Welcoming and Sending Off President Kibaki
I am trying to summon a feeling of elation because I have just been informed my president, His Excellency Hon Mwai Kibaki, is coming to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, also known in Kenya’s Foreign Ministry parlance as UNGA. Elation is the most appropriate feeling whenever there is an opportunity to welcome and meet one’s president. The presidency is, quintessentially, the soul of a nation. It embodies the nation’s spirit. The presidency epitomizes all that we cherish, our hopes and our pride, our dignity. For me, the presidency inspires a picture of an institution and a personality endowed with unrivaled political imagination, unequalled leadership zeal, a love for his people and a great vision for the country’s future.
Add to this, the president’s visit, this time around, is the last he will be making to the UN General Assembly as president of Kenya. It is also, possibly, the last time he will be meeting the Kenyan Diaspora in North America, as the man who has led our country for the last decade. Yes, my feelings towards this visit should be profound excitement and an emotional journey down the road about this politician’s career that culminated in his rise to lead our great nation. Like some years back when the late Julius Nyerere was retiring as Tanzania’s president and he literally had to plead for a stop to the flow of gifts from his countrymen, this should be an occasion for showering our retiring head of state with honors and accolades as he retreats to his palatial home in Naro Moru.
However, I have attempted to crank up that excitement but I am experiencing a hard start. While I should encourage us, as the Diaspora, to bestow all the honors on this president, I feel it is more appropriate to revisit and reflect on lapses that gnaw at my heart, lapses that should not occur because they debase our presidency and our pride in the institution.
As His Excellency’s plane takes off from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, my hope is that it will fly over the smouldering killing fields of Tana River where skirmishes between the Orma and the Pokomo have left nearly a hundred people, including national security personnel, dead. No amount of rationalization can heal the wounds left by this senseless mayhem. Yeah, there was the usual chorus of sentiment from politicians, the usual technical statements explaining government positions. Bottom line is, the executive, and the president, in particular, could have done more to mitigate the tragedy by acting decisively on the first report of the fight. Consider that the powers and resources at a president’s disposal are enormous. Taking a helicopter for the one hour flight to visit the killing fields and to empathize with the victims requires no great effort on the part of the president. Letting a few heads roll because of those security lapses and sending a message of zero tolerance for miscarriage of duty and for violence needed little fork-lifting work.
Presidents the world over, understand they represent the emotional soul of their people. In the last few months, and, as always, President Obama has visited every US disaster site and expressed sympathy for the victims at the earliest opportunity. When a gunman struck and killed twelve people at a movie theater in Colorado, he spent a day talking directly with the victims one on one, each family at a time. He was in Joplin, Missouri quickly following the tornado that destroyed homes and displaced families. He has been to mining disaster sites, oil spill sites etc. These are not idle indulgences for a head of state. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera plucked the hearts of his countrymen, a year ago, when he played field marshal on the front, spending nights at the Atacama Desert site during the rescue efforts for mine workers trapped in a mine and bear hugging the rescued workers when they came out after months inside a dark hole. Presidents are right for their jobs when they demonstrate, in their actions, empathy and concern for the plights of their citizens, when they show they are a take-charge executive dedicated to flag and country right down to dirt level. So, Mr President, the people of Tana River are grieving, as are all Kenyans. As I contemplate coming to the Town Hall meeting at Teacher House in New York, I wonder if that national healing event that should have been scheduled for Hola in Tana River was left gaping for your attention. I grieve about that child in the picture with severe burn wounds that she will live with the rest of her life. I can forgo my joy for your graceful presence in New York for the assurance that you will visit and talk directly to that child as you go back home.
Take my word, this is not a blame journal. I love my president. I enjoy his disarming sense of humor. This, though, is not a broadside against the president. It is a reflection about the presidency as an institution. This is a call for a transformative evaluation of our presidency, a drive to make it an institution that can dispassionately function with the latitude of the powers available to it, and with flexibility and effectiveness through changing milieus and scenarios. We have lived with a “queen-bee” model of a presidency, protected by drones and largely untouchable, for far too long. I long for a presidency endowed with the institutional breadth and capacity to leverage deep and well researched positions on social, economic, human and all other issues, not a pared down institution comprising a presidential press service, state comptroller and security servicemen. Countymen, I think we can shape and modernize our presidency for an adaptable model that will placate our fears, console us, heal our wounds and decisively provide direction on unpredictable occurences, a presidency that will each time say, anytime tragedy strikes, never again!
As his planes takes off from Kenyan soil, I hope the president will be carrying his briefs and subject matter folders. I hope he will be reading about the nullification of the Anti-Corruption Authority chief executive’s appointment. I hope he will be reflecting on the shifting sands of governance. That he will be thinking, “…Hmmm, it is not right until it is right”. I hope he will be making a to-do list for the sunset of his presidency. I hope that list will be shaped by the acceptance that we have reached a new governance plateau, an era of the rule of law, of good governance. That muscle and bustle don’t do it anymore. That the law is sacrosanct, and that legacy is about setting the right templates as he goes home. Such lapses and errors of omission that led to the nullification of Matemu’s appointment ill-become the institution of the presidency. Internal institutional audit and corrective systems, if they are in place, should prevent lapses that debase our presidency from occurring. The presidency should be a symbol of perfection, yes, almost infallibility, because it is an institution, not a person. It is capable of having the benefit of institutional development and transformation, and the resources to do so.
Yes, I hope he will be reading about chaotic strikes and about those facing hunger and homelessness. I hope he will remember the story of Lokopura Louwa, the 80 year old Turkana woman who died of hunger last year even as we took pride over rates of national growth. I hope he will read, too, about those policy lacunae that occasion carnage on the roads. Yes, I want us to give His Excellency all the bestowals that he deserves, the gifts, and, the accolades. I know he deserves them. I know we will be expecting his memoirs in return and that we will continue to benefit from his wisdom about developing a modern institution of the presidency. Wishing you a happy retirement, Mr President…
By William Yimbo
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