Uhuru and Ruto are Moi’s protégés. Not only do they seem to have internalised the politics of mediocrity practised in Moi’s Kanu but they also missed out on the education and socialisation in liberal politics that the Narc coalition politicians went through in their 15 years in opposition, writes DAVID NDII.
Sometime in late 1988 or early 1989, as a young post-graduate student at the University of Nairobi, I was walking to the GPO to catch a bus home one evening when I stumbled on a presidential function. Moi was launching a fleet of National Youth Service public service buses across the road from the GPO.
As was and probably is still the case, one had to stop and listen. Moi was railing against intellectuals and professionals for failing to provide practical solutions to wananchi’s problems, as he was doing on that occasion. That was the moment it hit me how low we had sunk.
Like many of his hair-brained nyayo branded initiatives, the Nyayo Bus Corporation soon collapsed. I read recently in the papers that some of its suppliers are still pursuing money it owed them when it went down. But Moi and the culture of mediocrity he epitomised was to last another decade and a half.
A good friend, a moderate former state corporation chief who did a sterling job (for which he tells me he is accused by the political elite of his community of being foolish for not eating) called me recently to ask me to write more about corruption, which by his reckoning, the country may not survive.
NOT ADDING UP
As I reflected on my friend’s contention, the more I realised that something was not adding up. All our four post-independence regimes, Jomo Kenyatta’s, Moi’s, Kibaki’s and now Jubilee have been incorrigibly corrupt.
Jubilee, by my reckoning, is not more corrupt than Kibaki’s regime although it is not for want of trying. Yet Kibaki’s regime is seen more favourably by most people than the other three.
Corruption being a constant across the regimes, it seems to me insufficient to explain why Jubilee’s stock has fallen so rapidly and why people like my friend seem persuaded that the country may not survive its corruption.
My reflection has led to the conclusion that it’s a question of contextualisation. As is often the case, you need to step back and see the big picture.
Our politics is defined by three dichotomies: liberal-illiberal, the corrupt-clean and the competent-incompetent.
Jomo Kenyatta’s regime was corrupt, illiberal and competent. Moi’s was corrupt, illiberal and mediocre. Kibaki’s was corrupt, liberal and competent. So, Moi scores zero out of three. Jomo scores one out of three. Kibaki scores two out of three. Now it adds up!
Jubilee’s stock has fallen not just because it is seen as corrupt, but because it comes across as also illiberal and incompetent. Like Moi’s regime, it scores zero out of three.
This should not surprise. Uhuru and Ruto are Moi’s protégés. Not only do they seem to have internalised the politics of mediocrity practised in Moi’s Kanu but they also missed out on the education and socialisation in liberal politics that the Narc coalition politicians went through in their 15 years in opposition.
Which is more harmful to society, mediocrity or corruption? Mediocrity is by definition below average. It stands to reason that all other things equal, mediocrity is more costly than corruption.
It goes without saying that a corrupt mediocracy is even more deleterious. When mediocre rulers are also corrupt even their corruption is mediocre. Because they are unable to generate sufficient returns, they eat into the capital. That’s what the decay of our infrastructure during Moi was — they ate the capital.
What’s more, what mediocre corrupt leaders steal they squander. Mobutu’s billions have never been traced.
Political science has theories of democracy, dictatorship and everything in between, but evidently no theory of mediocrity. A theory of political mediocrity ought to address itself to two questions. First, why are some societies more susceptible to mediocrity than others? I have not done a rigorous scientific study of this but it seems to me Africa has a disproportionate share of mediocre compared for instance to Asia — Amin, Abacha, Bokassa, Mengistu, Mobutu, Moi and more.
The second question is why mediocracy is so resilient. If you think about it, sustaining democracy seems to be a permanent struggle. Yet mediocrity, once established, will go on for decades, even centuries, ruining society many times over in the process, deposed sometimes, only to be replaced with another.
When it comes to longevity of mediocrity, Haiti is peerless. Haitians have endured over 200 years of almost uninterrupted mediocre leadership since independence in 1804.
Before we hazard theorising on these weighty questions, we ought to first characterise mediocrity so that we are clear what we are talking about.
Mediocrity thrives on two things, insecure leaders and sycophancy. The insecurity factor is easily demonstrated by comparing Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki. Both Jomo Kenyatta and Kibaki were secure individuals with a track record of intellectual achievement.
There is a wealth of anecdotes which suggests that both Jomo and Kibaki did not suffer fools. Mbiyu Koinange, Jomo’s omnipresent sidekick, is reputably the first Kenyan African to earn a masters degree, and Gikonyo Kiano was the first to earn a PhD. Taita Towett was an undisputed maverick genius and Zachary Onyonka is said to be the first Kisii to earn a PhD.
Kibaki was at home with Anyang Nyong’o, George Saitoti and Mukhisa Kituyi, the smartest politician intellectuals that I have had the privilege of working with.
Moi is said to have been most comfortable with village wazees. He reached out to intellectuals only when his regime was in trouble and then went out of his way to humiliate them once he was done with them — Josephat Karanja, Professor Phillip Mbithi and Saitoti are the high profile victims but by no means the only ones. That is insecurity.
Sycophancy is just as critical an element of mediocracy as the leader’s insecurity. I have long been intrigued by sycophancy, mainly from observing hitherto accomplished people transform into complete idiots once they get close to power. The penny did not drop until I read Amadou Korouma’s political satire Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote.
The novel is rendered as a ritual performance by a praise singer of the life story of Koyaga, a prototype African dictator. The ritual requires total honesty, to lay the man bare so to speak, in the words of the praise singer to tell “the whole truth about your dirty tricks, your bullshit, your lies, your many crimes and assassinations.”
My favourite part of the story is where the praise singer explains what motivates Macledio, a well-educated man who is Koyaga’s lifetime sycophant.
“There are two forms of destiny in this world” he says, the destiny of “those who clear a path through the dense undergrowth of life” and the destiny of “those who follow paths already laid.”
The latter’s mission in life is “to find their man of destiny”. Who is a man of destiny? “The man of destiny is he whom they must follow if they are to find true fulfilment, if they are to be truly happy.”
Sycophants, it seems, are born, not made. Sycophancy is a calling. It is self-actualisation.
Having characterised mediocrity, we can now proceed to theorise about its pervasiveness and resilience. My tentative theory of mediocracy draws from two other theories.
The first is an old observation about money called Gresham’s Law. For those not familiar with it, Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good money. It dates back to the time of commodity money, and coins would be worth their weight in metal, say gold or silver.
It would be observed that if underweight coinage was introduced (the equivalent of printing money today), people would withdraw the “good money” such that in the end only the “bad” money would be circulating.
Mediocracy works the same way. The people who thrive in it are idiots and rascals. This has the effect of driving good smart people out of the system so that in the end, the entire system is made up of idiots and rascals.
The Kibaki regime was a big beneficiary of Gresham’s Law. The Moi regime had over the years, driven the smart good people out of government and of course there are many public spirited ones who were put off from joining government in the first place. Once the regime left, a lot of them flooded back into government.
This is not to say there were no rascals, but a lot of the good performance of the regime is explained by lifting the weight of mediocrity from the public service and replacing incompetent crooks with capable, highly motivated people. We even had a name for it — we called it the “governance dividend.”
The second is the theory of toxic leadership espoused by Jean Lipman-Blumen, Barbara Kellerman, Terry Price and others.
The title of Jean Lipman-Blumen’s book The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why we follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them, leaves nothing to the imagination.
Her explanation is that we follow toxic leaders because of their ability to exploit our psychological desires and fears. These psychological needs include the yearning for authority, order, security and belonging, fear of being ostracised and of powerlessness.
Toxic leaders offer false comfort — alluring visions that provide simplistic solutions to complex problems. They keep their followers captive by exercising power against people — individuals or groups — that the followers dislike, fear or envy.
Moi sustained his mediocracy for 24 years by stoking the dislike, fear and envy of Kikuyus (horses must be reined for the donkeys to catch up) and propagating the myth of Kenya as an island of peace in the midst of chaos (après moi, le déluge).
The Jubilee mediocracy is being nurtured by peddling simple solutions to complex problems not unlike Nyayo projects, scare mongering and keeping the tree of tribalism very well watered.
David Ndii is the Managing Director of Africa Economics [email protected]