Kenyans get to laugh at their leaders

The president snoozes in his office by a tottering stack of papers in his in-tray. The prime minister lounges in a toilet with a red carpet leading to its door. Cabinet ministers take pot shots at each other in a High Noon-style showdown.

The stars of Kenya’s new smash hit TV show are puppets—but it’s the nation’s politicians who are providing the punchlines.

For many of the millions who tuned into the debut of The XYZ Show this week, the scenes of excess and ineptitude are only slightly more outlandish than the everyday antics of their real-life leaders.

“It’s a true picture of what’s happening,” said bookseller Chan Bahal, quoting lines from the programme. “These are their true colours ... if they keep pushing this, it will be wonderful.”

The show’s creator, Godfrey “Gado” Mwampembwa, hopes the show’s humour will force Kenyans to take a critical look at the leaders they elected, who plunged the country into weeks of bloody riots last year.

“We’re trying to get people to laugh and then stop and think: this is our life,” says Gado, whose biting political cartoons in the independent newspaper Daily Nation have earned him both widespread popularity and the occasional death threat.

The latex puppet caricatures in XYZ were inspired by the British television show Spitting Image and the French Les Guignols—cult programmes whose send-ups of politicians have immortalised their eccentricities and scandals.

Kenyan politics provides plenty of bitter punchlines.

There’s President Mwai Kibaki, who often appears befuddled in public and whose sole press conference since his disputed election in 2007 was aimed at squashing persistent rumours he had taken a second wife.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been ridiculed for loudly complaining that he lacked a red carpet and separate toilet at a recent government event—even as scandals over money and missing food reserves severely strained the coalition government that ended election violence.

Bickering between the president’s faction and the prime minister’s was at one point so bad that Kenyan women announced a one-week sex boycott to try to pressure the men to speak to each other—a move Odinga’s wife said she enthusiastically supported.

The finance minister’s April supplementary budget was found to contain an unexplained extra $120-million—something he attributed to a typing error. It was nevertheless passed intact by Parliament, whose members are among the most highly paid in the world.

After days of hostile headlines, the legislators performed a U-turn and demanded a forensic accounting of the budget.

The show’s creators say no subject is off limits and they insist they will stand firm in the face of any official backlash.

Kenya generally has a free press but individual journalists writing on controversial subjects such as police corruption and politicians’ links to gangs have been attacked and even killed over the past year.

XYZ was a hard sell to broadcasters who remembered the censorship under Kibaki’s authoritarian predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, says Gado.

The managing director of Citizen, a privately run commercial television station, promised the show complete editorial freedom.

Even so, Gado says: “The MD’s phone has been ringing like crazy in the past two weeks.”

African governments are not noted for their sense of humour: the SABC has mothballed a similar satirical puppet show by political cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro. South African President Jacob Zuma has lodged two lawsuits against Shapiro’s cartoons already.

In Egypt, blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman was imprisoned in 2006 for insulting the president, the same offence that saw Senegalese journalist El Malick Seck jailed last August. And in Morocco, a prankster who created a fake Facebook page for the king’s brother was sentenced to three years in prison, although he was pardoned by the king after 43 days behind bars.

Anti-corruption campaigner Mwalimu Mati said that while poking fun at politicians is fun, the laughter leaves a bitter aftertaste for those trapped in the country’s festering slums.

Mati heads Mars Group Kenya, the watchdog that first blew the whistle on the $120-million budgetary “typing error”.

“The sad thing for Kenyans is what may look like satire or farce is what we live with,” he said.

“You have a treasury that finds $120-million vanished in the air. Translate that into meals for poor people. It’s great we have space to laugh at our leaders but we hope the joke isn’t on us for too much longer.”—Sapa-AP

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