Politics too important to leave to politicians

First published Sunday Standard, January 8, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

In the last few hours of 2016 a colleague argued passionately, “In 2017, NGOs, social movements and civic associations must give up their neutrality and vote out the ruling Jubilee Alliance Party. Inequality, corruption, impunity and discrimination is out of control.” Having spent the best part of 2016 actively challenging all four, it may sound strange, but I disagree.

What my colleague and I can agree on, is that eight months to the General Elections, Kenya is once again at a point of danger. We all need to recognize the problem this causes before it becomes an emergency. Early partisan interference with the IEBC composition and elections management and youth and women voter education NGO programmes are not good signs. Party based nomination and electoral violence and bribery do not bode well. Hard-line posturing and brinkmanship by politicians from across the spectrum is frankly, driving the country in the wrong direction.

Two narratives are already shaping the election actors; peace and credibility. Taken together they offer clarity. Distinguished as counter narratives, they will predictably lead to violent state actions that curb freedoms of expression, association and assembly on one hand and on the other, street based public actions that end in violence. The factors present in 2008 combine with razor-edge new county splinters ready to tear the national fabric once again.

We ignore at our peril, important lessons from the last four years. Government indebtedness, public finance theft, ethnic discrimination and intolerance affects us all regardless of our ethnicity, gender and class. The cost of inequalities and corruption leave the youth particularly jobless, hopeless and neglected by essential services. Take a walk in Kibera or Mathare and speak to those now locked out by corruption from the National Youth Service projects. Take a moment and speak to any one of the three thousand young men and women who ran unsuccessfully in the 2013 General Elections. If you do, as I have, you will hear a growing impatience in the failure to channel this very powerful source of democratic energy.

As we lean into this season, we do have choices. For some of you, this will be about 5 minutes alone in a ballot box in August. While limited, 5-minute vote-casting is still a powerful expression of patriotism and being an active citizen. For others who have a listening for the political class “as all the same”, you may be more comfortable tuning out politics for the year. While this may seem easier, it is the equivalent of sitting in a mental health asylum with “Nil by Mouth” taped across your mouth and thinking your environment will change. There is a third way however.

The progressive Kenyan way offers more powerful choices. You could mobilize everyone in your neighborhood and village to turn out for voter registration in January. This would reverse the apathy we saw in 2016. You could help your aspirants and parties frame their policy agenda. Perhaps then we would have some real policy choices. How about taking out a party membership in January and voting in the party primaries in March? Given party strongholds over key constituencies, this might have more influence than even voting in the elections. Alternatively, why don’t you de-campaign all aspirants that fall short of Chapter 6 on Integrity. Block those you feel should not be anywhere close to having the authority to incur expenditure or legislate bad laws. If all this seems too small a contribution given our huge challenges, then run for public office.

Politics is simply too important to leave to politicians in 2017. Governing is too critical to leave to our kinsmen and women. No ethnic community, party, class, generation or gender can claim to have been left clean of corruption, misuse of public office or discrimination. The worst choice would be to fall asleep and wake up disillusioned in August.

So go into the political parties and shape them. Stay out and shape them. BUT leave NGOs, professional and religious associations, social movements, independent and civic. Don’t drag them into the shadows of political parties. They have another purpose in this moment. They must protect and promote constitutional values and articulate issues of public interest with all the political actors.

So over to you, citizens, go out and get political. I wish you all an Active New Year.

Irũngũ Houghton writes this weekly column in a personal capacity. He is the Society for International Development Associate Director. He welcomes dialogue at katiba@sidint.org or @irunguhoughton

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