What are our leaders reading? Some may read nothing at all, if you see the bare desks and shelves in the offices some parade on Twitter and Instagram. 

Many, though, read the softer stuff of motivational literature. I saw a recent example, as Sabina Chege was being gingerly placed in the back seat of her limousine, shortly after she was allegedly assaulted in the National Assembly by erstwhile colleagues. I noticed that Sabina Chege had a copy of a book by Brian Tracy; “Speak to Win: How to Present with Power in Any Situation” in her car. I soon found out that Mr. Tracy’s oeuvre includes “Earn What You’re Really Worth”, “Eat That Frog!, No Excuses!”, “The Power of Self-Discipline” and “The Psychology of Achievement.” Which got me wondering, what books are our politicians carrying about with them for inspiration, guidance or comfort? And what does this tell us about our leadership?

Starting at the top, it is my assumption the go-to book of President William Ruto would obviously be The Bible, but which book of the Gospel finds the most favour? When I was at school, the Holy Ghost Fathers favoured Luke, and particularly the Sermon on the Plain. The meek shall inherit the earth is as seditious a statement as they get, but I know it’s not as popular these days as the biblical invocations to get rich or die trying.

Whenever you see footage of a politician’s bookshelves heaving with books in the background, try and squint to identify titles. As you are what you eat, the same applies to what you read. I am particularly interested in the genre of non-fiction, non-biographical works which purport to have discovered some inner secret to the world we live in. 

One title I keep coming across whenever politicians reading tastes are discussed is by Napoleon Hill. Think and Grow Rich. I first heard of this book during the 1992 general elections when the title was adopted as the slogan of the Party of Independent Candidates of Kenya. They had liberally pasted stickers on every car parking meter in all towns.

I should explain. A car parking meter was a coin operated timer that allowed you to pay for a single parking space at a time without human intervention. I can’t remember the rates but it seems incredible to me now that there was a time you could have thousands of meters all over Kenya, essentially full of cash, and they weren’t broken into.

But I digress. Napoleon Hill’s best seller is the exemplar of the feel-good, positive thinking movement, which spawned self-help pop-psychology, guru publishing as a major global business. The beauty of this form of self-publication is that anyone can write a best seller if they have a great hook in their story, an early tragedy stoically overcome for example, and a booster with public credibility; for example a church. It doesn’t matter that you are a notorious con artist, as Napoleon was eventually revealed to be.

Donald Trump’s only successful business apart from the Apprentice was publishing self-help books like the Art of The Deal and other bunk. I have seen this drivel on bookshelves in Nairobi’s C-Suites and Parliamentary offices. But it can go further. Napoleon’s adherents eventually congregated around a church  run by Pastor Norman Vincent Peale, where the gospel occupies close to no place in their services. Peale was also author of the best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. His sermons were really motivational speechifying a la Joel Osteen.

I have nothing against self-improvement; whether it is self-esteem, speaking skills or confidence boosting. But I remember a time when bookshelves of our leadership carried the weight of heavier material. Some never forgave Wanguhu Ng’ang’a for giving Daniel Moi a copy of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. In their counterfactual future, Moi would not otherwise have ever come across this classic manual for ruthlessly attaining and retaining power. “Could be, could be not” as my nephew likes to say, but Wanguhu’s gift tells us something about that era of Kenyan politics.

In the halcyon days of independence, politicians were prone to claim an ideological bent. Wanguhu was a lecturer at the Lumumba Institute, a short-lived KANU party political school, and his gift to Moi was within a practice of study circles in politics. Premium was placed in those revolutionary days on being well read in public and economic affairs – many of our leading politicians (e.g. Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya) were self-taught to an extremely high degree in fact. They studied great works to try and learn how to move their movements forward.

Back in the day, no self-respecting politico didn’t have a copy of Frantz Fanon’s books, or the poems of Khalil Gibran, or (and here I promise to end this rant) even the music of Franklin Boukaka – none of the one-man-guitar-crap. When I was younger, I was given a book called Getting To Yes, which is a negotiation primer. But it is the product of a scientific study by one of the departments of Harvard University, not merely the ruminations of a widely read individual. There is a difference in the quality and intent of the authorship. Sadly, today most are focused only on trivial techniques to gain any advantage, no matter how immaterial. Hence the enduring popularity of books such as Speak To Win within our leadership.

I would love to organize a survey of the favourite books of our parliamentarians, as a sample. I am certain the results would be illuminating.

Author

  • Mwalimu Mati

    Mwalimu Mati, is a lawyer and governance consultant with over 25 years of work experience in the fields of economic governance, anti-corruption, research, advocacy and publication. Mwalimu’s life mission is to empower citizens to demand accountability by sharing knowledge.