From time to time I am fortunate to be exposed to the highly thoughtful, well-informed and articulate WhatsApps of John Ngumi, and his most recent was one of his best. In it he asked for “an idea, a vision of Kenya, that will help get us out of our national malaise, will give us a national goal and purpose that can excite and focus us all”.
With that he took a step back into history, starting with the immediate pre-Independence period, when the national goal and cry was “Uhuru”, regularly interchanged with “Uhuru na Kenyatta”. These reflected a fervent belief that with Independence, and with Jomo Kenyatta freed from imprisonment and leading his people, all would be well for the future.
In the immediate post-Independence years, Ngumi reminded us, the national focus changed to “Uhuru na Kazi”. There may not have been unanimity as to what this actually entailed, and there were fierce ideological battles on what “Uhuru” meant to various groups of Kenyans, some who had benefited and some who had lost out. But there was a consensus that while we had hard work ahead of us to build a nation, we could do it.
The seventies saw malaise, cynicism and anger start getting into the national body politic, a result partly of the political turmoils of the 1960s, but also because of an inevitable sense of let-down as we grappled with nascent nationhood and its challenges.
There was a short-lived attempt to reignite a sense of national purpose through the Mwai Kibaki-led “The Kenya We Want” initiative, which sought to get us focused on the difficult economic years ahead post the 1973 oil price rise and subsequent global recession, acknowledging that we no longer had easy economic options. This never really caught on.
A brief period of optimism in the late 1970s and early 1980s was then followed by a time about which the less said about national visions, dreams and goals, the better.
The Second Liberation of the late 1980s refocused and galvanised Kenyans, eventually leading to the heady days of 2002-3, when all seemed possible. We didn’t really have a galvanising rallying call thereafter. That was not in the character or style of President Kibaki, but we did have a sense of doing things, with Vision 2030 epitomising the calm, somewhat dry, technocratic approach favoured by his administration.
And today? It struck Ngumi that we have reached a period “in which cynicism and scepticism reign supreme, a widespread and almost automatic disbelief in the goodness, wisdom or purpose of anything government says or does, a belief that what’s-in-it-for-me is the ruling ethos among any who get a sniff at public office and power, that those who lead will grab, steal, manipulate all systems and institutions, in order to amass and retain wealth, power and privileges. Truly a dispiriting moment of low expectations, and even lower national self-belief and self-confidence.”
And yet, Ngumi insists, good, positive things are happening all around us. Innovation in the digital and wider IT space. An emerging rediscovery of MSMEs’ potential. A Covid-induced increasing confidence that we actually can manufacture things that we had always assumed had to be imported.
A tentative start, again Covid-induced, to tackling long standing problems such as cleaning up our towns, using initiatives like Kazi Mtaani. A laying down of infrastructure which, no matter how expensively acquired, is there, can be used. A fierce constitutionalism and sense of rights among the citizenry, who increasingly do not hesitate to assert their rights, including resorting to legal action. A growing willingness and determination to hold leaders to account at all levels.
In short, Ngumi is telling us that “Yes We Can”. But not if we don’t believe it. And for us to believe we can we must have a goal, a sense of purpose, a national ambition around which we can galvanise our energies, drive and ingenuity.
YES WE CAN
He doesn’t think “attaining middle income status by 20…” or suchlike will do it for us.
We’ll just yawn cynically, he believes. He would love for us to have a grand ambition, like leading an African Renaissance.
Thabo Mbeki tried that, to general continental indifference.
Obama beat us to Yes We Can. And yet Ngumi feels we need a spark to release all these fierce energies and drive that we have in great abundance, to turn these positively outward towards national goals.
Ngumi concluded his Whatsapp by asking for ideas, and so – with his permission – that’s how I close… for now. Ideas please, readers!