In Summary
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In my view, the answer to creating an environment for a better future begins with what we do today to change the future.
  • There are many questions we can ask but it boils down to each one of us. For instance, citizens can demand that the country should stop borrowing.

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.

MOTIVATIONAL DEFICIT

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.

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