“When I went out there to participate in the  nomination process, I didn’t see you. I saw some edgy looking desperadoes, some over excited zealots and loads of house helps, cooks, watchmen & gardeners walking, riding (and in some cases being bussed) into polling centers where they waited and voted. I saw a few of you more conscientious ones nervously make your way but I didn’t see you jam the centers as you jam Ngong road during “Sevens”.

“I didn’t see you bring out the picnic baskets and the swag (fluffy dogs and all) like you do at “Blankets”. I didn’t see you scrummage as you do when there’s a huge artist’s concert at Impala Club or some other place. The simple reason is: You are more willing to read this online than to go out and vote.”

These words were penned by influential Kenyan musician Pete Odera in his open letter to his fellow countrymen, primarily (SOME OF ) the middle class, a direct salvo in response to the poor turnout of this so called influential class in the recent regional election nominations.

Odera’s words have stirred a social media hornet’s nest, because he has dared to challenge the relative apathy and ‘let them eat cake’ attitude of a percentage of Kenya’s growing ‘affluencers’.

The truth is that this same ‘could care less’ attitude to politics and change in Africa seems to be spreading across Africa’s middle class (please note, not all middle class Africa is disengaged in politics, some are infact very active), and the worry is that if the growing percentage of affluent Africa cannot and will not participate in our democratic processes which have afforded us our current economic and social freedoms, we will find ourselves slipping right back into the  hands of maniacal despots and uneducated dictators.

Firstly, who is the Africa’s middle class ‘affluencer?

Nigerian writer Kenenth Amaeshi gives a succinct description of the type of individual who makes up the the middle class phenomenon in Africa:

S/He might have lived abroad at some point in time and still has frequent opportunities to migrate beyond the shores of Africa.  Often times, he is materially and financially more advantaged than the average (African) in the diaspora.  His typical lifestyle would include a year long season ticket to premiership games, business class flights on business trips and first class flights to exotic locations.  His wife no doubt shares his flair for all things western. Her pastimes include catching up on Oprah WinfreyTyra Banks, and Loose Women. Their children are in private schools, with the hope of being transformed into westernised idols and icons.

S/He would probably work for a bank, a telecoms firm, an oil and gas company, or is a self-made entrepreneurs in some knowledge-based industry. The Nigerian for example – when you talk to them, they tell you that Nigeria is the place to make the big bucks. But this is where their attachment to Nigeria ends. Aside this, they remain aloof and disconnected from all the goings-on in Nigeria.  Did they even register to vote? And if they registered, would they vote?

So, what’s the problem?

Fear of sunburn or mere laziness?
It seems that some of Africa’s middle class citizens are more interested in keeping their hair dry and their skin from tanning further, so they avoid the 2-3 hour waits in polling lines usually at stations lacking sufficient shelter, entertainment to pass the boring wait or general cleanliness. ‘It’s just ‘not the thing to do’, I’ve heard some say in Nairobi. (The paradox is that voting for the right government could mean a future, more comfortable change in the process itself.)

Others just can’t be bothered with local politics. Mind you they’ll glue their eyes on CNN to catch Michelle Obama’s gown choice for the inauguration ball and be conversant with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer’s latest commentaries.

‘They can give you a minute by minute analysis of the UK and U.S. by-elections, based of course, on their regular BBC and CNN channel feeds. Yet, they often know close to nothing about the parties and candidates contesting in their local wards.’

This political snobbishness is partly arrogant but also partly ignorant. If we can’t give back to the countries we become part of the problem, not the solution.

“Foolish and lazy but clever educated and honest people like you, are outdone by wily, uneducated and dishonest people because you do not have the guts or patience to wait in the same sun that your house help, cook, watchman & gardener are willing to brave to express their political opinion,” Odera chides, rather strongly too.

He also notes that those the middle class  pay to do menial work – the  house helps, cooks, watchmen and gardeners are voting in whoever they like because they are more politically engaged and are more willing to bring change than the middle class is. What therefore happens is what Odera has termed ‘the folly of democracy – where an qualified candidate can lose to a popular under-qualified candidate.

Obama withdrawals?
Is it our political leaders who can’t engage and inspire like Obama did (did the O-Man spoil it for every other less monied politician) or are we simply waiting for a social media savvy, ‘Yes We Can Africa’ type  saviour, to meet our  unshakably westernised tastes and preferences for digitally driven campaigns that capture our entertainment-addicted imagination?

Problem is, if we don’t engage in the voting process, we won’t be able to cultivate the education/financial/political environment to ‘grow’ and nurture the inspiring, ingenious type of leader who could be capture the vision of Africans, if not of the entire world, now and in the future.

‘On the few occasions when they engage in political discourse, they know what is wrong with Nigeria and what could be good for the country, yet for reasons best known to them, they do not want to be part of the solution. As the proverbial underground animal, they have created escape routes in case Nigeria goes bad at any time. They have multiple nationalities – are their children not American and or European citizens? In sum, they are prone to behave like locusts and feed on Nigeria as parasites. It is this detachment that is overly worrying.’ (Amaeshi)

So, why should Africa’s affluencers participate in politics?

S/He has a global view
Given the global reach of their mindset, the average middle class resident African is usually de-tribalised. He constitutes a potential powerful force to re-balance the political dynamics and landscape, only if he could be meaningfully engaged.

He’s also seen and understood of powerful political campaigns like Obama’s – that have utilised digital strategies that  harnessed the massive database of supporters’ emails and volunteer-led armies on the ground to glavanise the people. He could lend his/her knowledge to existing political groups on how to improve their political issues messaging.

What’s interesting is that were it not for Obama’s middle class volunteers – teachers, businessmen, doctors, nurses, lawyers – who dropped their tools to knock door to door to garner support, Obama would probably not have made it into the White House.

His/Her resources can be put to good use 
His/her votes are not likely to be bought, since he is to a large extent financially self sufficient. He can serve as a credible link between the top and the bottom of the (Africa’s) polity. He can afford to hold the political class accountable. He can add rigour and vibrancy to the demands of the grass-root political activists. His mind offers a very fertile ground to sow the seed of ideology driven politics.

S/He simply has a duty to be a citizen and to vote
Voting is simply a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform e.g. taxation, compulsory education, jury duty. It teaches the benefits of political participation and parliaments can then reflect more accurately the “will of the electorate”. Your vote and participation (and therefore all of  the electrolate) holds the government up to a stricter standard – it ensures that governments consider the majority if not the total electorate in policy formulation and management. In fact. I’m all for compulsory voting – which works wonderfully in countries like Australia – the result of which is  candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll.

Yet a swathe of Africa’s affluencers remain passive and aloof …

Amaeshi asks, what will wake this sleeping giant amongst us? Definitely, not the old generation politicians who strive on the political patronage of god-fatherism with no ideological bent. These politicians are mere political prostitutes who epitomise the grand principle of the oldest trade: “money for hand, back for ground”.

If you’re reading this, you probably have access to great Internet, you live more comfortably than most Africans – you’re an affluencer, and you have a voice.

So please use your influence:

For a just a few hours, give up your hot date, your birthday party, your coffee with a girlfriends, your drinks and your hairdressing appointment for the future of this great continent.

Sacrifice your feet: walk them to the polling booths and FORGET the sun’s heat and the inconvenience to your busy schedule and VOTE!

Tweet, facebook, use that blackberry, urge your colleagues through linkedin to enrol in a party and get INVOLVED – BE PART OF THE SOLUTION!)

The alternative is almost too painful to think about.

Like Odera somberly surmises in relation to Kenya, “If Dedan Kimathi, Kungu Karumba, Achieng’ Oneko and the other independence heroes had your attitude and sat on the sidelines the Brits would still be here! Yes, we’d still be a British colony.”

_____________________________________________

Sources:

Pete Odera is an accomplished and well-respected musician and minister, a household name in his native Kenya who laid the  foundation for contemporary Gospel Music in East Africa. He’s also an excellent social observer. Read the full, thought provoking post he wrote - http://peteodera.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/dear-nairobis-middle-class/

Kenneth Amaeshi, Guardian Newspapers: Monday, 11 April 2011 -http://kennethamaeshi.wordpress.com.

Images: Of Garden City, by Actis, slated to be the largest and most innovative retail mall in East Africa. It will be a large mixed-use development on Nairobi’s Thika Highway, occupying 32 acres with a primary catchment area of 1.5 million people. http://gardencity-nairobi.com/

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