Poignant Lessons from Kenyan Referendum


Well, we are finally done with it! The best part of concluding the referendum is not the predictably emergent razzmatazz about who won, who lost, now what. Rather, it is that we finally have a welcome break, however brief, from the cacophonous din of verbal diarrhoea that has been the menu on our TV screens, radio airwaves and newspaper columns.

At least in the ensuing fortnight or so, we have a chance to retreat, pause and reflect on where we have come from, where we are presently and where we are headed as a Kenyan people.

Regardless of our famed optimism, I still hold the unpopular view that we are the least nationalistic people in Africa, if not the world over. Other than our ethnocentric preoccupation with whose turn it is to eat and who holds the knife to the national fruitcake, we are least conformist to the five pillars of a nationalistic existence.

Political scientists rightly define a nation as a ubiquitous and abstract existence that embodies the collective quintessence of a people.

To actualise nationhood, the citizenry needs to warm up to an existential hexagon embracing a national anthem (yet how many of us know the anthem beyond the first stanza?), a national dress (whatever became of the Sunlight initiative?), national language (yet the Luo still speak ‘oswaili’ instead), national rallying call (which has been downhill from Harambee to Nyayo to Kumbafu) and a national flag (has anyone ever noticed how proud the Americans are of their star spangled banner?).

Regardless of our conformist index to nationhood, the referendum is over and we must look back with the same intensity of focus we are using to cast our collective eyes into the future.

Of prime concern to us should be the church and its role in national politics. Many Kenyans think that the church’s unholy dalliance with the Rift valley barons in opposing the constitution hit the drift when Mzee Moi joined in the fray.

I hold the divergent perception that the church’s goose was cooked the day they ostentatiously and pompously paraded their Range-Rovers and four-wheelers for all to gasp at, during the infamous Uhuru Park NO rally that resembled a wealth parade more than anything else.  From then on, it was downhill all the way.

What may not have occurred to the Uhuru Park showboats was that millions of people invest their faith in the hope that religion will either demystify their poverty or help them escape it.

So when they suddenly see an unashamed display of opulence by the same folks they entrust their meager weekly offertory to, the law of relative deprivation immediately takes effect and a sense of being taken for a ride replaces the ever looming optimism for salvation.

Yet another undoing for the church was the fact as they vehemently frothed about abortion, not a single woman of substance raised their voice about abortion. Someone should have told the predominantly male church leadership that despite its heavily skewed ethical or moral insinuations, abortion remains a matter of feminine exclusivity.

Abortion is the one topic that invokes the most gender resentment when women hear men fretting about it as if they could ever fathom the excruciating physical and mental pain associated with abortion.

Universally, women have always rebutted debates on abortion by invoking the twin principles of subjective application and right of choice as dictated by causal origination of pregnancy.

It is like when know-it-all husbands try to preach to their wives about the obvious generative advantages associated with durational longevity of breastfeeding. Discerning wives will instead choose to perceive the husband’s well informed advocacy as part of the age-old schematics by males to enslave the female and wink ‘Yes Sir’ with one eye while rapidly weaning the child off breast milk even earlier than she had previously envisaged. This is precisely what the church did to the womenfolk of Kenya with their trident advocacy against abortion.

The referendum granted Kenyans the rare opportunity to meet Kibaki the politician. Many of us have never really understood our President. I have always stated in other forums that Kibaki revels in mystique and that his habitual and operational opaqueness has served him better than we imagine.

But the referendum unveiled to Kenyans a new Mwai Kibaki; the elemental politician. It was Winston Churchill who famously warned that we must always beware of he who fights with a grin on his face as he packs the most lethal of punches! Wasn’t it just tantalizingly amazing how Kibaki, with a sly grin on his face, unleashed the most derogatory dose of verbal bullets that any Kenyan had ever before fired in the direction of Daniel Moi?

To refer to the retired president as some confused oldie who is loitering (that being the politer version of ‘ku randa-randa’) is perhaps the harshest and most nonchalantly dismissive epitaph anyone has ever dared to direct at Moi in his entire political life.

Cracking into his characteristic mirthful laughter, Kibaki made it worse by asking Kenyans to sympathise with the likes of Moi. 

Someone in the Moi stable of faithful operatives neglected to advise the former president not to engage Mwai Kibaki. And in that mistake lay perhaps the greatest of lessons from the referendum; that what Kenyans need the most is a clean break with our eventful past as embodied by the likes of Daniel arap Moi.  

 (The writer is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi).

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