Monday, June 14, 2010

Apt challenge from Biden at an opportune time

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 13 June 2010

The Vice-President of the United States of America paid us a visit en route to attend the opening ceremony of the Football World Cup in South Africa.

During his visit, Mr Joe Biden made a much-heralded keynote speech at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, addressing a wide range of issues concerning the place of our country in the international community.

Mr Biden gave Kenyans a feel of the direction the relationship between our two countries is likely to take in the coming years. He stressed the need for reforms in all sectors as a driver for social and economic progress, pointing out that a new constitutional dispensation is likely to unlock investment opportunities in this country.

However, his most telling statement hinged on the calibre of our leaders and the role Kenyans have in changing the situation. Echoing what many of us have been saying for a long time in these columns and elsewhere, the American VP bluntly told Kenyans that “change will not come from the top, but from you”. He stressed the role of citizens in ensuring accountability in all arms of government.

A closer analysis of the implications of Biden’s statement reveals a model of thought that is alien to most Kenyans, including the highly educated ones. Despite the changes the country has gone through since independence, nothing has changed much in the search for a Kenyan messiah who will descend from the heavens with answers to all our problems.

Throughout our history, we have never failed to beseech the Almighty God to send us a saviour to show us the way forward whenever we encounter difficulties. Perhaps the malady started way before independence when the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga declared that Jomo Kenyatta was the Africans’ ‘‘Second god’’, arguing that “if there is anybody who has done much for the African people, next to what God has done, that man is Jomo Kenyatta”.

This hero-worship was duly constitutionalised when Kenya became an independent Republic in 1964, with a head of state who combined the powers of the Queen of England and the Prime Minister to form an executive monster that has haunted our country ever since.

At every election in the multi-party era, Kenyans have had a myriad of complaints against the incumbent regime, but have always looked up to some saviour to metaphorically slay the dragon on their behalf and lead them to the land of milk and honey.

Unfailingly, these heroes have disappointed in the hour of our greatest need. Although we have been quick to vilify them for failing to meet our expectations, we have failed to recognise the fact that these so-called leaders are but mere mortals, products of their own upbringing and socialisation. Most of them grew up waiting for the same mythical saviour to show them the way, and have no idea what to do whenever they find themselves cast in that role.

This generation of Kenyans is uniquely placed to bust this myth of some preternatural intelligence that is just waiting for the opportune moment to intervene and improve the lot of our people. Biden’s challenge to us is very apt at this point in our history when we are seeking to re-write the basic law of the land.

Instead of looking up to our ‘leaders’ for advice and guidance, we must take the proverbial bull by the horns and make all the decisions ourselves. With a new constitution in hand, we will have the opportunity to define the rules of the game, and hold our representatives to account whenever they flout them.

After the referendum, we must therefore remain vigilant to ensure that our elected and appointed officials conduct their business within the bounds of this document. Our work will only have begun with a ‘‘Yes’’ vote at the referendum and, unlike the picture being painted by the ‘‘Yes’’ campaign, it will be harder work policing this document than passing it.

Although Biden seemed to promise goodies if Kenyans manage to put in place a new constitutional dispensation, we must ignore such promises and instead make decisions about our destiny without expecting rewards from external forces. We must work at creating a better future for our children and future generations.

In the final analysis, we owe it to posterity to do our utmost to develop a society that is more stable, tolerant and prosperous than we found it.

As we approach the final lap in the race for a new constitution, it falls on every Kenyan to consider his or her role in shaping this new future for our country, not because the Americans say so, but because we believe it is good for this and future generations.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine

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