in Kenyan history, we have been running on the spot. Those words were written when we were still in the grip of a stifling one-party dictatorship. We have since evolved into a raucous multi-party system, but the quality and calibre of those we entrust with leadership has not improved an iota.
As Ochieng, who passed away last week after a tumultuous career in journalism, would have upbraided us, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The erudite wordsmith would have been familiar with this 1849 truism coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, and would probably have concurred that his own analysis of the Kenyan eating classes was just as immortal.
Mr Ochieng’s withering September 1991 dismissal of the Sixth Parliament was written as a Page 1 Editorial in the Kenya Times, mouthpiece of the then ruling and sole political party, the Kanu of President Daniel arap Moi.
Exceeding his brief earned Mr Ochieng his own dismissal as Editor-in-Chief, and yet more wanderings in an itinerant career. 1991 was an exciting time in Kenyan politics.
The winds of change were stirring across the land, with a few brave souls daring to question and challenge the legitimacy of the stern and authoritarian leader who presided over a one-party, one-man show.
Within a short time, Kenya had leapfrogged into a multi-party system. After another long period of trial and error the Kanu that bestrode the landscape like a colossus had been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Kanu is now just a pale shadow of its former itself, struggling to catch attention alongside numerous other miniscule parties in the Tower of Babel we call our multi-party system. It is actually a no-party state because there is not a single political outfit that has been able to distinguish itself by longevity, as well as clear ideology, programs and policies that can outlive a moneyed patron or a dominant ethnic chieftain.
From a repressive police state where anyone who challenged the system did so at risk of death, prison or consignment to political and economic Siberia, freedom now reigns almost without bounds.
We no longer have to whisper, look over our shoulders, run away from our own shadows and be afraid even to think. We can shout our seditious thoughts without fear. We can write, publish and broadcast limited only by own self-restraint; and enter free into all manner of political and social associations and ventures.
True, we every day see officialdom putting curbs on freedom of speech, association and assembly, the right to publish and broadcast, to march and picket, and generally the right to make noise and call our leaders to account. In many cases, however, these breaches against constitutional rights are the work of overzealous petty bureaucrats rather than official policy.
Despite the truly revolutionary changes of the past 30 years, our leaders have refused to evolve with the times. They still display all the exemplars of Ochieng’s infamous “Layabouts, idlers, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, conmen and illiterates”.
Mr Ochieng was addressing himself specifically to Members of the Sixth Parliament accustomed to playing truant, despite obscene allowances, rather than attending to what they were elected to do.
That condemnation obviously extends to all successive representatives, and across the expanded representative bodies down from the National Assembly and Senate at the National Parliament apex on to county assemblies in the devolved system.
Beyond the legislative arms, the censure spreads across those in the Executive wing, starting from the tinpot dictators and village tyrants who occupy Governors’ mansions at the county level; all the way up to the very highest office in the land and the vast bureaucracy at its command.
It is easy and escapist, however, for the rest of us to pass the buck upwards. A simple fact we must own up to is that the layabouts, idlers, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, conmen and illiterates reflect who we are. We have the power of vote, but commit treason by willingly electing into office known scoundrels.
The only qualification we demand is that they represent our ethnic affiliations or our individual greed, rather than the intellect, training, experience, policies and personal probity vital to rescuing us form the deep hole. We are the original layabouts, idlers, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, conmen and illiterates. Fare thee well Pirrip.
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