Friday, March 06, 2015

There's More To Protecting Elephants Than PR

It is a ritual we have been treated to by every administration since the Nyayo days. The government rolls out part of its stockpile of ivory and the President lights a bonfire for the cameras. The flames are meant to illuminate the state’s commitment to the preservation of our wildlife, to ending the international trade in ivory and other wildlife products and to the fight against poaching.

Uhuru Kenyatta got in on the act on Tuesday when he lit up 15 tonnes of ivory tusks in the Nairobi National Park. It is the largest haul to receive the presidential baptism of fire. By comparison, Daniel arap Moi torched 12 tonnes in 1989 while Mwai Kibaki only managed a relatively measly 5 tonnes. Further, “to underline Kenya’s determination to eradicate poaching,” according to the President’s website, the Government will burn the rest of its contraband ivory stockpile within the year.”

Last year, African elephant populations passed what was described as a crucial “tipping point”. Essentially, more jumbos are being killed than are born. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, according to one study, the continent lost about a fifth of its elephant population -an estimated 100,000 elephants- between 2010 and 2012. And the share of elephant deaths attributed to poaching has shot up from 25% a decade ago to 65% today.

The Kenya Wildlife Service claims the country has lost 466 elephants in the last two years. But in an opinion piece for the Guardian last year, conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu said nobody in Kenya believed the KWS numbers. Her own estimate of the number killed in just the first five months of last year was ten times the official figure. A 2014 census of elephants and other large mammals in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, which straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border, showed that the population had declined by 12.5 percent or over 1,500 animals.

Any way you cut it, our elephants (and rhinos) are in crisis. And it is true that this is largely driven by Far-Eastern, and especially Chinese, demand for wildlife products –a fact any conservationist or Kenyan government lackey will gladly point out. However, they are less candid when it comes to the liability of the Kenyan state itself.

In March last year, an investigation by KTN reporter, Dennis Onsarigo, revealed that the Uhuru administration was not only aware of the identities of the top 11 poaching kingpins, but was actively protecting them.  A year later, this fact appears to have only succeeded in eliciting a stunning silence from the media and the normally vocal conservation community. There have been neither public demands for the allegations to be further investigated nor for action to be taken against either these specific individuals or their protectors.

It mirrors the silence that greeted revelations in late 2013 that “decorative” pieces of ivory stolen from the offices of the President and First Lady in State House, Mombasa. According to one report, these included pieces that weighed up to 100 kilograms. And all this during a period when Margaret Kenyatta was busy launching the “Hands Off Our Elephants” campaign. Few since have sought to know what ivory was doing in her and her husband’s official residence and offices. Few appear keen to point out the hypocrisy of the President’s office being decorated with ivory at the same time we are seeking shaming others for doing the same. Is it still there? If so, will it be part of the “contraband” the President has promised to destroy? Predictably, the government has not seen fit to volunteer this information.

Since the Kenyatta administration took office, and despite the historical baggage one would expect the name to carry (his mother was widely believed to be implicated in poaching during her husband’s tenure), there has been a marked reluctance to challenge the conduct of the government and its officials in executing their duty to protect our natural heritage. Apart from a brief bust up when the administration refused to declare poaching a national disaster, conservationists and the media have largely pursued a strategy of non-confrontation. But this now seems to be a case of scoring some brownie points but losing the game. It is all fine to rant and rave against the (mostly illegal) international ivory trade. However, ignoring the fact that the government aids and abets the slaughter at home undermines any international effort to stamp it out.

In fact the silence only allows the state to present a false face to the world and to hide its murderous mischief behind a pile of smoking tusks. Regardless of the questionable efficacy of burning ivory, the administration can always rely on dramatic pictures to obscure any critical interrogation of its record. It is an effective and dependable public relations ploy. Unfortunately for our elephants, it is no substitute for serious policy and action to protect them.

A version of this article was published by Aljazeera.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Our Silent Heroes

The months of February and March mark the anniversaries of several significant massacres and assassinations that have haunted post-independence Kenya. This year the period marks 25 years since the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko, 31 years since the Wagalla massacre, 40 years since the killing of JM Kariuki and half a century since post-independent Kenya’s first political assassination –that of Pio Gama Pinto. Going a little further back, it also marks 58 years since the hanging of the Field Marshal of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Dedan Kimathi.

It is perhaps not surprising that, at least within official circles, these anniversaries passed without much fanfare, given the fact that both the government and Kenya’s murderous political elite would like to keep their involvement in them quiet. Those in powerful positions today owe much of their wealth not just to the termination of these men and but also to the brutal suppression of their ideas.
Following in the footsteps of the colonial administration, the Kenyan elite have sought to build their empires on a foundation of forgetting. The colonial powers had already discovered that erasing a people’s memory of its history was the easiest way to enslave them. As the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville said, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness”.

Thus, until recently, Kenya’s official history largely glossed over the misdeeds of government. Even today, the alternative ideas of what independence and development meant other than the substitution of black oppression and thievery for white oppression and thievery, are hard to come by. Alternative visions of Kenya seem to have been interred along with bones of the victims who imagined them. Today, people like Pinto, JM, Tom Mboya and Ouko are, if at all, remembered as a series of dates, and as stains upon an otherwise glowing governmental reputation. Their critiques of, and challenge to, the governance arrangements of their day, which arrangements inevitably gave birth to the asymmetrical and stunted Kenya of today, are either largely forgotten or reduced to a few pithy statements, the import of which seems forever lost.

For example, while many will vaguely remember Pinto as a youthful hero cut down in his prime, few can say exactly why. Few would recognize the Dorian Gray like image of the Kenyatta regime painted by Pinto’s brother, Rosario, in a tribute uncovered by former Daily Nation Chief Reporter, Cyprian Fernandes. “Pio was murdered to silence him and put an end to his dream to implement socialism, the ideals for which the people of Kenya had formed government. Now that Independence had been gained, and the armed forces’ loyalty had been bought, those in power considered it a convenient time to assassinate Pinto as a warning to other dedicated nationalists.”

What were these ideals? What were Pinto’s and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s alternatives to Tom Mboya’s Sessional Paper No. 10, which put the country on an unequivocally capitalist economic footing and which the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission described as “a facilitator of economic marginalisation rather than a mitigator of inequality”? What were JM’s ideas about how to ensure a more equitable model of development in which delivered for more than a few Kenyan families? How about Dr Ouko’s? How did the people of Wajir historically resolve the inter-clan disputes that formed the pretext for government massacres?

Similarly, memorials to Dedan Kimathi come complete with the obligatory bemoaning of the fact that we have been unable to locate his grave and give his remains the national interment they deserve. Yet all we seem to remember is that he died. What he actually fought for, the society he envisaged beyond the wooly notion of independence, is deemed less important. His establishment of a Parliament in the forest and his election as Prime Minister, his 1953 Charter, the letters he wrote from his Nyandarua headquarters, such as one in 1955 in which he declared that “only the revolutionary justice of the struggles of the poor can end poverty for Kenyans” are mostly unknown to Kenyans.
The famed author Ngugi wa Thiongo wrote: “The dominating try to control the sources, agents and contents of information. They want the dominated to view the world through the filters of the dominating.”

We should be wary of eulogies that replace memory with hagiography. Where we are encouraged to view our heroes “through the filters of the dominating” and the where the circumstances of their deaths are more notable than the ideas and visions that that animated them and their compatriots. 
We must understand that far from being fixed, the past is constantly contested and that reclaiming our history as well as our memory of it was, and continues to be, essential in asserting the dignity, humanity, and freedom of our people.

This is an abridged version of an article to be published in the next issue of The Platform magazine

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why The Media Is Losing The Digital Migration Debate

For nearly a week now, three of Kenya’s major privately-owned TV stations have been off air due to a row with the industry regulator over migration to a digital platform. The stations, NTV, Citizen TV and KTN, which together account for the vast majority of TV viewership in the country (they claim up to 90 percent), have had a long running and convoluted battle with the Communications Authority essentially demanding a license to broadcast their own content as opposed to handing it over to the two carriers the government has licensed.

It is said that truth is often the first casualty of war. This has been no exception. As both sides have sought to sway public opinion to their cause, honesty and objectivity have been tossed out the window. On the one hand, the government has tried to paint it as a fight to tame intransigent, monopolistic-minded media companies scared of the level field that comes with digital migration. On the other, the companies have portrayed it as a struggle against a deaf, authoritarian-minded regime intent on auctioning off national resources to the Chinese (one of the licensed carriers is Chinese).

While there has been more than enough mud to go round, and though the incompetence of the regulator is hard to ignore, it is clear that the TV companies seem to be coming off worst. The are probably two reasons for this. Most Kenyans don't watch TV and those that do have a hard time trusting the media.

Let's start with the latter. The merits of it's case aside,  government’s propaganda has tapped into a rich vein of distrust and contempt for the media, one that, ironically, has grown out of the fraternity’s uncritical embrace of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration.

The Kenyan press is struggling with the legacy of its anodyne reporting during the flawed 2013 election and subsequent reluctance to challenge the official narrative and government conduct on most issues and events. These include during the President’s trial at the International Criminal Court, the responses to terrorist attacks, including the attack on the Westgate Mall and the targeting of the Somali and Muslim communities, as well as the continuing demonization of civil society. Further, the TV stations' fascination with Mexican soaps and Nigerian movies, when most television consumers are mainly interested in the news, cannot do their reputation much good.

The media"s one-sided reporting of the digital migration impasse has not helped matters. Journalists have seemed either unable or unwilling to separate the interests of media conglomerates from those of the public. On the contrary, they have simply tried to sell the company line as the national cause. This is not new. Research carried out in 2012 found that “the line between media owners and editors has increasingly been blurred as the latter are co-opted into the formers’ domain, meaning the editors no longer exclusively pursue professionalism.”

If poll numbers are to be believed, public trust in the media is very brittle. Over three years ago when one survey found 77 percent of respondents saying they trusted the media. Just four months after the 2013 election, this had dropped to 46 percent before rising to 68 percent in November and collapsing again to 43 percent in March last year. The lesson here? Public trust is a commodity the Kenyan media takes for granted at its peril. As Peter Oborne recently wrote in his resignation statement as chief political commentator of the UK’s Telegraph: “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. [The media has a] duty to tell … the truth.”

The other reason the TV companies are losing this is that most of the country doesn't watch TV. “Starve the city dwellers and they riot; starve the peasants and they die. If you were a politician, which would you choose?" asked an aid-worker in Lloyd Timberlake’s 1988 book, Africa in Crisis. The current “crisis” has proven that not all audiences are created equal. Some matter more than others.

A relatively small, TV-owning minority punches above its weight in political terms. Two-thirds of Kenyan households do not actually own a television set, but politicians are scrambling to cater to the needs of the one-third that do, even altering their calendars to accommodate them. The launch of the OKOA Kenya campaign, for example, has been postponed until the standoff is resolved, with opposition leader, Raila Odinga, declaring “There can be no amendment of the constitution without the people and their can be no people without the media."

The fact is, despite radio being far and away the main source of news for the vast majority of Kenyans, the fact is TV is king in urban areas. The medium has overthrown the newspaper as the mediator of elite political discourse in the country. 

For the rest of the country, the promise of impressive clarity and variety is largely empty. Debates about cost and availability of set-top boxes are largely irrelevant for the 70 percent of the population who cannot even afford TV sets and the 80 percent who have no electricity to run them on. As Eng Francis Wangusi, the Director-General of the Communications Authority said recently, “If somebody can buy and maintain a TV in their house, that person is not poor.” He could have added that most Kenyans are poor.

Beyond what the media have got wrong, perhaps we as a country should consider expanding the scope of the discussion beyond just digital TV migration. According to one survey, by 2011, 93 percent of Kenyan households owned a mobile phone. Maybe the phone could do for TV what it has done for money transfer and banking. Mobile TV could allow the poor to access the digital TV services that are now slated to be the preserve of a lucky few. So instead of only talking about STBs, digital transmitters and distribution licenses, perhaps our tech and policy wonks could also spend some of the time debating the merits of providing affordable mobile TV to all.