June 23, 2024


The statement “To thine own self be true” emphasizes the importance of personal principles and individual truth.

More by Waweru Njoroge

The Perilous Hypocrisy of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in Kenyan Politics

The Perilous Hypocrisy of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in Kenyan Politics

Image courtesy Colter Reed

When Polonius famously implored Laertes in Hamlet to, “to thine own self be true,” it was meant as sage wisdom – a call to live with integrity and authenticity. However, when scrutinized more closely, this statement can reveal a darker, more self-serving undercurrent.

In our quest for individuality and self-affirmation, it can become a convenient excuse for ignoring the needs and perspectives of others, as well as our societal responsibilities. This tendency is particularly damaging when examined in the context of governance, where the personal ambitions and hypocrisies of politicians can have widespread consequences.

The Illusion of Virtue

The statement “To thine own self be true” emphasizes the importance of personal principles and individual truth. It suggests that our own esteem and values should guide our actions, above all else. While this idea promotes admirable qualities such as truth, self-ownership, and individuality, it can also mask a fundamental vice: selfishness.

This phrase can be misused to justify actions that prioritize personal gain over collective well-being. It’s a mantra that can foster complacency rather than resilience, as it encourages individuals to focus solely on themselves. In the realm of politics, this self-centered approach can be particularly dangerous.

The Allure of Self-Centered Governance

When examining governance, particularly within the Kenyan context, “to thine own self be true,” intersects intriguingly with James Herbert’s quote, “Never underestimate the hypocrisy of politicians.” Few quotes resonate more profoundly than this admonition – a stark reminder of the often duplicitous nature of political behavior. Indeed, the gulf between politicians’ carefully crafted public personas and their actual conduct is often so vast, it begs the question of whether they truly believe in anything beyond the pursuit of power.

When leaders prioritize their own beliefs and desires above the collective good, the consequences can be detrimental. In Kenya, the political landscape is rife with examples of leaders who, while publicly championing the needs of the people, are privately driven by personal interests and self-preservation. From corruption scandals to legislative self-interest, Kenyan leaders have repeatedly twisted “to thine own self be true” into an excuse for reprehensible conduct.

Hypocrisy in Kenyan Politics

This “true self” they portray is often a facade, concealing deep hypocrisies that belie their publicly stated values and campaign promises made to attain power. Their supposed authenticity rings hollow when their deeds consistently contradict their words and the people’s interests.

Take the case of former President Daniel Arap Moi, who emerged preaching respect for human rights, rule of law, and an end to tribalism. In reality, his 24-year kleptocratic rule was marked by gross human rights abuses, ethnic favoritism, and massive corruption that enriched his inner circle at the expense of the nation. Moi seemed to resolve the quandary of public opinion by simply disregarding it completely to indulge in his authentic self-interest and preserve power through repression.

Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, also exhibited remarkable hypocrisy after being elected on a reform and anti-corruption platform. Kibaki’s “true self” turned out to be deeply entangled in mega scandals like Anglo Leasing while he subverted the constitution through excessive executive powers. The perceived condemnation and majority opinion demanding real change were conveniently ignored.

During his tenure, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s anti-graft rhetoric on the campaign trail starkly clashed with scandals like the looting of billions at the National Youth Service that implicated his allies. His family’s vast unexplained wealth also seemed at odds with his anti-corruption posturing. Yet Kenyatta remained unmoved, portraying himself as authentically committed to prosperity for all Kenyans while primarily serving his inner circle’s interests.

President William Ruto, elected on the platform of the “hustler” narrative, promised to champion the rights and advancement of the ordinary Kenyan. However, his wealth and lifestyle starkly contrast with the image of a humble public servant. His narrative, appealing to the marginalized, is seen by many as a strategic ploy to galvanize support, while his personal wealth accumulation remains unexplained. This stark contrast between his public persona and private affluence underscores the pervasive hypocrisy in his political rhetoric.

The legislative realm is another breeding ground for such hypocritical self-portrayal. Take the case of MPs’ insensitive push to increase their allowances and benefits amidst the economic hardship caused by COVID-19. While ordinary citizens grappled with joblessness, pay cuts and medical costs, the political elite prioritized enriching themselves. Their justification? They were simply being “true to themselves” as an entitled ruling class, afforded privileges that the masses cannot fathom. What of the majority opinion that lawmakers should tighten their belts and stand in solidarity with the people? Those concerns were conveniently ignored as inexpedient

The Finance Bill Protests: Patience and Attitude in Focus

At this juncture, allow me to digress for a bit: Kenya has recently seen a wave of demonstrations, with Gen Z taking to the streets under the banner of #RejectFinanceBill2024. This movement, driven by frustration and disillusionment, centers around the proposed Finance Bill, which many feel unfairly burdens the ordinary citizen while leaving the political elite unscathed. Imam Ali’s poignant words, “Two things define you: Your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything,” resonate deeply within this context, encapsulating the stark divide between Kenyan politicians and the wananchi.

For the youth of Kenya, particularly Gen Z, patience has long been a defining characteristic. They have endured economic hardships, unemployment, and systemic neglect, holding on to hope for a better future. However, the proposed Finance Bill, perceived as a blatant disregard for their struggles, has been the tipping point. The patience of those who have nothing has run dry, manifesting in a fervent demand for change. The demonstrations are not just about opposing a bill; they are a cry for acknowledgment, equity, and justice from a generation that feels perpetually marginalized.

On the other side of the divide stand the politicians, who seem to be ensconced in their positions of power and privilege. Their attitude towards the proposed Finance Bill, and indeed towards the demonstrators, appears indifferent at best and dismissive at worst. For them, having everything seems to have fostered a detachment from the realities faced by the majority of Kenyans. The widening gap between the rulers and the ruled is starkly evident. While the politician’s debate and decide on policies from the comfort of their well-furnished offices, the youth take to the streets, facing tear gas and arrests, fighting for a voice in the nation’s future.

The #OccupyParliament movement underscores a critical juncture in Kenya’s socio-political landscape. It is a reminder that governance must be inclusive and empathetic. The impatience of the youth, driven by the constant erosion of their economic prospects and the increasing cost of living, stands in stark contrast to the seemingly complacent attitude of those in power. The Finance Bill has become a symbol of a broader discontent with a system that appears rigged against the average citizen.

Imam Ali’s quote serves as a powerful lens through which to view this situation. It calls on leaders to reflect on their attitudes and the impact of their decisions on those they govern. It also emboldens the youth, affirming that their fight for fairness and recognition is both just and necessary. The protests are a call to action for a more equitable and responsive governance structure, one that recognizes the aspirations and struggles of all its citizens, not just the privileged few.

The Runaway Hypocrisy Toll

So where does this leave ‘Wanjiku’? A deep cynicism settles in with each broken promise and hypocritical act of the political class. Yet citizens are trapped in a vicious cycle, still turning out to vote based on empty rhetoric, clinging to the hope that the next leader will be the exception who stays true to their convictions. The facade is maintained by giving the people just enough table scraps of their expectations to keep their faith alive.

Perhaps the most pernicious impact is how this dynamic undermines the very moral fabric of society. If the highest authorities consistently demonstrate a conscience-free approach of doing whatever is expedient, it provides a justification for citizens to also simply be “true to themselves” in disregarding ethics, the law, and the public good. Hypocrisy becomes a self-perpetuating societal plague.

In the end, James Herbert’s warning should echo through every political movement and campaign trail in Kenya. The true test is not in the lofty rhetoric, but in the actual exercise of power. Do our leaders remain true to their espoused principles and cause, or does the siren call of privilege and expedience reveal their “true self” to be just another contradiction wrapped in lies? Until hypocrisy is consistently condemned rather than rewarded at the ballot box, Kenya’s governance will remain an endless cycle of disappointment.

The Path to Renewal

The interplay between the Shakespearean exhortation to “be true to oneself” and Herbert’s caution against political hypocrisy provides a critical lens through which to view Kenyan governance. The inescapable truth is that the Kenyan citizenry bears the brunt of such self-absorbed hypocrisies – denied critical funds for development, divided along ethnic lines, and betrayed by broken promises that erode public trust.

For Kenyan democracy to regain its health, the political elite must rediscover an ethic of service over narcissistic self-absorption. Of putting the interests and wellbeing of the nation ahead of the personal and the tribal. The bar for restoring credibility lies in Kenyan politicians realigning their public rhetoric and private conduct – demonstrating true fidelity to the values they profess rather than twisted fidelity to self that fuels a perpetual cycle of disillusionment.

It requires rejecting the decadent notion that “being true to oneself” is an excuse for abdicating responsibility to the people. Instead, embodying the truest definition of that phrase by adhering unshakably to principles of integrity, justice and transformative leadership in advancing the public good – regardless of personal cost or inconveniences to the self.

Only then can the deepening disconnect between rulers and the citizenry be bridged. Only then can “thine own self” be realigned with the greater national self whose interests and prosperity any true leader should hold sacrosanct. It is the only path to restoring public trust and realizing Kenya’s immense potential.


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