Report & Essay
Generation Disaster

Report & Essay

Generation Disaster
Martin Kimani

 The next revolution in Kenya will not be a violent one, contrary to the bloodletting presently underway. Rather it will be the rejection of the generation of men from whom the leaders of this country have been drawn. The major politicians who were politicians before the majority of Kenyans were even born and who even today enjoy inordinate sway in the country. President Mwai Kibaki was born in 1931. Ex-President Daniel arap Moi was born in 1924. They are still doddering onward, unable to relinquish the reins of power they have held tightly for half a century. Theirs is a generation steeped in venality, in tribal arithmetic, in a cynical nationalism and their values have infected those thousands of young people who are roaming the countryside in a killing fury. The young men throwing stones and shooting arrows and the youthful policemen opposite them shooting tear gas and live ammunition are fodder for the failed politics of a generation of old men who may just take all of us to the grave with them.

I was raised to respect my elders and there are many that I indeed respect. But the time has come to assess in the broadest and most personal terms how the generation of leaders that took this country from independence to the bloody and dangerous present has performed. The oldest of this Generation Disaster as it should be called were born in the 1920s and the youngest of the lot in the 1940s. They can be counted as a single generation in the sense that their vision of what constitutes Kenya and their role in it is widely shared.

This generation has played and continues to play a prominent role in politics, in our intellectual life and in the business community. While there are many among them who are capable and well intentioned the defining characteristic of this generation is failure in leadership. It is not enough to lay the blame on a few individuals. This generation of prominent wazees has defined for us the content of our politics and the ethics of governance. They are our very own Boomer Generation except that the boom in this instance is the sound of our dreams and aspirations exploding violently.

It is a popular pastime to compare Kenya’s performance in economic and human development terms with that of the Asian Tigers such as South Korea and Malaysia. How often I have heard it said that these countries in economic terms were neck to neck with Kenya in the 1970s, only for them to surge ahead in the last three decades while Kenya trod water and in many instances retreated in advances it had made.

The approximately 3% of Kenyans who are above the age of 65 and from whom the bulk of Generation Disaster is drawn have led us to an average life expectancy of 55 years compared to South Korea’s 77 and Malaysia’s 72 – according to the online Intute World Guide which allows country comparison of economic data. The economic numbers are even direr. Kenya’s GDP of $38 billion as of 2005 is only a fraction of Malaysia’s $287 billion and South Korea’s $1 trillion. Per capita, Kenyan citizens have only 12% of their Malaysian counterparts’ sum and 6% of the South Korean GDP per capita of almost $23,000. At the turn of the century, 40% of Kenyans were unofficially unemployed compared to fewer than 4% of Malaysians and South Koreans.

These statistics we can suppose with reasonable confidence have deteriorated in the last three weeks and they mean that Kenya can count itself first among equals only if compared to the Congos and Guineas of this world. Our leaders’ vision is only to be lauded if compared to countries that have experienced genocides and decades-long civil wars. Yet this generation which touts its anti-colonialist credentials, its Kennedy Airlifts, its Makerere pedigree and its ambassador-at-thirty mentality has only managed to take us from one disaster to the next.

I grew up hearing about the inferiority of one tribe against the other, on jokes that now seem like macabre warnings of a day when they would become deadly serious. My elders were ever focused on their belly buttons. Not for them to learn from the experiences of other countries – especially the disasters that were unfolding around us and sending refugees by the thousands into our country. Their language was a curious construction. ‘The Kikuyu are now in power,’ they would say even though I hardly saw a penny from this ‘power.’ ‘The Kalenjin have taken power,’ they complained as President Moi stepped into State House, ‘they will finish us now for sure.’ ‘The Luos can never rule this country; the Kikuyus are thieves; the Luhyas don’t know how to take power …’

This curious construction of language is what has given birth to the present crisis and it has underlain the governance of this country since independence. Such a leap into the illogical to our generation of leaders is the very basis of logical thinking when it comes to apportioning power and privilege among themselves. It has served them well this Spokesman-of-the-Tribe role. It is the position that has enabled all those Mercedes Benzes from Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing and the dozens of schemes to rob the Treasury in the name of fulfilling the privileges of tribal mandarin. Though they developed these roles before the majority of us were even born, their thinking has infected us all. Say what you will about the Opposition, but it too is a gathering of Spokesmen of the Tribe challenging a government largely constituted from similar material.

The one thing that these politics will not deliver to this country is the kind of vision and leadership that led South Korea and Malaysia from poverty to wealth. We may continue ‘cleansing’ ‘those people’ from one area or the other and supporting the powerful on the basis that they are ‘our people’ but perhaps we only need to remember that the cost of our lives is borne by individuals. What does it matter that there is a Kikuyu president when you a Kikuyu living in Mathare? This generation of wazees has infected the country with its self-serving obsession on ethnicity as politics and politics as ethnicity. It has lived longer than most Kenyans can expect to live and yet it refuses to exit the stage. We need to say goodbye to Generation Disaster and ask for a divorce from its dystopian vision even if like a bad guest it insists on staying an extra night.

We only need to respect elders who reconcile rather than divide, who serve rather than seating under large tents drinking sodas while we bake in the sun, and who are determined to follow a vision of a rich, tolerant and open-hearted Kenya.

Generation Disaster was first published in The East African on January 28, 2008

Martin Kimani lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has previously been a Teaching Fellow at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham, UK and an Associate of the Conflict Security and Development Group of King’s College of the University of London where he is a doctoral candidate. Martin Kimani is a member of Concerned Kenyan Writers, a coalition whose purpose is to use our writing skills to help save Kenya in this polarised time. He can be reached on martinkimani @ gmail.com

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