Monday, May 23, 2011

Israel vs POTUS? No Contest!

It never ceases to amaze me the massive clout that Israel wields within American corridors of power. Remember this? Well, last week, when President Obama needed a reminder of who really runs things, the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was only too willing to oblige. Only he decided to do it in front of the assembled press corps following a tense meeting at the White House.

The trouble started when Obama had the gumption to suggest in a speech that mid-east peace negotiations be based a return to the 1967 "borders" with appropriate land swaps to cater for Israel's illegal "facts on Palestinian ground" more commonly known as settlements. Many would have thought this to be a rather generous offer, one that rewards the Israeli's bad behaviour and disregard for both international law and Palestinian's rights.

Obama was by no means breaking new ground. Ever since the Oslo Accords of 1982, negotiations have proceeded on a framework of land for peace i.e. the return of occupied land for a permanent peace. Occupied land, as described in UN resolution 242 of 1967, comprises territory taken by Israel following the Six Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza, Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai (which was returned following the Camp David agreements).

Obama's "proposal" also enjoyed the immediate support of the Middle-East Quartet which brings together the UN, EU, Russia and the US. Following th speech, the Russian foreign ministry quickly issued a statement saying the grouping agrred that "progress in dealing with borders and security issues could eventually lead to a final resolution of the conflict."

However, Israel evidently didn't get the memo. A fuming Bibi berated the idea as based on illusions and made clear that he expected Obama to renew pledges made to Israel by his predecessor, George W. Bush. He claimed that the 1967 lines, from behind which Israel had conquered 3 Arab armies simultaneously in less than a week, were now "indefensible" and said Obama could not sweep certain facts -presumably settlements- under the carpet.

That set the scene for the post-summit joint appearance before the world's press. Obama went first, making reconciliatory noises about disagreements between friends and his commitment to Israel's security. Bibi however, was in no mood for niceties. He gave Obama what amounted to a public dressing down, lecturing him on the Jews terrible history of persecution -something Obama's African and Irish ancestors presumably knew nothing of.

Then he really got into his groove, saying it was time to tell Palestinian refugees that their much cherished right to return to the homes their parents and grandparents were kicked out of in what is now Israel, a right deemed inalienable by the admittedly non-binding UN General Assembly resolution 3236, was yet another illusion. Just moments prior to invoking the (one can only suppose extraordinarily long-living) Jewish people and their millenia long yearning for a return to Palestine, thus wiping out the area's future as an Arab region, he derided Palestinian's 63 year cry for Israel to "accept the grandchildren, really, and the great grandchildren of ... refugees, thereby wiping out Israel’s future as a Jewish state. It's not going to happen."

A craven Obama listened studiously, only summoning up the courage to correct Netanyahu once -when he referred to the 7 million Israelis as "a much smaller people" in comparison to the 310 million Americans. " A great people," Obama corrected him.

Of course it was not the first time he was being reminded who's boss. He's had plenty of lessons. During his campaign for the presidency, he was criticised for having the temerity to suggest that the US should actually be what it claims to be -an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. After he made it to the White House, the notional leader of the free world was again reminded of the limits of his power after he attempted to get Israel to stop its illegal settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land. Needless to say, that is now a subject he steers well clear of.

So what are we to conclude? The mightiest nation on earth is not necessarily the brute with the brawn. It's the historically and geographically challenged state that controls the brute's head.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Necessary Enemy of The People

Next week's issue of The EastAfrican will feature a glowing profile of Dr. Willy Mutunga and will be full of praise for the decision by the Judicial Service Commission to nominate him for the post of Chief Justice with Nancy Baraza as his deputy. With both the President and Prime Minister endorsing the two nominees, and with opposition from William Ruto's camp seemingly crumbling, Parliamentary approval appears to be a foregone conclusion. In a few weeks time, all things being constant, Dr. Mutunga will take office and change from being the champion of Kenyans' rights to being an instrument for their suppression.

Now, I have absolutely no reason to think that that Dr. Mutunga is anything other than what the EastAfrican piece will say he is: a fearless advocate for social justice. I have no doubt that he is as committed to uplifting the lives of ordinary Kenyans as anyone can be. My reservations have nothing to do with either his qualifications or his integrity. They, however, have everything to do with the nature of power and the propensity of my countrymen to ignore the lessons of history.

Power corrupts. A simple yet unfailingly true phrase. Kenyan's history is replete with fallen icons, former giants of matchless courage and integrity whose reputations did not survive a sojourn into government. In this pantheon you will find the likes of Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga, Martha Karua, Kivutha Kibwana, Anyang' Nyongo, Wangari Maathai, Kiraitu Murungi and Mukhisa Kitui, just to name a few of the most recent examples. By the time they were raptured into government, many of these had fought the good fight, risked life and limb, and endured torture, incarceration, beatings and tear gas, all in the name of upholding the rights of ordinary Kenyans. They inspired us, and brought the despotic government of Daniel Arap Moi to its knees, by the sheer force of their beliefs.

Yet all of them eventually turned into the very oppressors they were once fighting after we put them in power. Which brings me to my second point: Kenyans unrelenting and, frankly, psychotic sense of optimism. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still persist in the illusion that if we just elect or appoint a nice guy, all will be well and we can look forward to living out the rest of our lives in comfort and luxury. We allow our institutions to rot while we wait for the promised Messiah, our very own Mandela or Ghandhi.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" is a line familiar to most. What is perhaps less well known are the words that Wendell Phillips uttered following these:"The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot." Phillips was only too well aware that the intrinsic goodness of the powerful could not be the ultimate guarantor of liberties. Similarly Kenyans should put their faith in their own ability to monitor and control the people in office, and not in candidates' records and words.

Now, I am not saying that qualifications, experience and integrity are unimportant. I hold them to be vital. However, like Phillips, I know they are just proof that the man (or woman) can do the job. They are no guarantee that he (or she) will actually do it. Past performance is fickle surety for future returns. Only "continual oversight" will deliver that and it will require that we treat all office bearers, Dr. Mutunga included, as "the necessary enemy of the people." I hope all the good folks applauding our next chief justice will keep this in mind.