In Aesop’s fable, the scorpion asks the frog to help it cross the river. The frog hesitates knowing the scorpion is likely to sting it, but the scorpion counters by saying it would not do so because they would both drown.
Persuaded, the frog begins to cross the river with the scorpion on its back and, as they cross the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both drown, the frog asks the scorpion why it stung, and the scorpion replies that it is what scorpions do.
Today, as one scans the global landscape, it is hard to miss that too many individuals, communities and societies – the frogs, are making or being forced to make choices and decisions to carry scorpions across the river of their aspirations.
These scorpions lurk around our communal landscape in the form of tribalism, ethnic chauvinism, racism, narcotic rings, organised crime, militias, and religious and sectarian extremism, among others. Like the scorpion in the fable, they all promise special advantages or safe passage across our rivers of aspiration.
Frog-like, we overlook our better judgement and believe their spiel. And yet, deep inside us, we know that any extended association with these scorpions has never ended well anywhere in the world. The evidence is all over the world, of individuals, communities and societies wrecked by dalliances with these scorpions.
Whether it is in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Holocaust in Germany, the Rwandan and Burundian genocides, apartheid South Africa, Biafran and Katanga secessions in Nigeria and Congo respectively, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram terrorism in Kenya and Nigeria respectively, the drug wars in Mexico, the 2008 and 2010 post-election violence in Kenya and Cote D’Ivoire respectively, slavery and Jim Crow in the US, and the ISIS genocide of Christians and other minorities in Iraq – the results are always the same.
The poison the scorpions inject is always unchanging – civil strife, insurgencies, conventional wars, crime wars, discrimination, exploitation, oppression, and more recently unconventional and asymmetric wars.
The price is dismayingly familiar in terms of destroyed families, communities, and nations; injuries and deaths of thousands to millions of people; entire communities displaced; unrelenting poverty, and long-term sociological and psychological implications.
Yet, with this massive body of evidence, the dark lure of these scorpions continues to plague the world. The impressive rise in the last 25 years of democracy, inclusive governance, social and economic progress, institutions and rule of law, and human rights should have put paid to the lure of the scorpions. More countries, societies and peoples are freer today, and the mingling of different peoples greater than at any time in history because the 21st century has seen more advances in knowledge and technology.
Yet, with all this progress, the world is still not immune to playing the frog to the scorpions. All over the world today, including in Kenya, too many people are playing around with the false belief that they will improve their personal and communal wellbeing if they made a bargain with the scorpions.
The race to the top, to become more prosperous, healthier, and more powerful economically, socially and politically has once again unleashed these creatures.
The astonishing rise of nationalism, and religious and sectarian extremism globally are two counterfactual examples of what one would have expected the 21st century to look like.
The persistence of racism, tribalism and ethnic chauvinism make little sense in a world that is becoming the global village. The election of nationalist and religious extremists to power across the world is also worrisome.
The recent turn to nationalism and possibly racially tinged electoral platforms in the US and Europe, and the reality that 50 years after independence, and five years after the passage of the new Constitution, Kenyans continue to flirt with the scorpions, are a dismal reminder that two-and-a-half millennia after Aesop first spun the fable, humanity keeps trying to harness dark means to achieve good ends.
It may be that this dark morality tale’s lessons will take a little longer for slow learning mankind to absorb, although I should add two thousand years plus is more than enough time.
Sam Mwale is a commentator on socio-economic and public policy issues