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The invisible wielders of political power

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The invisible wielders of political power


Every leader is surrounded by a battery of persons who influence his decisions.

They may include advisers, ministers, aides, personal assistants, family and court jesters. All these persons collectively and individually shape public policy, notwithstanding the fact that they lack political legitimacy.

They are unlike members of Parliament or elected members of a county assembly, who have the democratic mandate of shaping the trajectory of a political unit.

The fact that they can shape policy albeit from behind the scenes demands that citizens should scrutinise them. What traits should these persons possess?

Machiavelli, in his book The Prince, stated that their most important trait is being intelligent and bold enough to speak truth to power. He stated that a ruler shows his intelligence in his choice of the men around him. If a man cannot have good ideas himself, he must be smart enough to distinguish his minister’s good ideas from his bad ones.

“The minister must always think of the prince, not of himself. The prince should honour and reward his minister so that the minister will be dependent on the prince. Unless rulers are shrewd about choosing their advisers, they will find themselves surrounded by flatterers.

The only way to guard against flattery is to show that you are not offended by the truth. But if anyone can speak their mind to you, you will not be respected. A wise prince will pick intelligent advisers and allow only them to speak frankly, and only when he asks for their opinions. He should listen carefully, but make his own decisions and stick to them.

A prince who is not wise can never get good counsel unless he puts himself completely in the hands of a wise man, but such a man will soon take over his state. An ignorant prince who takes advice from several counsellors will never be able to reconcile their conflicting opinions, for each minister will think of his own interests.”

Speaking truth to power has its drawbacks. Some honest advisors have been treated badly by rulers as exemplified by the story of Prophet Micaiah in the bible.

Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, visited King Ahab of Israel. Ahab told his visitor of his intention to wage war against a neighbouring kingdom and sought an alliance. Jehoshaphat advised Ahab to seek counsel from his advisers. Ahab then called his 400 advisers. The prophets responded by endorsing battle.

Jehoshaphat asks if there are any other prophets to whom to inquire. Ahab mentions Micaiah the son of Imlah but expresses dislike for him because his past prophecies have not been in favour of him. A messenger is sent to bring Micaiah to the king to give his prophecy.

Favourable prophecy

The messenger tells Micaiah to give a favourable prophecy to Ahab. Micaiah replies to the messenger that he will speak whatever the Lord says to him. Micaiah appears before the king of Israel, and when asked if Ahab should go into battle at Ramoth-Gilead, Micaiah initially responds with a similar prophecy to that of the other prophets in a mocking manner. Ahab then questions Micaiah and insists that he speak nothing but the truth. Micaiah then gives a true prophecy and warns against the battle.

Zedekiah, leader of the 400 prophets who spoke in favour of Ahab, slaps Micaiah in anger.

Ahab ordered Micaiah imprisoned until he returned from battle, unharmed. Perhaps concerned about the prophecy, Ahab disguised himself in battle rather than lead his troops openly as their king. However, Ahab was killed in battle after being struck by a randomly shot arrow. Micaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, contrary to the word of 400 false prophets.

The second important trait is being loyal to the leader, not to themselves. Some bad but sophisticated advisers take advantage of the vulnerability of their bosses. The most infamous in recent history remains Rasputin in Russia.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a Russian monk. He is best known for having befriended the royal family of Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, through whom he gained considerable influence in the later years of the Russian Empire.

In late 1906, he began acting as a faith healer for Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s only son, Alexei Nikolaevich, who was suffering from haemophilia. He was a divisive figure at court, who was seen by some Russians as a mystic, visionary and prophet, and by others as a religious charlatan.

The extent of Rasputin’s power reached an all-time high in 1915 when Nicholas left Saint Petersburg to oversee the Imperial Russian Army as it was engaged in World War I. In Nicholas’s absence, Rasputin and the king’s wife Alexandra consolidated their influence across the Russian Empire.

However, as Russian military defeats mounted on the Eastern Front, both figures became increasingly unpopular, and in the early morning of December 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by a group of conservative Russian noblemen who opposed his influence over Alexandra and Nicholas.

It is often suggested that Rasputin’s scandalous and sinister reputation helped discredit the Tsarist government, thus precipitating the overthrow of the Romanov shortly after his assassination. A revolution followed shortly and the king and his family were assassinated.

Much of Rasputin’s influence over the royal family stemmed from the belief by Alexandra and others that he had on several occasions eased the pain and stopped the bleeding of tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia.

Dr Kang’ata is the Governor of Murang’a County.



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