Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Fine Romance, Part One: Lusting after His Hotness

If I had a thousand shillings for every man I have come across who has expressed a desire to run for elective office, I could afford a music system for my car by now. Come to think of it, maybe I should charge a thousand shillings to listen to guys tell me about their political aspirations. No charge at all for the women who confess to a desire for office: hell, I'll pay to hear about it!

Okay, now that I have gotten my feminist dig in, lets get to the crux: what motivates people to enter into formal politics? With each individual, how much of that political drive is based in vanity, a need to please, the craving for adulation, a true belief in public service, ambition, a desire for power, a quest for riches, idealism, a realistic understanding of individual agency? In brief: why the hell are they getting into the snake-oil business?

One thing that disappoints me about political commentary and discourse in my fair land is the fact that we ignore the complexities of the individuals playing the political game. It is limiting, since politicians, like regular humans, have been known to respond to more stimuli than bribes/and or a fixation with Nyerere-ist philosophy.

Case in point: those of us in the chattering probably know more about Barack Obama's daddy issues than we do about what makes Jay Kay twitch. We have a blind spot with our President. Where are the competing biographies on the 'Father of the Nation'- and I don't mean the polite official drivel about how great a dude he was. Where is the personality-mining on Mkapa, on Mwinyi? This is our contemporary history. If we don't respect it, we don't respect ourselves.

I love to observe incumbents struggle with the gap between their belief in how much power they have to change society, and the reality that social change is a hairy and fiendishly difficult beast to grapple- even for a head of state. Change for bad is easy. Change for good? Ha! Watching a leader struggle with complex problems (like genuine poverty alleviation) has got to be one of the best ways to judge a leader.

In 2005, Jay Kay blew in on an 80% victory magic carpet propelled by his charisma. Never mind that there was no viable alternative offered by the opposition: Kikwete literally seduced the Tanzanian electorate. For the first year or so of his presidency, the press- utterly infatuated- wrote about him with the devotion of a star-struck teenager in the throes of her first love. Critical faculties country-wide were shut down as we found that we could not adore him enough.

In spite of this ridiculous fervor, it was a pragmatic decision. Here was a guy who has spent his whole life working for The Establishment- and I don't mean in the shallow, self-serving way that currently passes for 'nationalism.' He radiates that tough-love, old-school, Tanzania-first kind of populism that we've been thirsting for after Mwinyi (too accommodating) and Mkapa (too aloof). He smartly manipulated us by appealing to our nostalgic hankering for a Nyerere-style Big Papa. So we flocked into his loving arms. Who else was gonna give us the man-of-the-people, hip, good times vibe that this 'young' candidate was promising? Charisma will get you everywhere.

But, this is politics. It was irresponsible of us to try and cannonize* him, hoping that he might have the god-like powers to banish the monsters in the closet: poverty, social differences, crime, corruption, the pain of daily human life. Just as it is irresponsible of us now to lash out at him for not being God: no chickens in every hand-basket, no total overhaul of a deeply corrupt system (which is only reflecting a social ill), no miraculous railroads all over the countryside... And so, the disenchantment that is borne out of unrealistic expectations- particularly visible in the fickle press- is as fierce and retributive as the anger of a jilted lover. I believe we can do better.

*Some folks are trying to get Nyerere sainted in the Catholic church. Really? I may be lapsed, but even I don't have the balls to cynically mingle the sacred and the profane in this manner.

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