Politicians have a duty to ensure that citizens lead dignified lives


A young girl jumps in the slum of Mukuru Kwa Reuben in Nairobi. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

In a recent media interview, Reverend Simon Mbevi, a renowned contemporary lawyer and thinker on family values, described leadership as caring about bringing people out of shameful circumstances and instilling them in permanently a sense of dignity.

The striking part of this description is the potential present in a story of dignity. While dignity is implicit in other business models popularized during this season of leadership transition, political expression hits and lands differently when dignity is the core language. What you say matters as well as how you say it. Most politicians talk about economic models and relate them directly to economic outcomes. But Mbevi’s nuance of decoding the language of economics into an accent of dignity opens up a whole new way of speaking to the heart of the citizen. Invoking the need for dignity also gives people new eyes to see their contexts and with that, new ways of articulating what they expect from their leaders.

Dignity is achieved by decent infrastructure. Greedy entrepreneurs at one point threw humanity out the window and reduced people to freight units. Commuters were crowded into every available space inside the matatus, resulting in demeaning interactions. The late John Michuki rose as an Agent of Dignity, which led to Michuki’s Rules. But unfortunately he had few disciples. It is terrible when sick children share a hospital bed. Students in rickety structures are unable to reconcile how education is key when studying under a tree. In some parts of the country, children still travel long distances to fetch water, but under their feet is a massive aquifer. An elderly woman still uses firewood, just like her parents, because years later briquettes, gas and electricity are out of reach in her village. “Love of the State” invests in progressive infrastructure with a cardinal motive of lifting shame and effecting dignity.

Dignity can be achieved through hope. Mbevi, in his commentary, said that sometimes citizens need to preach politicians. The preacher and the politicians are both carriers of hope; the difference being the sources of their hope. For the preacher the source is a supreme being while for the politicians the source is the state systems. This hope must be genuine and is mobilized in such a way that both the supreme being and state systems evolve in favor of the people. Hope comes from being listened to by a caring power. Leaders should develop a reputation for taking people’s concerns seriously. Kenyans walked through wilderness and ran out of hope-makers. Hard working parents harbor feelings of shame as they line up for scholarship forms for their children, silently praying for the day when their hard work will be paid well enough to get them out of the queues. Sometimes all Kenyans want to hear from those in authority is “we’re going to be fine!” And that “it will be difficult for a while, but there are better days to come”. Of all the politicians who step onto the catwalks every day, none have described themselves as a bearer of hope. The zeal we see is that of anxious vote hunters. These hunters rally Kenyans to their personal political ambitions while the people they mobilize live in despair.

Dignity is instilled by kept promises. When asked to fill in the line “as empty as …”, a student replied “promises of a politician”. Promises are the legal tender of power. The more you do, the better. The promises are electricity buyers. The moral value of these promises is irrelevant. But to lie to the people is to deprive them of their dignity. Setting up a lie factory to produce lies with which to manipulate people reduces them to Pavlovian conditioning. It is wrong for a leader to make people salivate knowing that there is no food to come. Using hope to make fun of people degrades them. Telling people the truth shows respect and strengthens their sense of dignity.

Dignity can be achieved through genuine solidarity. Every now and then we see a senior official walk into a meat kiosk, order ugali, sit in the kibanda, and eat (without security avoiding other patrons). The general reaction of people is joy, which shows on their faces. People may even feel superior in one way or another because they are local and visitors mheshimiwa is not. The “mhesh” spoils this scenario when he pays for the food of everyone in the restaurant. Why? Because it reduces its kibanda stop at the money; as if to remind the people of their poverty while pointing out their wealth. A richer response would be “see you soon”, which would be a response of solidarity, a promise to return to their base. Viewing Jesus as a leader, being with the people was one of the key qualities that contributed to his affection as a “man of the people”.

Dignity is also achieved by instilling a value in citizenship. There are people who do not easily disclose their citizenship because their countries are associated with vice. Others display their citizenship because it contributes to their personal image. What goodwill comes from being Kenyan? Being Kenyan should count. National branding campaigns inspire citizens to be proud to be Kenyans. But it has constantly raised the conversation about what exactly we should be proud of. The rulers exist to create reasons for the pride of the county and the country. For the government to ask citizens to be proud of their country, it must also show pride in its citizens.

When the state shows pride in its citizens, it creates space for citizens to be openly proud of their nation.

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