Friday, December 02, 2016

Why Kenyans Should Rethink Their Hiring Policy

Boniface Mwangi is looking for a job. It may have come as no surprise when, during the launch of his book two weeks ago, he declared he would be running for a Parliamentary seat. But that doesn’t mean we should welcome it with open arms.

Over the last few months we have been treated to similar announcements by journalists, clergy and civil society activists. And it is all depressingly reminiscent of 2002 and the dash for elected positions under the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition banner. And, in the euphoria of giving Daniel Arap Moi the finger, we did not think twice about the future effect of decapitating the organisations that had been instrumental in delivering that moment.

Well, that future was not long in coming. Very soon after the Kibaki administration, packed rafters with “good guys” -the same ones who had told Moi, in the famous words of Kiraitu Murungi, to tend his goats and “watch how a country should be governed” took over the old habits of looting and state-sponsored violence resurfaced. This time, though, the culprits were our former heroes. “Anglo Leasing was ‘us’ – our people”, Mr Murungi would later admit.

The “eating” was all the worse since these were the same people who had formerly stood up to the Nyayo regime and whose rapture into government had hollowed out the civil society and religious organisations that were so critical in holding it to account. So today, as tales of grand corruption fill the headlines, we should reflect upon the experience of 15 years ago and look to keep our “good guys” in the positions where they serve us best and where they can keep government on a short leash.

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed is also looking for a job. The government has proposed her as the next head of the African Union Commission and is spending millions of our tax shillings to lobby heads of state across the continent to give it to her. But she is already contracted to represent and lobby for our common interests abroad and has instead spent most of her time instead protecting the interests of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto.

Despite the clear stipulation in the constitution that “the President may be prosecuted under any treaty to which Kenya is party and which prohibits such immunity”, which the Treaty of Rome does, Secretary Mohamed racked up frequent flyer miles and staked Kenya’s international prestige and interests on a shameful effort to pressure the International Criminal Court into dropping the crimes against humanity charges facing the duo.

Yet she has been conspicuously quiet on the plight of ordinary Kenyans unfairly banged up abroad. Currently, next door in South Sudan four Kenyans have been sentenced to life imprisonment following sham proceedings in which no specific accusations of wrongdoing were levelled against them. Efforts to get Secretary Mohamed to intervene and raise the issue with the South Sudanese government have borne little fruit, despite her frequent travels to Juba to shore up the peace process there and the clear leverage Kenya has over the Juba elite.

Andrew Franklin is also in search of employment. Along with around 750 Kenyans, the former US marine who has been living and working in Kenya for over three decades, applied for consideration as either Chair or Member of a reconstituted Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Two weeks ago, the selection panel announced it had shortlisted five out of fourteen applicants for Chairperson and another 31 for Members. Mr Franklin did not make either cut. That, in itself, is not troubling. What is worrying is the opaqueness with which the shortlists were developed.

Since last Friday, when the selection panel announced it was suspending the interviews for Chairperson after questions were raised about the suitability of the shortlisted candidates, there has been disturbingly little querying either in the media or by civil society of criteria used to exclude 720 people from the process of public scrutiny. It does not seem to raise eyebrows when the five applicants whose credentials have been put in doubt are still listed among those slated to be interviewed as potential Commissioners beginning this Saturday. That the panel itself has offered no information on this gives rise to suspicions of underhand dealings and political interference in the process. Given our past experience with the consequences of messing with the credibility of electoral bodies, it should give all of us pause for thought.

These three examples evince our dangerously cavalier approach to distributing public positions. Beyond individual desire, the rest of us who get a say in who actually gets hired must think much more strategically about the sort of system we want to govern our affairs. While it is doubtlessly important that we need good people running government, it is perhaps even more so that we have them outside of it. 

And even within government, we have seen the folly of giving one political party all the reins of power. The so-called Tyranny of Numbers today militates against Parliament serving as an effective check on Executive excess. In the prevailing environment, where loyalty to party leaders trumps loyalty to country, and where nominally independent don't act as such, it is better to have divided government with one party controlling the Presidency and the other Parliament. While not guaranteeing good governance, that at least offers the possibility of limiting the damage they can do. 

In similar vein, it is even more critical that we not allow the state to poach our best and brightest from the only other institutions that can hold it to account. For the sake of the country, Boniface Mwangi and others like him should keep doing the jobs they already have. Which is not only to ensure Amina Mohamed and her government colleagues start doing theirs before we spend tax shillings to get them employed elsewhere, but that the likes of Andrew Franklin and 720 Kenyans are accorded a fair hearing for the public jobs they have applied for.

Friday, November 18, 2016

How America Became An African Country

Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, a popular late-night news satire and talk show in the US, once described Donald Trump as America’s first African President.  In fact, Americans could do worse than look to the continent in general, and Kenya in particular, for a preview of what life under a Trump administration would be like.

President-elect Trump and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta have much in common. Both are fabulously wealthy, the children of privilege with questionable success in business, and both have been accused of fanning ethnic and racial hatreds. Both have risen to head their respective countries in the most unlikely of circumstances and in the face of global opprobrium. While many across the world echewed Trump’s xenophobia and reckless approach to international affairs, Kenyatta had faced similar opposition to his candidacy three years earlier. This was a consequence of his -and his running mate’s - indictment at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in relation to Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence in which over 1000 people died.

Trump and Kenyatta even have similar ideas about how countries should be governed.

Take their shared suspicion and contempt for the media. Where Trump has called journalists “scum”, “illegitimate” and “horrible people” and declared his aim to make it easier to sue them, Kenyatta regularly derides newspapers as only good or wrapping meat, and his administration has introduced new laws meant to stifle independent reporting. It has arrested and beaten journalists who persist in asking uncomfortable questions, and, leveraging its advertising and regulatory muscle, leaned on media houses to fire them or to pull their stories. Just recently, in response to a spate of corruption stories, Kenyatta declared that the media should be required to prove any allegation of government graft they dared to report on or face the consequences.

When it comes to fighting terrorists, their pronouncements are also remarkably similar. Both prefer to speak in vague and bombastic terms and to demonize Muslim refugees and immigrants rather than offer detailed policy prescriptions. Trump says his plan for defeating ISIS is a secret whose details he won’t be revealing to the public any time soon. One hopes he’ll be sharing them with the generals since he claims to know more about fighting the extremists than they do. The Kenyatta administration, after all, has taken more than three years to come up with a strategy to tackle radicalization and is no closer than Trump to articulating a strategy to defeat the Al Shabaab, the Somali based terror group that has murdered nearly 800 Kenyans, most of them after Kenyatta took office.

There is also the question of whether Trump will follow through on his oft-repeated promised to get Mexico to pay for a wall on the US’ southern border to keep out immigrants (which Mexico has repeatedly vowed not to do). Here too, Kenyatta can offer some guidance. Depending on which of its officials you choose to believe, the Kenyatta government is building a wall to keep out terrorists either along the entire 700km border with Somalia, or just on a small section near the border town of Mandera. It may or may not be a physical barrier (there has been some talk of a human wall) whose construction is either ongoing or has stalled.

In addition to the wall, Trump has vowed to round up and deport illegal immigrants whom he says are gaming and mooching off the system, driving up crime, taking jobs and opportunities away from US citizens and depressing US wages. That little of this is true doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot. Similarly, the Kenyatta regime has developed a fondness for demonizing refugees from Somalia, blaming them for everything from terrorist attacks to being a drain on the Kenyan economy, as a way of distracting from its own failures. In 2014, under operation Usalama Watch, it begun rounding up and deporting them, and restricting those that remained to the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in the desolate north. Then, earlier this year, the government declared it would close the Dadaab camp by the end of November and has been effectively dumping hapless and unwilling refugees back into their war-ravaged country ever since. (That effort has now been suspended following an international outcry).

In September 2013, the prolific Ugandan columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country”. What he meant was that as the government worked to scuttle the cases against the President and his deputy (and with them any prospect of accountability for the 2008 violence), it had brought the country into closer alignment with authoritarian regimes in vogue across much of the rest of the continent. In similar fashion, it is perhaps not so far off the mark to suggest that with the election of Donald Trump, the US too has become something of an African country.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lessons For Kenya From The Trumpocalypse

To describe Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s US presidential election as a shocking upset is probably the understatement of the year. It is a seismic political upheaval which will rock, not just the American political system, but the entire edifice of Western liberal democracy, to its core.

Coming just months after the Brexit referendum in which citizens of the United Kingdom voted against all expectations to leave the European Union, which has been the lynchpin of that continent’s peace and prosperity for nearly three-quarters of a century, Trump’s win is, as the Financial Times declared, “another grievous blow to the liberal international order” and “a thunderous repudiation of the status quo”.

Little captures just how thunderous that rejection was than the fact that a national exit poll suggested that as many as 61 per cent of voters viewed Trump as “not qualified” to be President. He is the only candidate to ever be elected who did not have a smidgen of either governmental or military experience.
Over the coming days, there will be much soul-searching and head-scratching over how this came to pass and what it means. But at this early stage one thing is abundantly clear from Brexit and Trumpocalypse: large numbers of people in the West feel they have somehow missed out despite living in the one racial, geographic and ideological polity that more than any other has benefited from the existing globalized system.

Demagogic campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic profited from perceptions that the system was not working for the people, that unaccountable governing elites had signed them up to global trade agreements and policies, particularly on immigration, without their consent.  “Take our country back” was a common rallying cry. Substantial portions of the unhappy population became prey to a narrative that demonized immigrants as terrorists and free loaders and recommended retreat from the global system as a solution to domestic woes.

Trump’s triumph highlights fundamental questions about the structure and accountability of the post-Cold War global order, questions that have for too long been swept under a neo-liberal carpet. As Los Angeles Times’ journalist Vincent Bevins noted, “both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years.”

The focus has tended to be on economic growth which disproportionately benefited a few at the very top with little attention paid to widening inequality. In the past, elites have ignored the voices of those who lost out in globalization by, for example, hiding behind high walls and riot police to escape anti-WTO protests in the last decade.

This time, however, they had run out of places to hide.

There are valuable lessons here for Kenya’s elite. Like their counterparts around the world,  Kenya's punditry has predictably reacted with horror at the calamity that has befallen the US. “America does the unthinkable” wailed the Daily Nation, which bemoaned the fact that the US electorate had rejected “a smart politician with 30 years of experience” in favor of “a foul-mouthed casino owner and showman with an alligator-sized ego and, reportedly, the sexual morals of an alley cat”.

However, the fact is Kenyan voters, faced with a system that for 50 years has functioned to enrich a small coterie of politicians at their expense, has been regularly electing local versions of Trump -from a president indicted for crimes against humanity to members of parliament and governors implicated in corruption and drug trafficking. Like their Western counterparts, Kenya’s ruling elite have steadfastly ignored the demands for reform and accountability, the stark and growing inequality and the rumblings of discontent from the masses who have little to show for a half century of independence.

In that time, the political system has largely functioned to legitimize the power of rulers rather than to give voice to citizen concerns. What journalist and constitutional lawyer, Glen Grenwald, wrote of the West following the Brexit vote is just as true here. “Instead of acknowledging and addressing the fundamental flaws within themselves, [elites] are devoting their energies to demonizing the victims of their corruption, all in order to delegitimize those grievances and thus relieve themselves of responsibility to meaningfully address them.” Few will have forgotten President Uhuru Kenyatta’s attempts to fault ordinary Kenyans for the failure of his administration to deal with insecurity and corruption.

As in the West, the increasingly desperate electorate has fallen prey to populist, nativist and xenophobic rhetoric which has tended to blame religious and ethnic minorities as well as refugees. And elections have proven to have little to do with the ability of candidates to actually solve problems but rather seem to produce a rogue’s gallery of the corrupt, the bigoted and the criminal.

Democracy works when governments are evaluated on their performance, and when citizens watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. Such accountability improves the provision of public goods, boosting incomes and welfare and reinforcing the sense of national belonging.

On the other hand, when the citizenry feels disillusioned about its ability to meaningfully participate in decision-making and to hold public officials to account, then politicians are evaluated on much less noble attributes: their capacity for patronage or even to what extent their election constitutes flashing the finger to the oligarchy –their ability to be what film maker Michael Moore described as “your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you!

Trump’s election is therefore a wakeup call. There is a crisis of accountability and inclusion in democracies around the world and it calls us to engage in the wok of reimagining and reforming our governance systems so they better respond to the circumstances and problems of ordinary people rather than those of the elites who lord it over them.