Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why it is healthy to encourage dissent

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 26 January 2014

In Kenya, there is always a scandal involving huge sums of taxpayer money going on. There is no doubt in my mind that this has been happening every year since independence, and perhaps even before. It is also very clear to me that if this were not the case, our country would be soaring in the league of developed countries, lending money to our poorer neighbours and helping others make good choices that would make them prosper like us.

Does this failure make Kenyans a strange breed among humans? I would argue that it does not. Human beings are by nature selfish and accumulative, and the few who overcome these base instincts are knighted and sainted, depending on the circumstances. Most of those that actively seek and attain positions of power do so for purely selfish reasons, despite the clothes of altruism they wear for public consumption.

Even for those who seem to “have it all” before they go for leadership positions, Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of needs at whose apex he placed the most selfish need of all, self-actualisation. This selfish and accumulative need is a by-product of the survival imperative that has been with us since our ancient predecessors rose to their feet and began their journey across the then unexplored world. We needed to survive first, before we could be of any use to anyone else. 


Evolutionary psychologists argue that even apparent acts of altruism are often driven by a completely unconscious trade-off for future gain or survival. That is an attribute that is common among all things that are considered “living”, and humans are no exception.

How then do some countries prosper while others lag behind, mired in obscene corruption and impoverishment of the majority in favour of a privileged minority? Working on the assumption that all people are selfish and, given a chance, they would mortgage the entire country for their personal gain, prosperous countries ensure that no single individual has unfettered powers or the opportunity to make such decisions.

They ensure that every decision a person in power makes is second-guessed and discussed endlessly and often negatively. And whenever evidence emerges that this person has misused state resources or attempted to fleece the nation, the punishment is swift and unrelenting. They lose office and lose face, and spend a huge amount of resources to rehabilitate themselves, serving as an abject lesson to their successors and others in power.

This is the story of any country we look up to, any society we consider “successful”. And this is the reason Kenya seems to have stagnated and even retrogressed in some areas. The dominant voice in public discourse in this country is the silencing voice of Big Brother.

Whenever anyone expresses doubts about a decision by senior government officials, they are reminded to be patriotic, and often asked what a “nobody” like them has done for this country. They are asked to mind their own business, and in the past, we have even been asked, “Whose goat has he stolen?”

If we intend to prosper as a republic, we must encourage dissent, and urge our leaders to deal with the issues raised by the dissenters, however obnoxious, rather than demonising the dissenters themselves. A nation of meek sheep cannot roar like a pride of lions, no matter how loud they bleat! 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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