How we undermine the future of Kenya

Monday November 18 2019

Talking to many Kenyans, it seems as though the future of Kenya is pre-determined so that only the wealthy will always have their way into leadership, fighting corruption is an exercise in futility and that eliminating poverty is a pipe dream.

Political scientists such as Eszter Nova explains this phenomenon as an outcome of populist or authoritarian world view that is firmly rooted in an overemphasis on threats (fear) and the sense of inability to cope with them.

In other words, helplessness. A tribal kingpin (community spokesperson or strongman, a venerable position desired by many politicians in Kenya) tends to exploit this sense of helplessness and eventual dependence.

The communication of strongmen to their communities often centers around the fact that individuals are not in the position to cope with threats. Citizens should therefore exclusively rely on such leaders.

The problem with populists, Nova says, is that they instinctively leverage the theory of learned helplessness to erode liberal democracy and usher in authoritarianism (the erosion of freedoms, rule of law, democracy and checks and balances).

When invoking threats, Nova says, populists create the sense of emergency, which then triggers feelings of helplessness in their victims. They also erode social capital (horizontal bonds of trust in society) by eroding trust in one’s own competence.


By the end of the vicious cycle, freedoms are decimated, democracies reduced to majoritarianism, the rule of law dismissed as ineffective as we experienced with post-election violence in 2008.

Psychologist Noel-Hoeksema and others say that in learned helplessness theory, experience with uncontrollable events can lead to the expectation that no responses in one’s own repertoire will control future outcomes.


This expectation of no control leads to motivational deficits (lower response initiation and lower persistence), cognitive deficits (inability to perceive existing opportunities to control outcomes), and, in humans, emotional deficits (sadness and lowered self-esteem). Populists thrive on these deficits.

In summary, Nova posits that “a population reduced to helplessness is docile and passive – even when it is outwardly loud and belligerent. Its symptoms include the dissolution of individual perspectives (identifying with the leaders), active inaction, as well as the onset of a survival mentality – unsuitable for everyday life.”

The wealthy or those who have acquired lots of money illegally across the world have always bought their way into politics and often embraced populist ideals. Indeed, the debate about widening inequality in virtually every country in the world centers on a few people with huge sums of money using it to control the political agenda.

Money has become the requirement for competitive politics and populism that abhors dissent.

With money, politicians can claim to be fighting for the poor, decide what social problems to fix, give handouts and fuel populism/tribalism.

Rarely do our political leaders discuss issues even when the national vision as well as the global goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a clear direction for the future.

By failing to focus on issues that matter, we undermine a future similar to that of the Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs). Instead, we nature dependence, fear and hopelessness. In essence, we have lost the ideals of the universal declaration on democracy.

The continued patching up of the Constitution and use of money whose sources cannot be validated by the electors undermines democracy and the future of the country.

Everybody agrees that tribalism is slowly destroying all our institutions but no one wants to do anything to stop that. The wave of populism is often too strong against individual thoughts no matter how good they can be to the country (read prof Anyang Nyong’o’s sojourn into the Social Democratic Party).

How then should we tackle tribalism? The demand for tribalism is fuelled by a sense of helplessness. Our people are under threat and we must come to their aid – the line of thought you hear people saying – to safeguard our interest. In truth, there are no common interest.


My greatest fear is that we may have reached that point of helplessness, docility and passiveness.

If we hadn’t, we could do something to salvage Nairobi County. What future does the capital city of Kenya have if the leadership can’t even hold an assembly to plan for services to the people? Whose responsibility it is to demand for sound leadership?

There are many questions we can ask but it boils down to each one of us. If citizens can mobilise and get what they desired in the city, they will also demand that the country should stop borrowing.

Our debt puts us on a precarious cliff that any small tremor will put us in a similar situation as Greece and completely obliterate all the gains we have made and complicate the future.

In my view, the answer to creating an environment for a better future begins with what we do today to change the future. If we are not interested in changing how the future will look from within, then we must at least hold those responsible to account.

That must begin from before and during elections.

We have many legal minds that should be informing us whether there is need to make changes to the Constitution now and the impact current proposals have on the future of our country. We are being ambushed by political mandarins without the benefit of expert interventions.


It is pointless to complain later about the changes when we should be doing something about the current proposals. The helplessness we are in at the moment will leave it to the kingpins to read for us as they did in the 2010 Constitution.

Similarly, corruption is a global scourge but where it has been minimised, technology has played a key role. Shouldn’t we then gather experts to decide the approaches to dealing with the problem.

Emerging technologies bring about transparency but we rarely discuss them. Some technologies like the Distributed Ledgers Technology (DLT) can provide a copy of all government transactions to the public instantaneously before the money is stolen.

Poverty isn’t the most difficult issue to solve as we often tend to think. For the first time, there are fewer poor people globally than any other period before.

Of those moving out of poverty, data from the World Data Lab shows that 87 percent will be in Asia. Africa is sliding more into poverty. The problem emanates from policy and our failure to speak up.

The more reason why 2022 is critical to Kenya’s future. If we elect those who will serve their own interest, many people will slide into poverty and vice versa.

In my view, the starting point for everyone seeking a political office must be making full declaration and disclosure of their wealth, its source, their tax declarations and donations for past five years preceding the date of the election.

Since many of the wealthy politicians consider themselves above the law, validation of their candidacy should be done by independent organisations.

It is through the electoral process that we can undermine or shape a prosperous future for our country. For this reason, I ask that we critically examine our actions especially with respect to who we choose to lead us.

If we plan, we can overcome the hopelessness we find ourselves in where the rich buy our future for their own shellfish intentions.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito