Sunday, October 6, 2013

From leaders to the lowly, all love to loot

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 06 October 2013

In the wake of the Westgate terror attack, revelations are being made by shop owners of a massive looting spree that took place during the siege. In one video posted online, a restaurant is shown with empty beer and spirits bottles strewn on all available surfaces. Heavy losses of jewelry, electronics and cash have been reported by proprietors at the mall.

As usual, these revelations have been greeted with indignation and a collective cry of “shame! shame!” Kenyans have even called for the indictment and sacking of those involved in the looting, including officers affiliated to the Kenya Police Service as well as the Kenya Defence Forces. All this is as it should be in a civilised society where stealing is strongly discouraged and all citizens are on the lookout for anti-social louts.

So the more relevant question to ask is this: Is Kenya a place where such behaviour is discouraged? In order to answer this question, one has to examine the behaviour of regular citizens by observing how their heroes behave. It is perhaps pertinent to first interrogate who our national heroes are.

Most of our acknowledged national heroes are politicians, and with very few being private individuals who overcame some sort of adversity to do something for Kenya. Almost none are paragons of virtue, and many have stolen public property, engineered killings of opponents, mismanaged public office, and generally just behaved obnoxiously.

Further, our national story is anchored on the narrative of the pre-independence freedom struggle. Two things stand out in this narrative.

First, it largely ignores the real protagonists in the freedom struggle, and replaces them with politicians whose role was largely to generate more heat than light, to pontificate in the public spaces while the real fighters endured cold nights in the jungle and faced real bullets and machetes. The politicians were the chief beneficiaries of political independence, and a cursory look at who-is-who in our economy clearly demonstrates this.

Secondly, the use of this violent insurgency to anchor the Kenyan story is itself problematic. It has resulted in a society that believes that there are few legitimate means to gain political power and that ultimately, force and subterfuge must be and are often employed in this quest. This has led to a scenario where it is difficult to accept that anyone can win an election legitimately, and of course every election outcome is vehemently disputed, often leading to violent confrontations.

The result is that we end up electing people of questionable behaviour into public office, with the occasional murderers and violent robbers sneaking in as well. These then become our national heroes, the centrepiece of our national narrative. Their first action upon assumption of office is to survey the landscape for anything that can be “liberated”, and the second is to agitate for improved terms and conditions of service for themselves.

Where then do we get the self-righteous indignation to condemn the looters who burst onto the scene of a terrorist attack and happened upon unguarded jewelry, electronics, and money, and decided to “liberate” these goodies? How can we condemn those that chose to partake of free drinks during a lull in the fighting, when our airwaves are full of offers of one free thing or another?

Aren’t we all just a bunch of pathetic hypocrites?

Dr Atwoli is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer at Moi University's School of Medicine.; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli 

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