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Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Do Kenyan Politicians Dance?

Over the past few weeks, I've been obsessing with a single question. Why do our politicians dance? At every political function nowadays, it has become customary for them to do a jig before addressing the crowds. Where did that come from? When did it start? And, more importantly, why do they do it?

One thing's for sure. Boogieing politicians are a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that we danced for them. In the days of my youth, no political function would begin before a troupe of "traditional dancers" or some choir had performed for the big men -and they were almost always men. Of course, they would sometimes perfunctorily join in, doing their best to look dignified and restrained as all around them, the people let loose. However, it was always clear who was dancing for whom.

We danced for them.

Dancing for rulers' entertainment has a long and not too proud history around these parts. The colonials, in the era before late night radio jams and funk and discotheques enjoyed a little live performance by the firelight as they downed their evening drink. Further, parading the conquered folks has ancient roots. The Romans would do it at their triumphs. And our parading ourselves to our British conquerors was a demonstration of our subjugation; our "culture", our very lives, beliefs and existence, were now to be for the entertainment of our rulers, exoticised commodities and curiosities they could entice their friends to part with money to experience -and thus the tourism industry was born.

Following the charade that was independence, our newly minted black potentates adopted many of the old habits of the colonial society they had always secretly aspired to join. They moved into the colonial houses and neighbourhoods, became fellow members of their country clubs, took their kids to the same schools, and kept us dancing to the tune of oppression.

Wherever Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi after him, went, the dancers had to be hastily assembled to offer welcome. The book Kenya: The Politics of Participation and Control
by Henry Bienen speaks of regular reports of Kenyatta regularly receiving traditional dancers at his home. In a system where power was seen as both a source of prestige and patronage, our dancing for our Presidents and politicians marked them as purveyors of such. Just like their regular enthronements (again in the same manner as their colonial forebears) as "elders" of the communities they have brutalized, our dancing was, and continues to be, designed to curry favor.

So we danced for them.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Presidents started to dance for us -in a manner of speaking. At the height of the Nyayo dictatorship, a trio of three brilliantly impudent comedians burst onto the national scene. The climax of Redykyulass' shows, always guaranteed to floor audiences, would depict the then President Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man, breaking into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine -the Ndombolo. It was the first time any of us had seen the President, or in this case a parody of him, truly dance and the effect was electrifying.

As Prof Grace Musila recounts in her essay Violent Masculinities and the Phallocratic Aesthetics of Power in Kenya, "the very thought of the President dancing to Ndombolo was itself a powerful subversion of the carefully choreographed iconography of the dignified "father of the nation" who had hitherto been seen in local currency, on national television making speeches and staring out contemplatively in framed portrait photographs all over the country." Via their dancing, Redykyulass "removed President Moi from his revered position in framed portraits, legal tender, patriotic songs and various elevated podiums associated with political speeches on public holidays and, instead, represented him as an ordinary figure who Kenyans could laugh at."

Today, the dancing we see on political podiums across the country is similarly farcical. As we have seen, the state used to invest a great deal in "the carefully choreographed iconography" of power. So when we suddenly have State House releasing videos of President Uhuru Kenyatta doing the dab dance as his rivals try to out do each other in comical dance, something fundamental about our politics has changed. While the politicians doing the shakey-leggy are perhaps hoping their gyrations make them seem like one with the people, what stays in the mind is not the idea of common cause so much as that of comedy. It is the reverse of the Redykyulass skit. And this time, the joke is on us.

Politics has always had an element of performance, even farce. A good example is Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." During much of the post-independence era, Kenyan politics has been all show with and little substance, more about abetting elite plunder than fixing the people's problems. Still, there was felt a need to portray it as a game for serious people.

Not any more. Politics has become entertainment, our very own, home-grown reality soap opera. Making fun of a ponderous authoritarian in the 1990s was a way to undermine his grip on the people, to allow them to see him as someone they could hold to account. Comedic dancing today is a sign that both the politicians and the citizenry have abandoned even the pretense of seriousness. This is also reflected in the rise of farcical characters such as Mike Sonko, Ferdinand Waititu and even Miguna Miguna. You no longer need to be a serious person, or even to pretend to be a serious person, in order to participate. Entertainment is today's currency.

Compare our politics with soap operas. One study describes the features of a soap as 1) portraying personal life as the “core problematic”; 2) marked by melodramatic excess, necessary for their emotional impact; and 3) lacking narrative resolution, thereby maintaining their continuous existence. Our politics problematizes politicians personal political fortunes, appeal to ethnic sentiment via exaggerating ideas of threat as well as fantastical promises, and issues, be they scandals or questions about the proper role of the state, are never resolved. Like soaps, our politics is infested by outlandish characters and insane plot twists incestuous and ever changing relationships between the relatively small cast of players, and death, murder and betrayal are constant themes.

And like all soaps, the objective of our politics is not just entertainment, but distraction. Just as many seek respite from reality by watching trashy TV, so too they entertain trashy politics. But for the politicians, the pay off is much greater. To understand why, think back to Roman times. The first century Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, referred to the provision of free wheat and entertainment as a means of achieving political power. He wrote:

"Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."

Kenyan politicians too have become adept at using their control of bread and circuses to maintain their grip on power. Aside from generating food crises -either deliberately or through sheer criminality, negligence and incompetence- and swooping in as saviors, they also provide the gladiatorial contests that keep the citizenry too distracted to concern themselves with the root causes of the country's problems. And like Juvenal's Romans, we too have abdicated our duties of citizenship.

But it would be a mistake to blame the citizenry, whether in Juvenal's Rome or in present-day Kenya for the state of affairs. The Roman Empire’s decline has been blamed by some, like 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, on the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizenry which allowed demagogues to gain power. And some have attempted the same explanation for Kenya's woes. However, this has it back to front. In both cases, the loss of public trust was a consequence, not the cause, of politicians misbehaviour.

As those in power concentrate on enriching themselves rather than on the interests of their subjects, corruption, incompetence and insincerity come to dominate mainstream politics. A disillusioned populace either switches off altogether or driven into the arms of populist demagogues promising easy solutions. The new rulers, unable or unwilling to deal with root causes, resort to distraction. Free wheat, circus games, and feeding Christians to lions in Rome; a political reality soap opera in Kenya. The sole purpose being to keep the commoners from focusing on the pillaging of society by the same politicians.

Berating ordinary Kenyans -or Romans- for their poor electoral choices thus misses the point. Why should they be invested in a game they seem destined to lose? Rather, we must seek to remove the wool that is pulled over their eyes and allow them to see the real roots of their immiseration; see how the game is rigged against them and the opportunities that exist to change it. This means learning, not ignoring, the history that politicians work so hard to hide. It also requires understanding that there are many different ways to approach problems and we do not need to be constrained by the frameworks and blinders they have imposed on us. In short, we must learn to look beyond the dance. 

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