First published Sunday Standard, February 19, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group
The mood at Uhuru Park on Wednesday was electric. Over a thousand doctors and other citizens marched, sang and danced as they waited for the KMPDU leadership to be released. National opposition party leaders, Senators and Members of Parliament came to express their solidarity. Every time their speeches veered from the health-crisis, the crowd roared “no politics”. Analyzed with what was to happen barely forty-eight hours later, this was a light-bulb moment.
By Friday, newsrooms and the internet had exploded with new hashtags, images and complex coding explanations to prove the insincerity and the smallness of the doctors. Politicians and digital bloggers bent over backwards to argue the union leadership comes from one ethnic community, were anti-JP and pro-NASA party alliances. It is not often the political soul of our country and its actors is revealed in all its nakedness. The latest twist of the health-crisis did this last week.
Most of us either deeply detest politics, see it as a source of entertainment or as a force for public good. The first group profoundly distrusts politicians and their speeches. They long stopped watching, listening or seeking to contribute to what is happening in the country and they are proud of it. While hurting from runaway inflation, they can still adapt.
The second group of Kenyans are energized by the theatrics and the very drama of our leaders. They look for the political equivalent of the very talented Churchill or Anne Kansiime. They love the personalities, emotions, conflicts and even the outrageousness of the scandals.
The third group of citizens engage politics and politicians because they know how important they are for the quality of life of all Kenyans. This group remains hungry for the language of public interest and social change.
While it feeds our sense of uniqueness as a nation, the truth is this phenomenon is being experienced all over the world. From India to South Africa, Italy to North America, the electorate is slowly pulling apart. They are pulling apart not on ideas of how power and resources could be distributed or what type of a society we want or who would effectively and inclusively govern us. Should these trends persist, the future of politics is predictable. As Plato once wrote, those who think themselves too smart to be in politics will be governed by those who are a lot dumber.
The “politics” that was denied by the Uhuru Park crowd was that of personalities, party criticism and propaganda. Let us call this poli-tricks for clarity. The politics that was welcome was the discussion of health-policy reform, leadership and change. The crowd engaged with over 50 speeches that called for improving the quality and quantity of health-care personnel, better equipped health-care and cheaper health-care for all. Given these policy dialogues were taking place in a 14-hour public rally and the average age of the rally was in its early thirties, it was even more impressive.
The moment also had its missed opportunities. JP Senators and Members of Parliament could have turned up and engaged the Doctors on how to fix the healthcare crisis. The Interior Ministry could have apologized for misreading and forcefully disrupting the night vigil two nights back. The Health Cabinet Secretary could have issued a public statement that he would personally lead the mediation talks from now on.
All political parties could have issued statements on how they would implement the Collective Bargaining Agreement if they are elected to office in August. Religious and civic leaders could have stepped forward from their press conferences to directly engage the parties. This would have been leadership in the moment. Sadly, like our health-facilities, this kind of leadership is still in short supply.
This country is maturing. The doctors have shown us this. The Council of Governors, Health Ministry and KMPDU out of court agreement to immediately release the Union leadership and re-start the talks demonstrated this. The public outrage at the suggestion that public health-care is failing because we are essentially using public taxes and NHIF to fund private hospitals and clinics proves this.
Do not stop our political discourse from evolving. Do not let our policy debates be drowned out by the language of personalities, ethnicity and propaganda. Do not use our security officers to crush our public expression, assembly, or our civic associations. We have got to recognize our public healthcare system is failing us and for the first time in decades, we have the opportunity to comprehensively fix this.
I wish all the parties to the health crisis mediation, conviction, open-mindedness and speed. Our lives depend on it.