I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series centering on the struggle by various political dynasties to succeed to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms in the fictional land of Westeros. Now in its seventh season, the various plot twists and turns, the rise and fall of the fortunes of characters keeps me glued to the TV whenever it’s on. Missing any of the weekly episodes, or even having to wait months for the next season to start is an anathema.
In a way, my angst is reflected in the reactions this week to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip the Presidential Debates. Politics is Kenya’s version of Westeros, complete with skullduggery, moral nudity, incestuous liaisons and, of course, a throne all covet, fear or manipulate. We revel in the gladiatorial contests for power between scions of political dynasties, in the intrigues and betrayals, in the gore and mayhem. As I have written before, and as was reiterated by Dr Wandia Njoya and Dr Peter Kagwanja in this week’s edition of the Cheche show on Citizen TV, our politics is a show put on by politicians that has little to do with addressing the everyday struggles of ordinary folks. In fact, it is meant to distract attention from those very problems.
There is an implicit compact. We will be content to ignore the fundamental questions and issues facing our polity so long as our politicians do the dance. The rhetorical contests of election campaigns, manifestos and TV debates are the stuff of this performance which plays out on our TV screens and on political dais across the nation. It is this compact that President Kenyatta violated.
What was promised was a no-holds barred, blood-on-the-floor cage match with the media providing the stage and acting as both promoter and referee. After weeks of priming and waiting, we had taken our ringside seats, enjoyed the curtain raisers in the form of the debate between the three of the other six candidates and were waiting for the headline event which was to pit the President against his main challenger, Raila Odinga. Thus the disappointment and anger was palpable, even within supporters of his Jubilee Party, when the reigning champion failed to turn up.
What we instead got was a tepid performance of shadow boxing, where Raila, alone on stage, ducked, weaved and parried the moderator’s poor attempts to pin him down. In the end, we learnt little that was of value, that we didn’t already know. But that is not why we were there. Few in the audience were particularly interested in the intricacies of policy and in understanding how NASA or Jubilee would pay for the fantastical promises of brand-new stadia, roads and free everything. We wanted blood and gore and broken teeth and spilled guts.
This is show we had paid for with our stolen taxes and our enduring poverty and oppression. It is what we had sacrificed our pensions, health and children’s futures for. And we’d been had. We were left feeling short-changed and vented our rage in bars, meeting places, TV screens and on social media, always careful to couch it in the acceptable language of accountability.
We have, we will keep saying disingenuously, been denied the opportunity to question our leaders, to hold them to account, to understand the issues on which the election campaigns are supposedly being waged. But this is not true and we know it. The manifestos are online if we want to interrogate them. Nothing stops us debating the issues and demanding that the media reflect them in the questions they pose to candidates and politicians and not be fobbed off with non-answers. As Dr Kagwanja asked, “What are Kenyans lacking?” The truth is we had been denied a show, a performance.
What we should ponder is less whether the President should have turned up and more why we engage in this charade. Politics and political debates should be about much more than entertainment and should definitely be about finding real solutions to our very real problems. Not a distraction from them. We already have Game of Thrones for that.