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There is little doubt we are living in ‘interesting times’

Thursday June 18 2020
By BWIRE MUGOLLA

At times such as these, the frequently quoted and possibly apocryphal ancient Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”, is never far from my mind. 

 A global pandemic the likes of which have not been seen in a century. An impending economic crisis. Mass protests in the streets of the Western world about racial injustice. There can be little doubt that humanity has not seen such ‘interesting times’ in many years. 

 Commentators in the US, which has the greatest death toll from the Coronavirus and is the heart and home of the protests, have struggled to find the words to convey the unprecedented chaos they see around them. One American political commentator, Max Boot, has gone as far as to describe this period as true carnage, combining “the worst pandemic since the 1918 flu, the worst unemployment since the Great Depression and the worst riots since 1968.”

 In an amusing and bizarre twist, the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, published a full magazine of “African writers on the American nightmare”, which mimicked the arrogant and patronising style with which the American media often comments on our affairs.

 Here in Kenya too we have our own problems. A proud, independent African nation, we fortunately have no need to assert that Black Lives Matter, but the impacts of the coronavirus and the accompanying economic effects are all too real. And like America, we too have our own internal political challenges to address; in our case the impending 2022 elections and the inevitable politicking that comes with it.

 But unlike the US, and much of Western Europe, we have two great advantages working in our favour which are helping us to navigate this perilous time: leadership and unity. 

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 Whereas the US increasingly resembles a disparate, divided and rudderless ship, lost at sea and seemingly incapable of finding its way, the Kenyan ship is fortunate to have a strong and capable captain, and an increasingly united crew. Yes the waters may be choppy, but our captain knows how to plot the best course to safe harbour.

 The President’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been characterised by this brand of wise, calm and prescient leadership that we have become accustomed to in recent years. 

 Uhuru began by identifying the threat early and banning travel from the worst hit countries, and then used the time saved to step up preparations for the inevitable. The lockdown that came next was both robust enough to slow the flow of cases, while at the same time remaining relatively flexible in order to enable economic activity as much as possible.

 Speaking of the economic front, Uhuru’s government announced an eight-point economic stimulus programme, worth over Sh50 billion, which is working to keep our economy going and cushion the blow to the hardest hit. 

 Yes there has been suffering, yes there have been deaths, but just look around us. It could be so much worse.

 But this is not just about leadership, it is also about unity. One of the forces behind the failures in much of the West and the inability to offer a coherent response is hyper partisanship. People are just too divided to act. 

 To offer just one example, in America even masks have become a political statement. Democrats largely wear them. Republicans don’t. President Trump even refused to answer a question from a reporter wearing a mask, attacking him for being ‘politically correct’.

 In Kenya, beyond the political games being played by some of our leaders, in fact the country has never been more united. Uhuru has shown a willingness to work with, and for, members of all communities, and has even been described as Kenya’s first ‘post-tribal’ president.

 The public has responded to his leadership. We largely follow the guidelines. We respect one another. Where we disagree with one another or our leadership, we increasingly do so on policy grounds. Not on tribe. 

 Sure there are a few hyper partisans making a lot of noise online, but they represent a very small, though vocal, minority. They do not speak for us.

 There can be no doubt that these times are ‘interesting’. But unlike the world’s richest nations, Uhuru has shown us that this does not need to be a curse. In his own calm and understated way, he is enabling us to survive these interesting times, and preparing us to thrive once they are behind us.

Mr Mugolla is a public policy [email protected]

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