Once leaders allow voters to form certain viewpoints, it takes miracles to change that perception.

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Leadership must be hinged on higher ideals

Governments should have someone who tells them the very absurd or the unvarnished truth. And the Murang’a County government has one such person known as Moses.

He recently critiqued the county’s programmes in a manner that raised poignant points. Moses argued the smart city programme is ill-timed. This programme involves paving certain urban roads. Moses had no problem with the project itself but he questioned its timing.

“Such a programme should be done towards an election. Doing it early might cause two negative outcomes: the roads might wear out before elections. Secondly, and most importantly, however happy the voters might be for now, they will forget soon. Such a good and impactful ‘shock and awe’ programme should be done at the tail end of your tenure so that the goodwill carries you into re-election,” he argued.

This raises fundamental questions: Given a choice, should leaders do good to the citizenry early in their tenure or what really counts politically is what they do as elections beckon? When do voters start forming their views about a government or politicians? Is it early in the term or late towards an election?

Well, both viewpoints of early or late workings by elected leaders have strong political logic. We start with the first political logic of “haraka haraka haina baraka” or “Mwenda pole hajikwai” (basically, “no hurry in Africa” view). This view contends leaders working hard early in their term does not matter in their re-election because voters generally are a forgetful lot.

It argues at the tail end of any political tenure, political waves will conjure up and shape trajectories and it will never matter what good societal efforts leaders will have done at the beginning. It also holds that policies take time to mature — they are akin to planting a seed that must germinate and be harvested at a later date.

Indeed, Margaret Thatcher was one of the most disruptive British Prime Ministers. She got elected in 1979 and found a state where government was doing almost everything — most industries were in government hands and the welfare had expanded.

To address economic challenges of that time, including high inflation and unemployment, she sought to reform the government by privatising these entities to boost efficiency and ultimately create “proper” jobs. But privatisation causes public sector job losses in the short term, making the PM unpopular.

Public sector unions (our equivalent of the teachers’ or doctors’ unions) went on strike. But she pushed on undeterred and her reforms eventually started to bear fruits. The privatised institutions became more efficient and capital flowed into UK with London becoming a global financial centre.

Yes, public sector jobs were initially lost but new and better paying jobs were created. Her popularity swung up and Thatcher was re-elected three times. She eventually left power through a resignation.

Moses (the advisor) belongs to this school of thought. He argues further that “leaders must never exact pain on their citizenry in whatever form but if it’s so necessary to do so, then they must do it early in their term so that people have time to forget”.

For example, a governor from western Kenya wanted to make his city clean by evicting hawkers. He knew this would attract a backlash but he reasoned it was so necessary.

He did so the first year of his government but he was right. He was re-elected because by the fourth year and with a clean city, the public could see the positive outcome of his bold actions.

The second logic disagrees with the first and argues “the early birds catches the worm” or, as it is said in in Swahili, siku njema huonekana asubuhi (one can tell a good day in the morning). It holds first impressions matters in politics.

And light travels faster than sound — hence the need for positive first light. This political logic contends that voters are not fools, they will see through late actions by leaders intended to woo them for votes. This school of thought holds that politics is all about attitudes and they get shaped early.

Once leaders allow voters to form certain viewpoints, it takes miracles to change that perception. A good example is President Mwai Kibaki. He, for example, introduced free primary election in 2003, immediately after winning the elections.

This theory has some academic backup. Prof Allan J. Litchman has written an interesting book called “The Keys to the White House”.

In 1981, he analysed various past of the US elections and came up with a 13-point checklist that he has used to predict correctly all subsequent election winners between 1984 and 2000. He got all of them right.

Underpinning that checklist is his argument that voters are wise and are not influenced by the spectacle of campaigning. They tend to make their decision early in one’s tenure based on economic conditions.

If an incumbent underperforms early in the tenure, no matter how hard he or she campaigns, he will lose and that decision is rendered well early before campaign begins. Voters are retrospective rather than prospective.

Maybe the Kikuyu were right when they said the power that keeps an aeroplane in the sky is the one that propels it during takeoff.

The two contrasting political approaches have examples that indicate they can both be wrong. When I served in the National Assembly, I had two good friends.

One, in an urban constituency, remained popular in the entire term. He built new schools and was always available to his people.

The other one, a rural MP, did the opposite. He avoided his constituency for the first two years hoping to do good deeds at the end. And indeed in the last two years he did wonders, including buying school buses.

Well, both of my friends lost. The urbanite guy blundered after his goons roughed up his competitor and sympathy votes swung against him. He also supported the wrong gubernatorial candidate. My rural friend was not spared for deserting his constituents early in his term.

So, what was the reply to the argument by Moses? Our response was simple: He was wrong. His argument is premised on a wrong moral point — the idea that politics is all about winning or losing elections. Leadership must be hinged on higher ideals: Doing good to humanity regardless of electoral outcomes.

Why would Murang’a County withhold development ostensibly to woo voters at the end? Yes, indeed roads can wear out but that’s why there is a maintenance department.

But it is immoral to fail to do good when a government has that capability ostensibly timing for votes at the end. In any event, where would the budget meant for smart City programme go?

Do good for goodness sake. Probably that explains a rebuke by Jesus (in Mathew 6) to persons who do good to please others, like praying or giving charity in public. His argument was that one should do good because of the intrinsic goodness.

Leaders’ actions tend to be life and death matters and hence it is morally repugnant to cause harm deliberately or avoid doing good for political reasons. So leaders should do good.

And good will follow them. What happens at the end during elections is a result of so many factors that no single politician can claim to master.

-Gov Dr Irungu Kangata, PhD in law; [email protected]