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VOLUME 18, NO. 1-2 (MAY-JULY 2003)

The 2002 Elections The Road Travelled, The Lessons Learned


A new Kenya - a new vision

by Justus Gitari Mbae

Recent political events in Kenya are strongly reminiscent of Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave. For many years, the people of Kenya lived in the cave of ignorance, corruption, moral decadence, oppression and frustration resulting from the wanton mismanagement of public affairs.

Many Kenyans today still find it hard to comprehend the depth to which this country had sunk, especially in the last two decades. Many ordinary citizens still react with shock and disbelief as new revelations of misrule, abuse, misappropriation of funds, wantonness and sheer recklessness of the past regime are brought to light every day. That was clearly the case as Kenyans came to terms with revelations concerning the inhuman treatment meted out to innocent people in what are now referred to as the infamous "Nyayo torture chambers", the revelations about the true nature and purposes of the proscribed Mungiki sect, the extent and magnitude of government-sanctioned land grabbing, the scandal associated with the Armed Forces land-rovers, the mind-boggling Goldenberg rip-off, and the corrupt and unauthorized investment of public funds in the now collapsed Euro Bank.

Following the much acclaimed December 27, 2002 elections, it can be said that Kenyans are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Just how much light and for how long is the question.

According to recent media reports, Kenyans are among the most optimistic people in the world. They are also among the most tolerant. Even in situations where others would long have given up, Kenyans seem to keep their cool and hope for better days ahead. If this has generally been the case in the past, it reached its climax following the just concluded general elections which have been proclaimed the country's most democratic as well as being a laudable lesson for the rest of Africa and for the world. The air is filled with optimism and our expectations from the present government are unrealistically high. This has been accompanied by a level of nationalistic patriotism that is only comparable to the period immediately preceding our independence from colonial rule.

Kenyans can now walk with their heads held high and are not afraid to reveal their true identity. Men and women of every walk of life are talking about the new "liberation', "the new dawn", "a new beginning". Most are enthusiastic about the prospects for the future and some are even offering to volunteer their services to help this country move forward. They wish to assist the NARC government achieve the goals that its politicians promised in the campaign preceding their landslide victory.

There is no doubt that our optimism has tended to be a little exaggerated. Individuals and organizations are looking up to the new government to achieve great things in record time. If unchecked with a dose of realism, these expectations could be ready recipe for deep frustration, resentment and cynicism. Just how long the upbeat mood and euphoria that electrified the country in the closing months of 2002 can last is the question in many people's mind.

During the campaigns that led to the memorable victory for NARC and that handed a humiliating defeat to KANU, many who did not quite support the NARC onslaught argued that the party was making promises that they had no intentions of ever realizing. It was argued in some circles that once they got into power, NARC would walk down the same path that KANU had for forty good years.

The New Brooms Are Sweeping Clean

As if to prove its critics wrong, the new NARC government took over leadership with unique gusto and a visible determination to bring about change. They wanted to be seen to be different from the previous regime. After only three months in office, the Kibaki government can boast a modest measure of success in introducing free primary education, tackling graft, regaining donor confidence, rehabilitating street families, reducing police harassment, ridding the city center of hawkers, initiating reforms on the judiciary, opening investigations on the mammoth Goldenberg scandal, reviving the Ouko and the Kaiser inquiries, and putting the Constitution Review Commission back on track. Armed with little more than a will to succeed, the government undertook to start with one of the most expensive of their important campaign promises. The move to implement free primary education surprised even many friends and supporters of the NARC government; they thought that the action was too hasty, unplanned and un-coordinated. With hardly any resources to implement such an ambitious program (it was not in this year's budget) the government decided to give it a go in spite of what was sure to kick up a multitude of "teething problems". And problems there were indeed, to the delight of the perpetual critics and prophets of doom. The government was criticized right and left for rushing into implementing this project and failing to plan and execute it in an orderly manner. To the credit of the new government neither the unwarranted criticism nor the genuine challenges on the ground distracted them from their intended goal. Although many problems and challenges lie ahead, free primary education has worked out much better than many expected, baffling both supporters and critics.

But it has not been easy. Free primary education today is beset with problems as diverse as congestion, lack of physical facilities, policy issues as well as the age of pupils. In one extreme case, a 33-year old man was reported to have enrolled in standard one class full of six-year olds. .

In many schools the facilities are either non-existent or are stretched beyond limits. In many cases, a classroom that was meant for 50 students now accommodates anything up to 150 or more students. Where there are no buildings, learning is taking place in tents or under trees. Teachers, who were already over-worked and under-paid, now have to cope with more than a million extra pupils who have joined school as a result of the free education project. While intake increased dramatically, the number of classrooms, books, and other facilities remained the same. Clearly there have been and there will continue to be problems with the "free education".

In addition to this major undertaking the government has also made commendable progress in a number of other areas most remarkably in stepping up the war against corruption, re-possessing grabbed public land and property, in improving security, and reforming the judiciary. All these have been positive signs of change-the change that Kenyans voted for. These modest changes have happened within the first hundred days of NARC government.

Are Kenyans Really Willing to Change? - Plato's Allegory of the Cave

However commendable these efforts are, there is a serious problem of another type that stands in the way of change in this country. And this is where the Allegory of the Cave comes into play. Like the prisoners in Plato's cave, there are many Kenyans of all walks of life who are not willing or ready to see change. Like the prisoners in the cave, these people must be compelled to embrace change, even if that sounds rather undemocratic. To see the full analogy between the cave and the political situation in Kenya today, let us paint a complete picture of the cave parable as told by that great philosopher of all times.

Variously known as the "Allegory of the Cave", the "Smile of the Cave", the "Parable of the Cave" or just the "Story of the Cave", Plato's imagery of the Cave is as captivating and as interesting today as it was 2,500 years ago when it was first told. Part of its appeal and relevance lies in the fact that the Allegory addresses human nature, a nature that has changed little in the last two thousand years. But let us tell the story from the start.

Plato asks us to imagine an underground cave. In this cave are men who have lived there all their life. Not only have they never seen the light of day, but hey are also chained one to the other in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them on which appear all manner of shadows. These shadows are cast on the wall by puppets carried in front of a large fire behind the prisoners. The prisoners cannot and have never turned their heads to see the fire that has always burned behind them. They are thus unaware of the existence of the fire.

Between them and the fire is a raised path along which people walk. As they do so, they play with puppets and make what the prisoners have come to recognize as familiar noises. Images of people and puppets are cast on the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners, who have never seen or heard anything more than the shadows cast on the wall and the noises made by the people walking on the raised path behind them, come to associate the noise with the pictures they see on the wall. They attribute the different noises to various puppets and believe that the shadows are the true source of the noises that the prisoners hear.

Indeed, some of the prisoners are so good at identifying the succession of the various shadows and their accompanying noises that they are considered the geniuses of the cave. These enjoy a status similar to our own great scientists and Nobel Prize winners.

"Imagine now", says Plato, " that one day a "saviour" comes along and wishes to set the prisoners free and take them out of the cave in which they have lived all their life". How are they likely to react to this gesture?

At first they will resist any such effort, as they clearly and very sincerely believe that the self-proclaimed saviour must be out of his mind to even suggest they should get out of the cave. It is unimaginable that anyone should think that there could be another reality outside of the obvious one: the cave. Despite initial resistance and disappointment, however, the saviour is adamant and not about to give up. He forcefully seizes one of the prisoners, unlocks his shackles, and forces him to turn back and see the fire right there behind him. As expected of a man who has never seen fire in his entire life, the prisoner experiences a burning sensation in his eyes, making it impossible for him to stare at the fire or the things around the fire for any length of time. Tears come to his eyes. But the saviour is ruthless and merciless and will not let the prisoner sink back into his comfort zone. Instead, he drags the prisoner past the fire and compels him to embark on the difficult journey to the outside of the cave, to the world of light.

Because the prisoner's eyes are unaccustomed to seeing the light, the saviour decides to lead him out at night when there is little light and his eyes are likely to hurt less. And so the prisoner first gets to see the outside of the cave at night in the relatively soft light of the stars and the moon. At first he gets to look at the shadows and reflections of things in water. Gradually, he will be able to look at the objects themselves and finally will be able to behold the very sun, the brightest of all things.

Something dramatic happens when the prisoner first beholds the sun. At first, as is to be expected, the prisoner is dazed by what he sees. His eyes, which have seen nothing but darkness all his life, find it difficult to focus on the bright light of the sun and all the things that take such a different shape and reality because they are illuminated by the sun!! However, by degrees, the prisoner is soon able to see the sun and what he beholds is simply beyond description. He is dazzled by what he sees and completely mesmerized by its beauty-a beauty beyond any description. The prisoner wonders how it is possible for anyone to live all his life separated from this ultimate beauty of life. He is so taken in by what he sees, that he is ready to spend the rest of his life in the contemplation and enjoyment of the sun.

But the philosopher is emphatic that the prisoner would be making a grievous mistake if he were to give in to his natural inclination to remain outside the cave in ecstatic celebration of his newfound love. Instead, he must make his way back into the cave. It is his responsibility to lead his former colleagues out of the total darkness of the cave to the bright light of the sun. The philosopher observes that the newly liberated prisoner will at first be reluctant to go back into the cave. For that reason, he must be coerced, for his own good and that of the cave prisoners, to go back into the cave.

What will happen when the prisoner gets back into the cave? There will be a reversal of the process by which he got out of the cave in the first place. While at first he had a problem adjusting to the brightness of the light outside the cave, he will now have to reckon with another adjustment, this time from the light to darkness. Once in the cave, he will have problems seeing clearly. He no longer can see as well as his old colleagues. At this point, the other prisoners will look down on the liberated man and will make a laughing stock of him. Here is a man who left the security of the cave only to venture out and "lose his sight." If he continues to narrate his experiences outside the cave, they will confirm that he has truly gone mad. And if he should persist on affirming a reality or truth higher than what exists in the cave, his former colleagues will turn against him and put the poor man to death (cf. Socrates and Jesus).

The Meaning of the Allegory

So, what is the meaning of this allegory? Fortunately, Plato himself has given us a lead in its interpretation. According to him, this allegory describes the nature of human beings in respect to education or lack of it. The central theme of the allegory is the ascent of man from the darkness of ignorance to the freedom that comes about as a result of grasping the truth.

Plato uses this analogy to depict the nature of men and women whom he describes as prisoners living in this world (the cave). The cave in which the prisoners are found represents the world in which we have lived all our life. Plato compares the fire in the cave to the power of the sun. The prisoner's ascent out of the cave and into the light of the sun as well as the contemplation of the things above, represent the journey of the soul to the intelligible realm. The sun represents the Ideal of the Good, source of all goodness -the summum bonum or the greatest good. In Plato's words:

The idea of the good is the last thing to be seen, and is hardly seen When seen, it must needs point us to the conclusion that this is indeed the cause of all things of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason, and anyone who is to act wisely in private or public must have caught sight of this.1

Thus, the Good is the ultimate goal of knowledge. The journey is not complete until we have arrived here. A man who has laid his eyes on this sun cannot continue to live like he has not seen it.

Naturally, one who has reached this level of enlightenment may be tempted to keep his distance from anyone who is still living in the dark. He may feel nothing but repulsion for the poor, hopeless fellows languishing in the cave and who do not even know their fate. To quote Plato again: "Those who have attained this height may not be willing to occupy themselves with the affairs of men, but their souls ever feel the upward urge and the yearning for that sojourn above.2 However to succumb to this temptation would be to commit intellectual, moral or social suicide.

Have Kenyans Come Out of the Cave?

So, politically, where does Kenya stand in relation to the Cave?

As mentioned above, the journey out of the cave has started in earnest. As a matter of fact, this journey started in the early 1990's when the great desire to see light gave birth to multi-party politics. In the elections of 2002 Kenyans finally completed the walk from the darkness of the cave to the sunshine. However, it would be foolhardy to assume that we have arrived. The truth is that we have only just begun and the road ahead is bound to be very bumpy.

In his inauguration speech, President Mwai Kibaki warned of the many dangers and hurdles that lay ahead. He also called on all Kenyans to take their duty as seriously as he was about to do himself. Said he:

"I am willing to put everything I have got into this job because I regard it as a sacred duty."

And that is the first change that must take place in this country if Kenya is to see change, the change for which we voted. First our leaders, and then all individual Kenyans must change the way they perceive their role in public or private life. We must see our jobs, our careers and our work as a sacred duty. Unfortunately, not many of us have made this most essential change.

A hundred days after this powerful speech was made, many Kenyans are already getting disillusioned with the NARC rule. They are pointing to promises made but not kept. Some argue that although the government has since reiterated its commitment to create 500,000 jobs a year, no new jobs have so far been realized. Indeed, the period under review has been characterized by major industrial unrest, which in some cases, e.g. in the Export Processing Zones, has resulted in sackings and loss of jobs. One may argue that just now there are fewer jobs than when the current government took over.

But perhaps the worst of all developments which shows our leaders to be holed in the cave, is the selfish and completely unjustifiable action recently taken by our representatives. Our Honorable Members of Parliament's very first official duty in the 9th parliament was to vote themselves hefty salaries and allowances while teachers, the police force, nurses and other professionals continue to serve under extremely low salaries and poor terms of service. This action itself, more than any other by the NARC government, reveals clearly the difficulty of getting out of the cave, let alone leading others out.

Our lawmakers are in the cave when they quickly and shamelessly forget the interests of the voters who put them in the august house and immediately put their own interests in the first place. The matter is even more complicated when these people are willing and ready to sacrifice the true interests of the nation such as the creation of an anti-corruption authority in the country if their own selfish demands are not met. Clearly our elected representatives are still in the cave. How will people who themselves are prisoners lead the rest of us out of the cave? The tragedy is that they are not even aware that they are indeed prisoners. Like the prisoners in Plato's cave, they are convinced that the cave is the only reality and if anyone else should suggest anything to the contrary such a one must be out of his senses. Talk of the irony of situations.

Lesson? It is extremely difficult to get out of the cave. In the first place, in life, most of us have already found our level (comfort zone) and do not see the need to do better. We are happy and contented with who we are and with what we do. We see no need to start experimenting with new, albeit better ways of doing things. Those who are used to a corrupt way of doing business do not see the need to change and do things differently, especially when that means losing their benefits. Why change when I am perfectly happy with who I am and with what I do?

Secondly, even where one is willing to change for the better, the path out of the cave is never easy. There are many temptations and obstacles along the path. Sometimes, even our very own friends knowingly or unknowingly throw obstacles in our path to ensure we remain in the cave. Many people are too contented with what they have in life to be bothering about doing better or getting further. This in itself is a major problem. It is responsible for the mediocrity we see in our society today where few people are very keen to excel and rise above the average. The absence of excellence or the desire for excellence is the true mark of a people who still live in the cave.

Instead of shining and doing an excellent job of making laws that would turn the economy of this country around, our honorable Members of Parliament concentrate on filling their own stomachs. They are completely oblivious of the millions of people in this country who are not even guaranteed a square meal a day. With hundreds at the risk of starvation due to severe drought in Northern Baringo, and instead of rushing food and other urgent aid to these and other people in Kenya, our representatives are busy approving themselves fat salaries and car loans of Ksh. 3.3 million!

What could be more ridiculous than the MP of the starving people showing up in a Pajero Intercooler to attend the funerals of his constituents who have died from starvation knowing very well that the price of one such Pajero was enough to avert catastrophe and save human life? Just how long shall we and our leaders continue to live in the pitch darkness of the cave?


  1. The Republic Book VII, 517C.
  2. Ibid.

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