The economists today rule the countries-FrMar-By TEE NGUGI (email the author) -Posted Saturday, June 23 2012 at 20:27 -At the funeral of George Saitoti a few days ago, eulogy after eulogy described him as a man endowed with a great intellect.
Eulogies — by their nature — are suspect historical records. But the brilliance of the late internal security minister is a documented fact.
He possessed a PHD in mathematics from a major university and, for a number of years, taught the subject as a professor at the University of Nairobi.
I think it was Plato who opined that society would be better governed if philosophers became kings.
In ancient Greece, philosophers were the most intellectually gifted people — men like Socrates — who spent their lives reflecting on, and teaching, subjects ranging from astronomy to ethics, logic to mathematics.
Plato’s assumption was that these men would bring their considerable intellectual and moral endowments to bear on the socio-political organisation of society, thus propelling it to a higher order of existence.
As I listened to the eulogies, I thought back to Plato’s contention and asked myself : As a man who had held key positions in government, had Saitoti’s brilliance impacted on Kenyan society in the manner envisaged by Plato?
Tragically, the answer — in my view – is “no.” As a matter of fact, once he entered politics, Saitoti sounded and behaved just like any other Kenyan politician.
As vice president in the oppressive Kanu regime, he showed no special understanding of the clamour for change.
In fact, his pronouncements had shades of the searing sycophancy of Oloo Aringo ( Oh, the Prince of Peace; Behold, a Daniel come to judgement ...) or the crude threats of a Shariff Nassir ( mpende , msipende — like it or not...)
Even the reform commission he headed at the height of the clamour for democracy was really designed to buy time for the regime.
Asks Sunday Nation columnist Gitau Warigi: “What I never could fathom in him was why a man of his exposure could put up uncomplainingly and for so long with the ramshackle enterprise we know as Nyayoism...”
His oft-quoted statement — “There come[s] a time when the nation is more important than an individual” — should have been spoken at the height, and in support, of the clamour for multiparty politics.
Instead he made it — without a sense of irony — when his own presidential ambitions were shunted aside by a party he had faithfully served without complaint, even when it was clear it had no agenda beyond megalomania and grand larceny.
In both the Moi and Kibaki administrations, Saitoti showed no particular zeal to fight corruption.
The multibillion-shilling Goldenberg corruption scandal happened when he was in charge of the finance ministry, and its equivalent in the Kibaki era — Anglo Leasing — while he was a key member of the government. But, of course, Saitoti’s situation — that of a great intellect reduced to mediocrity and worse — was not unique to him. Since the return of multiparty politics, brilliant men and women have made it to parliament or government, but has their presence has injected moral and intellectual value in our socio-political culture? It has not.
The quality of debate in parliament — in terms of research, articulation, sincerity — has remained the same. Implementation of policy is still characterised by ineptitude as witness, for example, the underutilisation of the budgets of several ministries.
Tribalism, corruption, etc, still dog departments run by professors of political science, lawyers of international repute, graduates of famous universities.
This problem is not even uniquely Kenyan — it would seem to be an African ailment. Take, for instance, Robert Mugabe — brilliant and eloquent, yet a man now mentioned in the same breath as Mobutu.
Or Kwame Nkrumah, gifted polemicist, author of several books on philosophy and politics, and the man who created an elaborate cult of personality around which his dictatorship was organised.
Or President Leopold Sedar Senghor, who arguably is the best poet Africa has ever produced, yet you would never have known it by looking at his misrule of Senegal. Or Doctor Kamuzu Banda... you get the drift.
Clearly, Plato had not reckoned with the vexatious contradictions of Africa when he proposed the transformative possibilities of philosopher kings.
Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi
The East African