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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Remembering The Year of Forgetting

“Compare the size of the windshield to the the size of the rearview mirror. Let that tell us what we should be paying attention to.” These were the words of then Finance Minister, Amos Kimunya, when making a presentation at the Kenya Diaspora Investment Forum in the US in 2007. As I remarked at the time, the Minister was “urging us to judge the government's performance, not by what it has accomplished, but by what it is promising.”

It was interesting, reading through Deputy President William Ruto’s piece in the Sunday Nation more than six years later, to see how the same message is rehashed. He characterizes the delivery of the Jubilee coalition’s manifesto pledges as a serious commitment, without mentioning that nine months into the first hundred days, we are yet to see the promised free laptops, reduced costs of living, fully stocked hospitals and free primary healthcare. The clear intent of the DP’s article is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future of promises, and to lull us into forgetting the realities of the past.

2013 was supposed to be, oh so different. It was to be a special year, a year of remembrance marking five decades of independence from colonial rule. Instead, it turned out to be a year to forget. Or, more accurately, a year of forgetting.

Dominated by what John Githongo had called “the politics of memory" - the essential questions of how to define the past, what to do about it, and how it affects both the present and the future of society- the year saw an all-out an effort by the governing elite to erase their unflattering roles in the tragic events of Kenyan history. Thus it came about that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, both accused at the International Criminal Court of organizing and financing opposite sides in the 2007/8 post-election violence in which at least 1,300 died, came to jointly run for, and ascend to, the highest offices in the land; and that the trials they promised would be personal challenges were transformed into national, even international issues.

The silence that followed the farcical elections in March as well as a ludicrous Supreme Court of Kenya judgment that gave the election results a veneer of legality, if not exactly legitimacy, bespoke of a national conspiracy to abet the forgetting. The local media played its part in this by consistently refusing to question official narratives. Critical inquiry -even after all systems designed to ensure credibility of the poll failed- was not a feature of the election coverage most of which consisted of a call for keeping the peace. “Accept and move on” became the prevailing mantra.

Similarly, when prosecution witnesses begun dropping out of the newly inaugurated President and his Deputy’s ICC trials, little shrift was given to allegations of witness tampering and, bribery and intimidation. Instead all the focus was on the crumbling prosecution case. Notions of justice and of the need to protect witnesses were discarded as the accused were transformed into victims. In fact, there was not so much as a whimper of protest when Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Macharia Kamau, appeared to suggest that many of those displaced by the post-election violence had actually “come out way ahead” because as, he put it, they were landless squatters before and now had the prospect of being resettled.

The forgetting inevitably spilled over into other areas. When the arrivals terminal at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport burnt down in August, the lackluster response was immortalized by pictures of Kenya Defence Forces personnel helping to fight the fire with buckets of water. An embarrassed President Kenyatta promised a full investigation but four months later, the results of the probe are yet to be made public.

A few weeks after the airport fire, 4 terrorists stormed the Westgate Mall in central Nairobi, slaughtering dozens and, if one believes what the government says, keeping hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police at bay for 4 days. The contradictory and sometimes, downright ludicrous, statements issued by various spokesmen during and after the events, as well as laudable exposes by a few local journalists, laid to waste the credibility of the government’s version of events. Once again, as evidence mounted that the terrorists may have escaped and that security forces had systematically looted the mall, a forensic investigation as well as a Commission of Inquiry were promised and promptly forgotten. The latter was never established and, so far, nothing has been heard from the former. On the contrary, Gen Julius Karangi, whose soldiers so badly bungled the operation has actually been secretly rewarded with an extension of his contract as the head of the Kenya Defence Forces.

By far the worst attempt at erasing the past is the editing of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, a document containing 40,000 witness statements and that is the first real attempt to tell an aspect of the Kenya’s history through the experience of the Kenyans who lived it. It implicates 400 individuals –the cream of Kenya’s political elite including the governing duo, as well as many of their allies and rivals- in massacres, illegal land grabs, theft and other atrocities that the government has committed against its citizens since colonial times.

Its crucial lesson is ironic considering the Golden Jubilee: the colonial state was never dismantled. Kenya simply exchanged one bunch of oppressors for another. The nation building project has very much been an exercise in forgetting that the relationship between the powerful and the people remains one based on exploitation.

Predictably, there have been moves to water down the report. State House operatives initially delayed its presentation to the President, insisting on changes to the chapter on land which accused the Kenyatta family of irregular acquisitions. On Christmas Eve, the President signed into law an amendment which allows parliament to, as the Majority Leader Aden Duale put it, “improve the report.” Few doubt that this is the prelude to a whitewash.

Just as his father, who as the newly-elected Prime Minister, held a meeting with nearly 400 frightened white settlers to reassure them with the famous refrain ‘We shall forgive but we shall not forget,” (we of course forgot), President Kenyatta is set to issue the same blanket immunity to the 400 blacks who replaced them at the apex of Kenya’s power structure.  In a very real sense, Kenya’s history, and thus its present and future, continue to be refashioned through acts of forgetting. However, this has not proven to be anything more than a passing comfort and the country always seems to end up right where it started. Real and lasting change can only come when the leadership and citizenry develop the courage to remember and face up to the past.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Breaking With The Past

Are we doomed to become our parents? To repeat their mistakes and thus their history? In this year of Kenya’s Golden Jubilee, the parallels with the past are disturbing. A government appropriates the liberation fight and wastes little time undoing all its achievements; a new constitution threatened by the very arguments that felled the independence constitution and, within a few years, put our fathers back on the path to dictatorship and penury. A president who seems more interested in consolidating his own power than delivering on his campaign promises, who leads a superficial and fraying tribal coalition which papers over and heightens rather than resolves ethnic divisions.

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves,” wrote US philosopher Robert Pirsig, in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In Kenya, we have tried everything except reform the “systematic patterns of thought” that generated the repressive and kleptocratic regimes of the last five decades, patterns of thought that find their genesis in the attitudes and divisions of the half century of colonial rule that preceded them.

Now this is not what it might sound like: blaming the past or the colonialists for our current predicament. It is actually an indictment of the independence generation which failed to substantially dismantle or reform the system of elitism predicated on ethnic and racial favoritism, the extraction and theft of resources from the native population and the concentration of power in the hands of a privileged few. It is an indictment of the current generation that is following in their footsteps, entrenching rather than overthrowing the system.

The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems - A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. It is the nature of Kenya’s democracy, the relationships between its various components –voters, rulers, police, soldiers, judges, journalists, media owners, businessmen, legislators, etc.- are what produce and reinforce the patterns of repression and inequality, of tribalism and corruption, ineptitude and poverty and marginalization, that we are so familiar with.

It is not about bad leaders versus good leaders. This we should have seen when we replaced the kelptocratic Moi administration with the cream of civil society and opposition politicians in 2003, only to end up with the same result. It is not about the stupidity of voters because, whether we vote in wise or corrupt leaders, the system will encourage them to be vain and corrupt, and will either reward them with riches when they do or condemn them to poverty, exile or worse when they don’t.

Think of our roads. Any road user will testify to the frustrations of trying to abide by the rules in the chaotic environment that is our urban transport system. One suffers abuse for stopping at a red light or pedestrian crossing, risks death via mangling when insisting on one’s right of way, or arrest and interminable court delays if resisting the temptation to part with a few shillings when accused (justifiably or not) of wrong-doing. You get the idea. The entire system incentivizes bad behavior and punishes good habits. The result is reminiscent of the lines in Yeats' poem, The Second Coming:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 

It is thus unhelpful and unproductive to simply tell single actors -drivers, politicians, matatus, pedestrians, voters- to  behave better. A similar case could be made for the folly of blaming the August fire at JKIA on a mere electrical wiring as if that explains why it was not put down when it was small or the pictures of military personnel fighting the blaze with buckets when it took over the whole terminal. And it provides no guarantees that a similar fire will not occur again. It is why me must insist on seeing the investigation report. Why it is important to understand what led up to and happened at Westgate. Remember Pirsig. If “the systematic patterns of thought that produced that [situation] are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.” Road safety, democracy, airports, security. All run on systems and unless these are fundamentally changed, they will continue to generate the same behavior.

So, if we want to reduce the carnage caused on our roads, by terrorists in our malls, by fires at our airports and by our own government across the land, we need to learn to look at the systems and patterns of thought that produce it. We need to get away from short-term, knee-jerk reactions to the latest affronts and think through the rules, attitudes and the incentives pervading the system. Then we can make changes that will produce and reinforce the behavior we wish to see in our pedestrians and drivers, managers and firefighters, police and intelligence agents, politicians and voters. And perhaps we can hope to prevent repeats of the past.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Raining On The Parade

On Thursday, Kenya marks fifty years of independence. Over the next week, I expect that much of the country's news media will be focused on a retelling of the history of the past half century. However, the previews I have seen over the last week do not offer much cause for hope that this will be an exercise in full honesty.

For example, last weekend NTV had two reports on the Kenya Defence Forces: one posing as a history of the force and the other highlighting the KDF's special forces unit. The first totally ignored the numerous atrocities the KDF has been accused of committing in Northern Kenya against its own citizens; the second similarly skipped over the uncomfortable subject of KDF actions during the Westgate terror attack.

So it is clear that this will be a season of hagiography. Kenya will put on its Sunday Best and apply some patriotic perfume to cover the stench of the last five decades. We have already heard former President Mwai Kibaki's version of our history, one which largely edited out the corruption and theft perpetrated by his and previous regimes. The National Assembly has just given itself the power to "improve" the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. The Standard newspaper has even taken to comparing Jomo Kenyatta with Nelson Mandela, declaring that he was accommodating of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, whom he held under house arrest, and Tom Mboya, whom he murdered.

There is obviously little appetite for the truth. Like the coverage of the general election nine months ago, no one wants to be the on to rain on the national parade of self-congratulation, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Yet, like in March, this is an opportunity for real introspection, a chance to take stock of the achievements and failures of the past and to learn lessons for the present and future. It is an opportunity that we will waste little time missing, but a critical one nonetheless.

So what would we learn if we were honest about the past? At best, it's a mixed bag. At independence, the government identified poverty, disease and ignorance as the most urgent challenges. Fifty years later, it is undeniable that progress has been made. Poverty rates have been lowered, we have more pupils than ever in our schools and life expectancy is as high as it's ever been since independence. We were one of the very few nations in Africa to do pretty well in the 1970s-80s in terms of covering basic needs and have even become a major trading hub in the region, despite up-and-down growth rates. In fact, for the first time in our history, the economy stands a real chance of maintaining a growth rate of above five percent for more than five consecutive years. These are the stories we will likely hear. How we have overcome the legacy of colonialism and put ourselves on the path to wealth and dignity.

Less will be said of the fact that Kenya is actually one of the most unequal places on earth, that much of the progress, especially the growth in incomes, has largely been concentrated in the top five percent of the population. You will probably not hear about the failures of the Free Primary Education policy which has overcrowded the system, destroyed the prospect of quality education and, as whoever could take their kids out did, has driven up the cost of private schooling, locking the poor in a failing system. Or of our over-crowded and understaffed hospitals. Or of the fact that nearly a tenth of all babies do not survive to age five, most dying of preventable causes. The media will not lament the fact that though our lawmakers and government officials are among the highest paid in the world, we have no money to pay teachers, nurses and policemen.

Ordinary Kenyans will be exhorted to pull together for even further progress by 2063. They will be asked to rally behind their government and its visions of progress. They will not be reminded that they are locked in to a system that delays, not expedites, their emancipation from chains of dictatorship and poverty. They will not be encouraged to question the assumptions underlying the definitions of independence and sovereignty and to ask why the system only seems to work for a few.

In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, "the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system". Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead the Swedes put the blame on "the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behavior is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed."

In a similar manner, Kenyan political behavior has been conditioned by the design of our political system and how it has been managed since 1963 and beyond. We have been conditioned to expect failure or at best, mediocrity, from those we pay to deliver services to us. We have been conditioned to accept and move on when elections are stolen, when government revenue is used to line the pockets of elites, when alternative voices are silenced and when the news becomes little more than propaganda.

Kenyans are wont to blame themselves for electing poor leaders, for retreating into tribal cocoons, for driving badly, for the corruption, for the violence and crime. Yet, as Rev Timothy Njoya said recently, that is blaming the victims. We instead need to look at the design of the system we have been laboring under since before independence. We need to scrutinize the conduct of those charged with maintaining it. We must understand why it does not work for us. Why, for example, traffic rules seem to only make money for government and not stem the carnage on roads. Or why constitutional protections seem not to matter when government considers them inconvenient.

According to the World Bank, Kenya has the opportunity to achieve one of the goals we had at independence and eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. To do that, we need to reduce poverty by two percentage points each year. But that would only be possible if economic growth is accompanied by structural changes that reduce inequality and enable the poor benefit from new economic opportunities. We would also need to ensure that safety nets adequately protect them from vulnerability to shocks.

However, for this, and more, to happen, we need to be honest with ourselves about our system and those responsible for it. We will need to expose our past and resist the attempt, whether by politicians or journalists, to improve it. Even when this means raining on the golden jubilee parade.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Good Must Associate Or Fall

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." These are the simple yet unfailingly true words attributed to the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke. More than 200 years after his death, his observation is ringing true in modern-day Kenya. For there is no question but that evil is triumphing here. And that this is in huge part because good men (and women) are doing nothing.

We can't say we weren't warned. Following the flawed elections in March, there was much fuss kicked up, including by myself, about the push for the country to "accept and move on." Accept what? Move on to what? These were not questions that most, it seemed, wanted to engage with. We had "peace" and that was all that mattered.

Only, it wasn't.

Having accepted that there was no need to dredge up the sins of the recent past, we quickly found that we were being led along a path where any querying was discouraged. So we kept quiet when the government went after civil society, beginning with a campaign of delegitimisation and, more recently, through legislation meant to cripple their operations. We didn't demand accountability for the attack on Westgate or for the fire that razed the JKIA arrivals terminal. 

Neither were we overtly concerned when the government trampled on the rights of citizens in Nairobi's Eastleigh and in Garissa, nor when it begun to demonize refugees. Few of  us exhibited any angst over the continuing attempt by our political class to "improve" the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Report by editing out their transgressions against the people.  

Today, however, the newspapers and social media are filled with umbrage at the latest assaults on the media and the judiciary. Everyone, it seems, is belatedly rediscovering the constitutional limitations on government. But where was the outrage when the government ignored Section 143(4) of that same document and transformed the President's "personal challenge" into a national problem? Where were our columnists and pundits and human rights advocates and churches and mosques when ICC witnesses were being hunted down and either enticed of forced to withdraw from the cases? Why the silence when a prosecutor in Uganda hints that the Kenyans being tried there for the 2010 Kampala bombings were renditioned by their own government in violation of Kenyan law?

For far too long have we allowed the UhuRuto pair to terrorize us with their prophecies of doom and anarchy should we be foolish enough to ask intelligent questions. For far too long have we been accepting ignorance and moving on to tyranny. For far too long have we allowed the voices of disquiet to be silenced and preferred that our journalists entertain rather than inform us. For far too long have we sat back and quietly watched as the state turned back the clock and dismantled the rights and freedoms we fought to get back over the last twenty years.

So today many are angry and outraged. Good. But what to do with that ire and indignation? In a word: Unite. Let me return to Burke. In 1770, he wrote about the need for good men to associate to oppose the cabals of bad men. In his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, he says: "No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Similarly, we today are faced by a cabal of power-hungry and ambitious citizens in positions of power. These bad men have combined. They are working together to replicate the Nyayo Error. So far, they have been able to pick out their opponents, one by one: civil society, media judiciary, even the citizenry. If we continue to each stand alone, or worse, do as the Daily Nation did in a recent editorial, and attempt to sell one another down the river in hopes of appeasing the crocodile, we will all perish in "an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Rather, we must recreate the coalitions of the past that were so effective in forcing back the rapacious state. We must stand up for each other, civil society for the people, the people for the media, the media for civil society, the church for truth, the opposition for action. And most important of all we must stand up for accountability and stop doing nothing.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Morning After

If you play with fire you get burned. That was the reaction of many Kenyans to the Jubilee-controlled Parliament's passage of  a draconian law which restricts their advertising and imposes massive penalties for infractions by journalists and media houses. Many think the Kenyan media had it coming.

For some time now the Kenyan press has been in bed with the Jubilee coalition. Before the March election, they were complicit in the delegitimizing of civil society. Their silence over the flaws in the election and the idiotic Supreme Court judgement was a betrayal of the faith most had put in them. And ever since, from the Garissa "anti-terror operation" to the coverage of the Westgate attack, it has been one stumble after another, with journalists exhibiting an extreme reluctance to take on, question and criticize the government.

So the media is now being made to lie in the bed it made for the rest of us. They "slept on the job when vigilance was most needed" wrote one commentator. It is our schadenfreude moment, our turn to have some fun at the expense of our unthinking, celebrity-obsessed, state-worshiping newsmen. But as we do so, we should not lose sight of the fact that this is not just an attack against them. It is part of a sustained campaign by government to clamp down on dissent and roll back the democratic gains of the last twenty years.

The lies and threats that have become the government's preferred way of communicating with citizens are a throwback to the Fuata Nyayo era. Back to 1984, when, as Okech Kendo recently reminded us, President Daniel Arap Moi could declare that we should sing like parrots. "During Mzee Kenyatta’s period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune until people said: 'This fellow has nothing to say, except to sing for Kenyatta.' I said I did not have ideas of my own. Who was I to have my own ideas? I was in Kenyatta’s shoes and, therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted. If I had sang another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it.”

This is the darkness into which Kenya is being dragged. This is not just about an incompetent and sycophantic media getting its comeuppance. We need to look at this in the context of the subversion of the institutions of state to tackle the ruling couple's "personal challenges" at the International Criminal Court; the continuing efforts to crush political and governance minded civil society groups pushing for accountability for the crimes committed during the post-election violence of 2007/8; the rehabilitation of Moi as lovable statesman; and the push to vastly increase the state's surveillance of the people via the introduction of Nyumba Kumi.

We thus must pay particular attention to the proposed amendments to the Public Benefit Organisations Act which seek to curtail NGO's access to foreign funding. While this will cripple civil society organisations across the board, there is little doubt that the legislation targets those working to enhance transparency and accountability in  government. It is they whom Jubilee has consistently sought to demonize -again with the media's complicity- as Western stooges, they who were the backbone of the push for democratic freedoms in the 90s and they who ironically stood up for media freedoms when it was the turn of the Kibaki administration tried to introduce oppressive legislation.

We must be wary when the government says the cure to its bungling at Westgate is getting us to spy on one another. Nyumba Kumi, a concept which dates back to ancient China, has never been about security. It has always been a means to police dissent by turning all  citizens into state intelligence agents.

Now this is not to say that we do not need to reform the media. We do. But, unlike what is being attempted
by the state, we need to make the media more inquisitive and more suspicious of the government. We need to look into the increasing tendency towards media concentration and cross-media ownership; the fact that powerful politicians, including the President, own many of the largest media organisations and outlets. What effect does this have on the editorial policies and the public's access to information? According to Freedom House, many local journalists admitted that their election coverage required self-censorship to accommodate the interests of their respective media houses.We must also consider the effect  of big budget advertisers, including the government. Remember when just before the 2007 election, the state was accused of trying to trickle the Standard by denying it advertising?

The media can itself begin this process. It's howls of outrage sound more than a little hollow when there is little doubt that to date, it has pretty much been used to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent. It has been employed to scare us into silence, to discourage critical inquiry and to slander government critics. It has been a tool for legitimizing oppression, not a check on executive excess. Our journalists and editors now have an opportunity for introspection on their conduct over the last year, and to take a fresh look at those they were embedded with.

It is an opportunity to rediscover and recreate the old alliances with civil society and religious leadership that were so effective in confronting and rolling back the authoritarianism of the past. And that may just be the salve for their burns.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Kenyan Lootocracy

The footage of KDF looting the Westgate mall when they were purportedly fighting terror has caused understandable angst and anger among Kenyans. What is not clear to me is why we act surprised. After all, looting during times of national crisis is almost something of a national pastime.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find such instances. Remember the post-election violence? There was plenty of looting then. A shopping centre in Kisumu was stripped bare. Passengers getting off matatus in Kibera were robbed in broad daylight by supposed pro-democracy protesters.

Then once we had the Grand Coalition government, its first order of business was instituting a scheme to loot the national granary at a time when famine was stalking the country. By the time the politicians were done, a third of the country was starving.

In fact, throughout our history, Kenya has functioned very much as a Lootocracy. We were established as one by the British who after all came here to build a railway so they could loot the "Pearl of Africa". In the process, the decided they might as well steal from the natives in the area in between kingdoms of Uganda and the sea.

At independence, they handed the country over to a cabal of their lootenants, most of them former collaborators and homeguards, who continued to perfect the art of plunder and to transform it into a national ethos. Whatever they could lay their hands on, they stole. Government policy is today simply a vehicle for looting. Whether it is free primary education, retirement benefits for politicians or the VAT bill, it is still all about extracting money and resources from the natives.

This is why the MPigs feel little shame about demanding an obscene salary. Why the Judicial Service Commission feel nothing about earning equally obscene allowances for placing their bums on seats  and doing jobs they are already paid to do. It is why the commissioners of the defunct ECK would hold one-person meetings to access the same allowance. Why the police can loot and rape and kill refugees with impunity.

Thus, it is more than a touch hypocritical when we shout about KDF pillaging a mall but are silent when the government says it can only satisfactorily account for 6% of the money it spent last year. Or when Nairobi County proposes to spend nearly half a billion shillings to install 42 CCTV cameras around the city while it costs Pakistan less than 20 million to install 260 of them (our Chinese friends are apparently charging us a 16,200% premium).

The truth is few Kenyans would have behaved any different had it been them in that mall. The crowds that were gathered outside may have been there out of sympathy and curiosity but it is doubtless that many were there to scavenge too. It is the common story of long-lost "relatives" suddenly materializing at the homes of recently departed tycoons to demand their share of the spoils. Julius Nyerere once described us as a man-eat-man society. I think we behave more like a nation of vultures.

I think decades of predation by the government has destroyed our sense of community. We have become atomized, each man for himself, by the abuse meted out by state. Under the guise of “development” it has reduced humanity to a game of numbers, people to economic units, to little more than indentured labour in the machinery of extraction. Life itself has become commoditized. We have learnt to value productivity, not human beings, build markets not communities.

Our morality, our outrage, even our grief are all for sale to highest bidder.

I wonder what would happen if we tried to reimagine our communities, to see all people as people. Would we be more likely to build bonds with our neighbours instead of spying on them at the state’s behest. What if we saw the children of the poor who are currently locked into a failing education system as people? Would we be settling for gimmicks like the elusive free laptops as a panacea? What if we saw refugees or the victims of post-election violence as people? Would we demand justice for them? What if we saw women and girls as people? Or homosexuals as people? Or the other tribes as people? Or even ourselves as people?

Unfortunately until now, the lootocrats have encouraged us to do the opposite. To live by the law of the economic jungle, to uphold the morality of the market, only seeing each other as either potential threats or potential prey. They have urged us to fear others and not to trust ourselves. Because, just like we saw at Westgate, and during the elections and in countless other instances, the Lootocracy thrives in a climate where people are too terrified to ask uncomfortable questions.


Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Kenyan Roulette

Once, when I was young boy, one of my numerous uncles, a policeman by trade, came calling. He had with him a rifle and he set it down in the corner of the room. I couldn’t take my eyes of it as he and my dad chatted away. Its presence in the room was both terrifying and comforting. Terrifying because of what it could do. Comforting because, at least in my childish imagination, it would be doing it on my behalf, wielded by people on my side against those who would do me harm.

As I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I have come to see that the state’s capacity for violence is rarely comforting, that the state rarely wields its violence on my behalf. Rarely does it carry guns into homes to protect the people within. Neither is it a source of comfort to encounter them in the streets.

Though we like to tout ourselves as exceptional, as an island of peace, Kenya is actually a very violent place, where the language of violence is routinely used to mediate relationships, between parents and their children, teachers and their students, the men and their women, the rich and the poor, the state and its subjects Security and peace seem to have become the passwords to a system of exclusion that means at any time any of us could be at the receiving end even as we declare we have peace and security. On the receiving end, in fact, to preserve peace and security.

Violence has become normalized, acceptable, desirable even. It has become a way to build the nation by constantly defining ourselves in terms of opposition to one another. Kenyanness is constantly recreated  by acts of violence. Thus it becomes the height of patriotism to call for a war with Uganda over a tiny piece of rock in Lake Victoria. And unpatriotic to question the actions of the government in Somalia or in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attacks, Kenya will again be redefined by the violence we will mete out against those we have othered. Today it is the Muslims, the refugees, the Somalis, and the Somalians. There will be little outrage when doors in Eastleigh are kicked down and people in Garissa are hauled away and some village in Somalia is leveled the name of fighting terrorism. Just as when it’s the turn of civil society activists and ICC witnesses to be threatened or hunted down in the name of preserving a tenuous peace. Before them, the Kikuyu, the Luo, the the Kalenjin the Oromo, the Sabaots, the Pokot, the Turkana, the Whites, the Indians. Everyone gets their turn on the Kenyan Roulette.

In this Republic of Fear, there is little need for justice, or values, or rights. Only someone on whom to focus our ferocity, and with whose body and dignity to establish our claim to togetherness. We constantly terrorize and dehumanize. It is a place where the victims of that violence are told to accept and move on. Where cops laugh at women reporting rape. Where a senior public official can tell the hundreds of thousands displaced by the 2007/8 post-election violence that they came out “way ahead” and face no opprobrium. It is a place where we fight, not to end oppression, but for our turn to be the oppressors, our turn to eat.

The republic is defined by the very violence we say we want to end but yet celebrate. Where the fear, adorned in the language of civility, is what unites. Where we are one because, not despite, our terror of one another. A place where reconciliation becomes a euphemism for “until next time.” A place where economic growth need not generate good jobs nor end poverty, where the purveyors of violence take what they want, when they want. Where we dare not question official truths lest we are ourselved othered.

I suppose we are not unique. It is in the nature of states to be violent. They are after all the product of exclusion. Parceling out the world according to arbitrary imaginary lines drawn on maps by men of power can only create communities where the state is allowed to decide who is a human being and who is not and where we can legitimately have otherwise obscene arguments over who deserves dignity and who doesn’t. Where humanity is accessed and indeed defined by things like citizenship and passports and IDs, the state gets to certify your very existence and can declare you a non-person.

The malevolent power, represented by the menacing presence of that gun in the corner of the room, can only offer a temporary comfort, an illusory safety, a false peace. True comfort will only come with true community, when we embrace our humanity and refuse to be defined by the logic of the state, by the logic of othering, the logic of fear. When we are one with all, not just with those who look like us or speak like us or believe what we do. Otherwise, we'll just have to take our chances on the roulette.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Kenya Reawakened

Sometimes it feels like we can’t catch a break. A bruising election in March has left the country sharply divided and put two indictees of the International Criminal Court at the helm of its leadership. Just over a month after our largest airport went up in flames, and less than two weeks after our Deputy President went on trial for crimes against humanity, Kenya is once again in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

As terrorists stormed the prestigious Westgate mall in the heart of the city, most Kenyans had been struggling with the implications of the trial of William Ruto at the Hague. He is accused of masterminding the 2007/8 post-election violence that killed over 1,100 people. It was the first time a sitting Deputy Head of State was being tried at the International Criminal Court and there was a tangible sense of humiliation across the country. The first witness, a survivor of a church burning which killed 35 on New Year’s Day, 2008, had taken the stand and almost immediately her testimony begun to reopen old wounds and to rekindle ancient fears.

But in the wake of the almost unimaginable death and horror at the mall, all that seems to have been put to one side as Kenyans have come together in an impressive show of solidarity. The citizenry has literally responded with blood and treasure. When a call went out for blood donors, local hospitals were inundated and some had to turn people away. This morning, long lines of blood donors snaked across the city. Hospitals at one point were running out of blood bags, but not donors, so high was the turn out. An MPESA account set up for the victims has already raised millions of shillings. All over social media, on the streets and on air, the political bitterness of the last 7 months seems to have, at least temporarily, abated.

It is all very reminiscent of the reactions to the 1998 embassy bombings when Kenyans similarly came together. That atrocity, which killed 212 and injured thousands more, also came on the back of another divisive election, one that was accompanied with massive violence and displacement. Yet just 8 months after the vote, the people could come together in an impressive display of unity and fellowship.

Both these attacks have occurred in places in the city where the ethnic diversity is perhaps at its greatest. Since almost everyone knows someone who either was or might have been there, it is easy for it to be perceived as an attack against the whole. It is also, perhaps, an opportunity to externalize the fear and hostility generated by the political contests.

Of course, we must not forget that Westgate is not just a Kenyan, but an international space that hosts people from many different nations. It is not just Kenyans that are dead, wounded and grieving. There is a multiplicity represented there, of classes, races, religions, and we must resist the slide into a nationalistic jingoism.

Still, there is a meaningful lesson here regarding the nature of our polity.  More than anything, it demonstrates the artificialness of our supposedly deeply-entrenched ethnic and class differences, that deep down inside, there is a core at which we identify as Kenyans, not just as tribal rivals.  It shows that though we do have a tendency to retreat to ethnic conclaves every five years, the rest of the time we are Kenyans. And we only discard that Kenyanness when scared by the violence which is authored and perpetrated by our politicians and their militia.

So today Kenyans are Kenyans, all united by the outrage. For perhaps the first time since his controversial election, President Uhuru Kenyatta is President of all. His candid admission that he too lost close family members has shattered the class divide between the political elite who organize violence, and the poor who bear the brunt of it. His defiant statement echoed the defiance we all feel. We have been here before and emerged stronger.

The deluded killers at the Westgate mall may not realize it, but they have given us a chance to rediscover our common nationality. When these events have passed, and attention once again fixates on the cases at the Hague and on our divisive and scary politics, I hope we will not forget this moment, this feeling. It is important that we allow ourselves to remember that those too deal with real Kenyans, to allow ourselves to acknowledge their suffering, as we are acknowledging that at Westgate. That we recognize that by committing to the search for justice and truth, we can once again affirm and consecrate anew the ties that bind us.

Perhaps we just caught a break. One we would rather have not, but a break anyway.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Time to Remember

"Time heals all wounds" is a proverb I have never been particularly comfortable with. It is one of those sayings that is laden with a supposedly profound but somehow elusive truth. Like having your cake and eating it, which we do all the time. It's elusive because time by itself actually rarely seems to heal. Exes remain irreconcilable and vendettas continue long after memories have faded and the original slights are forgotten. Hot wars cool down, cold wars heat up, but the mere passing of the ages rarely seems to reconcile, to turn enemies into friends.

But what time does is dull memories. And today, less than 6 months after an election that was remarkable for the fear it inspired, Kenyans memories today are notably dulled. Senses are dulled too. We have breathed our sigh of relief and want to move forward. The cases at the ICC are, however, a discomfiting shout from a past we had hoped was dead and buried. Talk of the horrors of Kiambaa, the Facebook pictures of charred and bleeding bodies, are all recalling our forgotten fear.

It is important that we face this fear and that will require the courage and the integrity to do the work of remembering and confessing and resolving and reconciling and forgiving and deterring. A recognition that healing will not come from forgetting. All that will offer is a little temporary ceasefire, a chance to re-arm and sharpen more machetes in preparation for the next round of bloodletting. For while it remains hidden, the fear does not abate. It only festers, rotting away our national soul. Unattended, and Kenya will be a ticking time bomb waiting for the almost inevitable falling out -given our history- between Messrs Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto and the all too common realignments of political and ethnic alliances that leads to the exhuming of buried hatchets and rediscovery of "historical grievances".

We have been here before. After independence, the political classes who had been collaborating with the colonial state appropriated the struggles of the landless. They cast Jomo Kenyatta as the victim. Slowly, all but the most heinous atrocities were edited out along with their victims. And even the ones we were allowed to remember were only trotted out during Jamhuri day ad then promptly forgotten. As a result, the colonial state remained, only with blacks at the helm. And the abuse and dispossession and neglect continued. And the hostilities and fear grew. Trying to forget, to forge ahead, to build the nation, brought little relief. 5 years ago, these unresolved issues were the tinder set alight by the untrammeled ambition and warmongering of the political class.

Many of those same problems remain today. but the state and its mandarins are engaged in a whitewashing exercise. To remove the most visible manifestations of the fear while doing nothing about its causes. So we resettle IDPs without sorting out why they were displaced in the first place. First the President, and then Parliament, seek to gerrymander the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report to "improve" the testimony of 40,000 Kenyans who have been victims of and witnesses to the atrocities and theft and abuse visited upon Kenyans by their leaders and government. Foreign Secretary, Amina Mohammed goes on TV to say truth commissions should have "nothing to do with justice" and tribalism is not such a bad thing. Despite the fact during the campaigns, candidate Kenyatta had declared that the ICC was "a personal problem" and had nothing to do with the election, his government is pulling out all the stops to get the cases lifted arguing the exact opposite.

All this is part of a campaign to convince us to forget. To tell us that the events of half a decade ago were not as significant as they appeared. There wasn't much harm done. So the victims and their stories are today carefully and systematically edited out of the narratives of the violence. The dead have no one to speak for them. Our permanent representative at the UN, Macharia Kamau, today has the gumption to suggest that the 650,000 IDPs in fact got a great deal out of the 2007/8 post-election violence. After all, most were squatters before. They came out "way ahead". The raped, the scarred, the mutilated remain faceless. They don't matter, they are all lying witnesses. Nothing happened. We have reconciled. Accept and move on. It is Uhuru, Ruto and, to a lesser extent, Sang who are the real victims. Let's pray for them. The real outrage, we are told, is the court case, the attack on impunity, not the killing, raping, hacking, shooting and burning.

Yet the fear remains. We must resist the attempt to rewrite history, to lull us to sleep, to avoid the work of reconciliation. We must not take the easy road of forgetting. If we do, that terror will be nourished by the knowledge that we are all a part of this conspiracy. And we will continue to build the nation during the day and sharpen our machetes by night. For while time may not heal all wounds, it eventually will wound all heels.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Sin Of Being Female

In the last few days, our airwaves and social media accounts are inundated with opinions on what the verbal and physical abuse perpetrated against a female journalist and a female MP mean. I came across an online discussion where some were suggesting that the public humiliation of Kiss FM presenter Caroline Mutoko and Nairobi Women's Representative Rachel Shebesh at the hands of Nairobi Senator Gideon “Sonko” Mbuvi and Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, was a ploy to distract attention from the President and his deputy's problems with the ICC.

I personally find it disturbing that some evidently regarded discussing the violence, humiliation, sexism and exploitation that our women suffer daily as a distraction from more important issues.

How we treat our women is a measure of how we regard ourselves as a society. After all, Wanjiku has become a synonym for ordinary folk, both male and female. We speak of the motherland and ascribe a feminine gender to our national collective. Kenya is a “she” and has “her” interests, we say. The disdain we have for women mirrors the contempt our rulers have for us. When Kidero slaps Shebesh and Sonko insults Mutoko, they are not just putting powerful women in their place. They are expressing their contempt and fear of an empowered society, of a populace that dares to question the actions of their betters.

In my view, the problem isn't that people are talking about Sonko and Kidero. It is that they are ONLY talking about Sonko and Kidero. Not about how they are representative of a societal disdain of women. Not that this attitude is responsible for the silence on the rape epidemic in our towns, the horrors beading and FGM and domestic violence, the lack of investment in maternal health which leads women to be beaten by hospital staff after being forced to give birth on the floor.

It is why when we discuss abortion, we are blind to the dangers that pregnancy poses to women. We have one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world. Many lose their jobs or have to forgo their schooling for having the temerity to conceive unwanted kids. Many are ostracized by their families and abandoned by their men. Many have no incomes, no education, no support , to take care of the kids we insist they bear.

We refuse to invest in girls education, to protect them, to empower them, to provide sex education and contraception preferring instead to blame them, to call them fornicators and adulterers and murderers, to turn a self-righteous blind eye as they die in their thousands or get maimed for life at the hands of backstreet quacks.

It is never about the men. It is never about the abuse of power.

Accept and move on, we tell women. Suck it up. It's your lot as a woman. You must have done something to deserve it. It is just punishment for your immorality, for the sin of being female.

The parallels between how we speak of the abuse meted out against women and how we speak about the violence meted out against us are hard to ignore. It is always our fault. We drive too fast. We are too tribal or stupid or lazy or ignorant. It is never the fault of those who steal elections or organize and perpetrate the violence. It is never about the brutality, negligence and corruption of officials and officers. It is all our fault for making stupid decisions at the ballot box and we must pay taxes to fund our potentates’ lifestyles as just punishment for our guilt. The poor must forgo drinking milk because the government must have the revenues to build roads for the rich. We do not demand accountability or better because we do not think we deserve such.

Thus the talk on the ICC trials almost completely ignores and excludes the victims. We are only concerned about the safety of the powerful, about what their prosecution means and about whether they are being treated fairly. That 1600 Kenyans died five years ago barely registers. Who cares about them or their stories or their families? Just like the treatment of Mutoko and Shebesh is seen as a distraction, the demand for justice is portrayed as a distraction from the more important pursuit of economic development. Just as Shebesh's husband apparently feels it is he, not his wife, who deserves an apology from Kidero, the powerful see our lives and livelihoods as mere fodder for their ambitions and can stipulate that accords between political leaders can be a substitute for justice.

No. This is not a frivolous issue or a distraction. It is a conversation we should be having but one we are determined to ignore precisely because it is about women. And because it is really about us.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Courage To Be Free

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," said Benjamin Franklin. The arrest and nine-hour detention of Brazilian David Miranda at London's Heathrow airport has today re-ignited debate over the erosion of civil liberties in the war against terror. Miranda's treatment was widely seen as a vindictive attempt to intimidate his partner, and Guardian reporter, Glen Greenwald, for publishing information on US government spying on both its citizens and people across the world.

The source of Greewald's information was Edward Snowden, whom the West has turned into a fugitive, following in the footsteps of Wikipedia's Julian Assange, still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Chelsea Manning, who was recently sentenced to 35 yeas imprisonment for being the providing Wikileaks with thousands of secret US diplomatic cables. The scale of this unprecedented attack on civil liberties supposedly guaranteed in the West was recently underlined by reports of UK government goons overseeing the destruction of hard drives containing information relating to the Snowden leaks in the Guardian's basement.  "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more," one said.

As noted by Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organisation that defends freedom of expression, Miranda's arrest has also highlighted the fact that odious so-called "anti-terror" legislation is actually being used, not to target terrorists, but against against activists and journalists who dare to question and expose the "all-encompassing security response to terrorism and the human rights violations that result from it".

Any of this sound familiar?

In Kenya, the diminution of fundamental freedoms in the name of an elusive "peace" or security has been a fact of life for a long time now. By the time the election season rolled around, we had gotten used to the idea of trading innocent lives and the rights to a fair trial for the illusion of security. We cheered whenever the police announced their latest kills. "Cops gun down suspected thugs in shootout," was a regular headline. "Suspected" became more than a word. It became a means to strip people of their humanity. So few raised their voices when suspected thugs were shot and suspected witches were burned.

(It is worth noting, however, that in the hallowed halls of the powerful, "suspected" didn't have a similar connotations. For example, when calls grew for senior officials implicated in theft to resign, the government invented a new taxonomy where they could "step aside" and continue earning their obscene wages without the bother of working for them.)

In the run up to the election and in the time since, the dread of a 2007/8-like post-election conflagration has created an atmosphere where the public is increasingly willing to acquiesce to, if not support, the silencing of voices challenging official conduct and narratives. Like the Guardian in the UK, our media have become complicit in this silencing, destroying journalism standards under the watchful eye of the government's security apparatus. Editors have allowed the news to be lobotomised. Journalists do little other than parrot the official line and are more concerned with their celebrity status than in an informed audience.

The period following the election has demonstrated that, like in the West, these silences are not erected to protect the public, but rather to protect the elite, who have used the period to line their pockets with public cash, from prying eyes and uncomfortable questions. We have seen a bill in Parliament to "improve" the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission's report by deleting their names from it, the rehabilitation of Daniel arap Moi from erstwhile kleptocratic and brutal dictator, to lovable elder statesman as well as the revival of Nyayo-era intimidation by officials openly issuing warnings to those "fomenting disaffection against the government."

In this atmosphere, organised civil society has been effectively silenced. Calls for reform of the electoral system have been branded as the resurrection of a dangerous electoral politics. Human and political rights activists with a distinguished history of standing up for Kenyans' freedom and dignity are today designated as Western stooges and regularly receive death threats. With no public outcry, the government has passed a law allowing it to register and regulate the operation of civil society organisations. It has similarly drafted a bill to similarly muzzle the compliant press, again facing little public opposition.

In Kenya, as in other parts of the globe, there is an effort to convince the public that fundamental freedoms need to be curtailed for the sake of security. "Security, rather than human rights, has emerged as the algorithm de rigueur," says Callamard. This argument must be resisted for it seeks to mask the real causes of conflict and precludes effective remedy to both deliver justice and enhance security. The actions carried out under the cover of darkness or the cloak of secrecy, actions claimed to be necessary for national security, have time and again been shown to be neither necessary nor in the national interest. Revelations such as those from Wikileaks have demonstrated the folly of putting our faith in official pronouncements or in public professions of commitment to protection of fundamental freedoms.

We must instead insist on the means to monitor and punish any government malfeasance. We must insist on a press that is truly free and that takes its duty to inform, rather than entertain, the nation seriously. We must also insist that the government keeps its dirty hands off civil society and leaves them be to question and interrogate official conduct and policy. We must insist on a better electoral system and refuse to be bought off by talk of building the nation, economic growth and free maternity and laptops.

We must build up the courage to be free and come to understand that it is we, the citizenry, who are the ultimate guarantors of accountability in government. If we shrink back out of fear, if we sacrifice "liberty for a little temporary safety" then we not only won't deserve, we also won't achieve either freedom or security.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don't Forget The Other National Disaster

When the arrivals section of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport's Terminal 1 went up in flames, it was interesting to watch the government spring into action. within hours, President Uhuru Kenyatta was at the scene and he stayed there for a few hours more, supposedly to supervise the admittedly crappy response. He and his mandarins were on TV and online providing regular updates. Within days, he had restructured airport security, ordered an investigation into the fire and promised to build a new terminal and fully refurbish the existing three. "We are on top of this. We will find the problem and we will fix it," seemed to be the message.

It is a complete reversal of his ostrich-like attitude to the elections in March. Despite the many failures then, we have heard nothing about an audit or about reform. Quite the contrary. His deputy has declared that the IEBC did a "fabulous job." This cavalier approach is all the more surprising given that it was a bungled election that set the country alight 5 years ago.

You would think that a burning airport would be of less consequence than a burning country. But the Kenyatta administration seems to care more for the former than the latter.

The smouldering terminal is the perfect symbol for a smouldering nation. The election fiasco has left many angry and disillusioned with the hollowness of democracy. Autocracy stalks the land. From the rehabilitation of Daniel Arap Moi to the increasingly bellicose and threatening language of the new Principal Secretaries, it is clear that the country is heading down the wrong path.

The airport fire was the result of multiple institutional failures. Over the last few days, the evidence of the country's lack of effective disaster prevention and response tragedies has been overwhelming and is leading to calls for change. Already, President Kenyatta has declared the overhaul of our national disaster services with the formation of a new agency to spearhead coordination. But what about that most severe of threats to our national fabric, the election?

The institutional failures in March must also be addressed. When the IEBC cannot say who or how many voters it registered; when all the systems meant to ensure the transparency and credibility of the poll fail; when the newly minted Supreme Court refuses to consider evidence on a technicality and offers up a moronic judgement; then we are playing with fire.

Just like there were reports of immigration and Kenya Airports Authority staff shooing people away from a small fire while leaving it to become an inferno, our politicians are shooing us into the safety of our tribal stockades while leaving the country to burn. We must resist this. The charade of "accept and move on" poses real risks down the line. If we do not seek to understand and address the problems of the last election, we will go into our next one even more divided and even more frightened.

Today the air is thick with talk of national disaster preparedness. Every pundit on TV and on the internet is offering his two cents on what failed and what needs fixing. Yet the March elections were every bit a national disaster as was the JKIA fire. And when we speak of improving our capacity to prevent and respond to disasters, we must also speak of how we are responding to the election and what we are doing to prevent catastrophe in 2017.

I, for one, would much rather see President Kenyatta taking the lead in, and giving regular updates on, that effort. And I would much rather the talking heads were putting that at the top of the national agenda. Let's get on top of this. Let's find the problem and let us fix it

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Who Will Bell The Cat?

Less than three years after we promulgated a new constitution, meant to herald a new era of democratic governance, our polity is facing a severe crisis of legitimacy. Today few Kenyans believe their MP represents them. Half the country thinks the presidential election was stolen and the revelations of IEBC incompetence threaten the credibility of the entire March General election. Untrammelled rent-seeking by the new county authorities and petty arguments over the appropriate manner of addressing housing and transporting governors and their wives are making a mockery of devolution. We are now the fourth most corrupt nation in the world.

The system is broken. So why aren't we fixing it? Why aren't we even talking of fixing it?

I think we may be seeing the consequence of a deficit in accountability. We are already well past the point at which our shamocracy pushed honesty and prudence out of public office. Now that the thugs and tribalists have taken over, they are systematically deconstructing our national identity and replacing it with ethnicities. This fracturing of identity makes it much harder for the people to mount collective action to punish thieving elites.

One of the primary ways (by no means the only one) the masses can enforce accontability is through elections. But we live in terror of elections. And with good reason. Elections work, 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.

However, in poor and diverse societies such as ours, electoral competition undisciplined by accountability and enforced rules curtailing scope for cheating as well as constraints on the exercise of power, can be very dangerous indeed. Politicians are evaluated on their propensity for patronage, further polarizing the fractured identities and leading to higher risks of violence.

We don't have to look far for examples of what happens when we stay on the road we are on. Cote D'Ivoire and Somalia have been through this. The former was once Africa's economic miracle and is now a basket case. The latter is one of it's most ethnically homogenous societies, which has been tearing itself apart for more than two decades. We ourselves had a taste of it in 2007.

The lack of accountability and fracturing of the national identity is the road to hell. It is why we are deathly afraid of elections. When accountability for the deaths of 1500 Kenyans is swept under the carpet in the name of a fake reconciliation, when we elect thugs to public office and turn a blind eye to electoral malfeasance in the name of peace, we are just storing up further troubles down the road.

It is also proof positive of the hollowness of our democracy. A free people should have no reason fear electoral contests. And to the extent that we do, we are neither free nor a people.

So what is to be done? The politicians will not fix it. Their unrestrained greed for power and prestige is a big part of the problem. Also, the president and his henchmen do not want to broach the issue for fear of having to acknowledge that their victory is stained. None other than the Deputy President has openly declared that the IEBC, despite its manifold failures, did a "fabulous job." Presumably he meant in installing the ruling clique's preferred candidate. In Parliament, a similar reluctance to highlight the problems springs from similar motivations: impugning the integrity of the system impugns the legitimacy of all incumbents. It was telling that when calling for reforms, the opposition CORD alliance threatened to boycott the next General Election. But that's in five years time! The system needs to be fixed today.

No. We have to look elsewhere. And we have a ready example from our recent past. It was a coalition of civil society, churches, media and disaffected politicians which mobilized the Kenyan people and the international community to stand up to the Moi dictatorship in the 1990s and to demand accountability. This coalition can be re-formed. But for that to happen, we need to shake off the fear and ignorance that seems to infect its parts.

Civil Society must come out from hiding and find the courage to speak out. The media must rediscover its core function of informing the public. The lobotomising of the news must stop and journalists should go back to being newsmen and not performing monkeys. The church (and the mosque) must rediscover their moral centres. And politicians must reacquaint with principle. Most importantly, the silence must stop. If this is done, then the people and the international community will regain their voice, just as they did twenty years ago and force reform on the elite.

But all this takes courage. It takes leadership. So the question is: In a nation where we have turned men into mice, who will bell the cat?

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The End of "Accept and Move On"?

For the first time in a long while, there's reason for hope. Hope that the veil of darkness and silence that had descended upon Kenya following the election has begun to lift. It may be that it is always darkest before the dawn but just as those of us insisting on an examination of what went wrong were beginning to feel anachronistic, a typically Kenyan piece of political theatre seems to have brought the whole "accept and move on" charade to a screeching halt.

It all begun with Kethi Kilonzo's nomination for the Makueni senatorial seat left vacant by the death of her dad and ended with the incompetence of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission put on full display. Today, it is immaterial (though it shouldn't be) whether Kethi lied about being a registered voter and whether she presented fake, forged or stolen documents to bolster her case. The spotlight is squarely on the IEBC which has been shown to have used differing standards to register voters as well as an inability to maintain an accurate and consistent record of how many voters it had actually registered, whom they were and when it registered them.

Coupled with its inability to verify that info on voting day following the widespread failure of the electronic voter identification system as well as the inability to verify vote counts following the failure of the electronic results tallying system, this inevitably calls into question the credibility of the election and its declared result. That doubt is further reinforced by the fact that more than four months after the election, the IEBC is yet to publish the full results of the election amid reports of difficulties explaining the one million voters who seemingly only voted for their choice of president but not any of the 5 other races, behaviour that no electoral observer seemed to have witnessed.

The Kethi show has exposed the rot behind the wall of silence and denial and, in the light of its revelations, it seems Kenyan society is beginning to wake up to the possibility that it may have been the victim of massive fraud. This awakening is being led by the media. "Today there was an all-out war by the media on IEBC, did we miss the bus three months ago?" tweeted KTN journalist Dennis Donsarigo after apparently suddenly discovering the multiple voter registers. The Law Society of Kenya also seems to have realized that letting the IEBC conduct an audit of its own performance is not necessarily a good idea. "There is no way you can audit yourself that is why we have started our own independent investigations that would look into IEBC's conduct following the last polls," declared its chairman, Eric Mutua.

Aside from the IEBC, there is another institution that will need to be scrutinized. Given all the inconsistencies, incompetence, contradictions and outright fraud that is being brought to light, the Supreme Court of Kenya's declaration of the election as free and fair looks tenuous indeed. Basically, the court would have us believe that a dubious voter registration exercise, dubious voter registers and a dubious vote tally delivered a credible election. Chief Justice Mutunga and his 5 colleagues have some explaining to do especially after they refused to consider all the evidence and issued a joke of a judgement.

Finally, we may feel the need to re-examine the constitution and electoral laws. For example, we clearly need to have a longer period between the actual election and inauguration to allow for proper hearing and disposal of presidential petitions. Other issues arising from a proper audit of the roles played by the IEBC and the Supreme Court in this tragicomedy may also point the way to other necessary legislative reforms.

But, more than all these, I hope it will lead to a real soul-searching among the Kenyan people. How could we let ourselves be so easily blinded and misled? How were we so easily stampeded into our tribal stockades? How did we end up with a government headed by persons suspected of the most heinous crimes against humanity, a senate and parliament peppered by suspected drug barons and ex-cons and whose members seem only keen on self-aggrandizement? How is it that our devolved county governments seem to be little better? How come all our politicians seem little more than bigoted tribal kingpins, what John Githongo describes as "Kenya's most committed tribalists, thieves, liars and anti-Kenyans"?

The book Wars, Guns & Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places by Paul Collier offers some interesting insights. His research reveals that democracy, at least as practiced in the ethnically diverse societies of "the bottom billion" -what used to be called the third world- has led to increasing polarisation, increasing conflict and has driven the honest and meritorious out of public life. Sound familiar? The key phrase there is "democracy as it is practiced." For we do not really practice democracy. What we have is a shamocracy: it looks like democracy but is really nothing more than a sham: elections but not the power of choice; constitution but not the rule of law; a free press that tells us nothing; the language of tolerance and universal rights, but none of the protections. It turns out, however, that while actually being a democracy is very good for poor countries, pretending to be one can be very bad. And that is what we've been doing.

It is time we got back on the reform bandwagon and became serious about democratizing. Only this time, we must begin by reforming and democratizing ourselves. We must stop the pretense. And we must begin by insisting on the rehabilitation of civil society, our guiding light in the dark days of autocracy (which, by the way, is way worse than pretend democracy). Actually, we should beg their forgiveness for the way we have allowed them to be mistreated and misrepresented. Thereafter we must together begin the task of self-examination. The now-forgotten TJRC report would be a great place to start.

This can be a proper Jubilee year, not just in name, a fake foisted on us by a bunch of politicians. It can be the beginning of a period of recollection, restitution and forgiveness. We can begin to understand the and resolve the problems of the past and put those ghosts to rest. And we can together agree on what needs to be done about the last elections and begin to chart a way forward. If we do so, in 5 years time we can celebrate a true milestone along the path to real democracy and nationhood. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kenya: Is The Dream Over? Wake Up And Smell The Fear.

Lately, questions have started to be asked about the conduct and outcome of the election. And the more information leaks out, the more the questions keep coming. For me, the first significant crack in the official facade came at the end of May. Buried deep in an otherwise unremarkable story about the IEBC's proposal to change the way public funding for political parties would be calculated, is a startling admission by an unnamed Commissioner: "We are having sleepless nights reconciling the presidential results and those of the other positions. Over a million votes must be reconciled with the others."

If the Commission is indeed burning the midnight oil to "reconcile" the fact that one million voters seemed to have discarded 5 of the 6 ballots they were given without anyone noticing, and then only cast a vote for the presidential election, then that would raise more serious doubts over the integrity of Uhuru Kenyatta's victory. More than three months after the election, the IEBC is yet to release the full election results and every day, this delay further erodes the already shaky public confidence in the electoral process. A recent opinion poll by Infotrak found that nearly half of all of Kenyans had their doubts which pretty much reflects the divided nation. Even Western governments that were eager to ignore concerns over the veracity of the results and in a rush to  embrace the new administration, seem to be backing off a little. "Uncertainty following Kenya’s elections" was last week given as one of the two reasons US President Barrack Obama's is ducking Kenya (the other is obvious).

You would think that all this would be enough to shake the Kenyan media and society out of its post-election slumber. You might expect outraged protests, ala Brazil and Turkey. Of course you'd be wrong. As a society, we seem resolutely determined, in what has become the prevailing mantra, to "accept and move on." Although a vocal and increasingly strident and shrill minority continues to man the online barricades and trade insults, much of the society has indeed moved on. But what is it that we have moved on to and what have we accepted?

Every time I hear the phrase, it seems to mark the end of a dream. Today the election seems like a world away. Instead of a celebration of nationhood, it has become something else to forget, another nail in Kenya's coffin. As the simmering resentment of those on the losing side is swept under the carpet of indifference and resignation and the winners attempt to drown their doubts in a histrionic cacophony of  shallow optimism and empty chest-thumping, one can't help feeling that questioning the poll is flogging a dead horse. 

Time to wake up and smell the fear, I suppose. There is a real reluctance to go back and explore what happened. A real terror of peering behind the curtain of official truth, of what that might reveal, of what it might provoke. In this atmosphere, thick with our terror of each other and of our common past, "accept and move on" is a comfort blanket that smothers the spark of outrage while soothing the afflicted conscience. In its embrace, we are suffocating the idea of Kenya, of a nation of rights, responsibility and opportunity for all; where life, hope and choices are not defined by one's surname.

Even when we rail against the brazen greed of MPigs or the alleged racism of ArtCafe, the anger sometimes seems contrived. We wish we could feel as genuinely Boniface Mwangi seems to, and in the throes of an imagined outrage, we may even swear to attend the next Occupy Parliament demo. Deep inside, I think, we recognize that something has changed. Something fundamental. A sense that Kenya and Kenyans cannot long endure in this fearful place where we have exchanged the truth for the lie, where we hide things in plain sight.

That realization is, I think, Kenya gasping for breath, for life. Yet we want to move on and forget. Every morning it is a little easier to ignore the cries of a dying nation, to accept that the pursuit of justice is an inherently dangerous thing. As every day inflicts upon us new outrages, pretty soon, what should be outrageous becomes normal. And we learn to ignore or silently endure the humiliations. The national spirit shrivels even further.

Where we once looked to freedom and rights, understood ourselves to be exceptional in our part of the globe, were proud of our fractious and loud media and civil society, today we celebrate silence and lies and tyranny and manipulation. Where we once we saw ourselves as a beacon for the region, we have become a place to hide, where questions are not answered but themselves queried. No longer an island of peace, we are today content to swim in a sea of chaos, corruption and injustice.

The other day I got to thinking that perhaps we've given up on doing better because we believe we've already tried it and it didn't turn out so well. In 2002, we elected the activists. We tried the good guys. We gave them their shot and they gave us tyranny and assassinations, and corruption and Anglo-Leasing and the Arturs. Perhaps this is why we now do not care for civil society. And why we've turned the country over to the bad guys, the corrupt, the wicked, the indictees and the drug dealers. They surely could do no worse!

But the election has given us an important insights into our own part in abetting this poverty of values among the governing elite. The brutal, kleptocratic leadership can afford to ignore us because they are aware that deep down we are afraid that we are just like them. That we are just as murderous. It is this awareness that we fear but it is also, paradoxically, the truth that will set us free. For only by accepting responsibility for the past, can we own our future. By learning to believe in our own agency and to stop hiding behind the tribe or leader.

I don't want to accept and move on, to forget what the election revealed. I don't want to turn from it or paper it over or minimize it. I want to face it. Remembering and acting upon that remembrance is the only salvation for Kenya.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Devolving Media And Civil Society

Nakuru is impressive. Visiting for the first time in many years, I was struck by the changes in city's skyline. It has the feel of a boom town and, I was told, real estate prices have shot through the roof. Two years ago, the UN rated it as Africa's fastest growing town and the fourth fastest in the world. No mean achievement.

While there, I was privileged to met an elderly lady who was introduced to me, in that quaint rural tradition which names parents after their children, only as Mama George. She's a seasoned political activist who despite her advanced years, is still full of passion ("Government makes my blood boil," she told me). Her wrinkled eyes danced as she related tales of the fight for multiparty democracy, walking from Nakuru to Nairobi to participate in the Saba Saba protests and how every January, a group of these veterans still gather in Nairobi to water a tree they planted in honor of the struggle. It is a travesty, I remember thinking, that we do not ourselves exalt these heroes; ordinary Kenyans who did extraordinary things; who refused to be cowed by the violence of a dictator; whose courage and determination laid the ground for the freedoms we take for granted today.

I didn't ask what she made of today's society but I suspect I know what she would think of the fear we displayed during the election; of the refusal to face up to our history; of a nation that forsakes justice for a temporary peace and values economic growth over its citizens' rights and freedoms.

But Nakuru has other lessons to teach. Driving just outside the town centre, one encounters huge heaps of garbage. The towns landfill is overflowing and everyday truckloads of rubbish are being deposited by the roadside. It's not just a stinking eyesore, but a potential public health hazard. KTN covered this a few days ago but it is clearly not an issue the national media is in any danger of running away with. It is reminiscent of the garbage crisis in Mombasa which may get a sporadic mention in between the mouthfuls of soap operas. It led to conversations with locals about the need to restructure our press and civil society to keep up with devolution.

As Kenya moves to devolve governance, one wonders how county residents will keep county governments honest. The experience with devolved funds, such as the Constituency Development Fund, over the last decade should be a wake up call. The opacity and lack of accountability that  characterized the operation of these instruments must not be repeated with county governments. Similarly, the traditional neglect of local government (except for the fights that accompanied mayoral elections) must not be transferred to county governments. We must not allow county issues to continue to be crowded out by the national conversation.

However, our media and civil society organizations are currently not suited to deliver this. They remain  resolutely centralized, Nairobi-based and focused on national issues. We need to start thinking about how to encourage the growth of county based CSOs which can articulate local issues and put pressure on the devolved governments. Ditto for the media. Local reporters covering local issues for local publications or broadcasters would be critical to keeping the county governments on their toes. Following up on their handling of issues such as the garbage crisis in burgeoning Nakuru is not the sort of thing national media do well but would be the bread and butter of county media. Strong local media would not only improve governance, but also a shot in the arm for county economies, creating jobs and providing a means for county level businesses to reach local consumers.

Devolving media and civil society along with government is essential if citizens are to hold county authorities to account for the services they are owed. It will ensure that county governments will be focused, not on posturing for a national audience, but on local issues, which will ultimately have the most impact on the lives of the people. If we as a society did this, we may just stand a chance of winning back the favour of Mama George.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Real Tyranny Of Numbers

Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury, Henry Rotich, yesterday unveiled a budget which included measures to reintroduce the controversial VAT Bill which, he says, seeks "reduce the cost of compliance" with our tax collection mechanisms. This Bill, which will likely see a large increase in the price of basic commodities including food, sanitary towels and books, is presented by a government that during the election promised to lift 10 million people out of poverty.

How this is achieved by making everything from sanitary towels to food and books 16% more expensive and driving up the cost of living sounds very much like modern-day alchemy. But that is until you consider how our system works. You see, in Kenya, policy is not about helping human beings -individuals or even communities. It is about the statistics and indices whose upward or downward trend is a measure of our success or failure as a society.

These figures and averages, instead of providing insight, are now used to mask reality. The joke goes, when Bill Gates walks into a bar, on average everyone there becomes a millionaire. Similarly, the growth in averages like GDP, is used to hide the fact that much of society is still actually deeply steeped in poverty and that much of the increase in wealth is concentrated at the top. We define poverty by how much disposable income a family has, not by, for example, whether they can access a decent hospital and how far they have to walk to get there. Thus our solution is not to build more health centers, but to grow the economy.

This tyranny of numbers, the triumph of neo-liberal thought, is having a real and disturbing effect on how we understand ourselves and our society.  We have been transformed from wananchi to taxpayers, from citizens to consumers. The economic relationships have been privileged above all others. It is of course reflective of a global trend where entire countries and regions are now referred to as nothing more than markets.

We are encouraged to think of ourselves as disposable units of production; our land, history, art, culture, and even education as nothing more than repositories of monetary value. Thus we prostitute our traditions for the sake of a few tourist and politician dollars. Art becomes investment, not a means for society to understand itself. Wildlife is not a heritage to be studied and understood but a resource to be sustainably monetized.

Journalism is today about performance and entertainment, not information and education. The news is a show and the electorate little more than a passive audience. Why would they be expected to be interested in, much less understand, the nuances of something as boring and undoubtedly complex as voting systems or the VAT Bill? Leave it to the pundits, lawyers, politicians and economists. They know best.

We are even passing this on to our children. Earlier this week, Cabinet Secretary for Education Jacob Kaimenyi, announced that engineering and medical students in public universities are to pay more than their counterparts in the humanities. Lecturers' pay is to be similarly differentiated. The message is crystal clear. Some university courses are more preferable and profitable. Some knowledge, especially sciences and tech, is more desirable. Education is not about molding minds and unleashing creativity. It is about generating a globally competitive workforce. Students are future workers not thinkers.

A lecturer in Makerere University describes it as the “marketization” of education. “Our society has lost track of the meaning and value of knowledge and education,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, who teaches History. In fact, many universities have already started operating, in the words of Christopher Lucas, author of Our Western Educational Heritage, as “an appendage to the world of business.” A study carried out a few years ago revealed that although courses such as agriculture, conflict resolution, criminology, disaster management, literature, poetry, and ethical education, though more relevant to sustainable development, are being relegated to the back burner.

This contraction in our imagination of what it means to be a human being, or a citizen, explains why we are so easily bought off, so easily "misled" by our politicians. It explains why our idea of Kenya is more akin to a cake than a country; why we speak of turns to eat; and why governance is about sating appetites, not service. It is why we continue to be ruled by the demagogue, the tribalist, the mendacious and the kleptomaniac.

It is why we are content to reduce our citizenship to mere economic participation and condition fundamental rights on economic status. Why we are happy for poor kids to attend free schools without asking about the quality of the education they are getting. Why we are blind to our history, and the history of that history. Why we fear to ask difficult questions and are constantly terrified by the violence we believe simmers under the surface of our otherwise "peaceful" political life.

The fact is, we will not grow our way out of these issues. Economic growth will not be a panacea for the inequality and poverty that afflicts our society. On the contrary, it will exacerbate them. We must rethink the rationale of the state, the why of Kenya. We must break out from the tyranny of the numbers and realize that the economy and the market exist to serve us, not the other way round.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Media Culpa

It is a strange world our media seems to inhabit nowadays. At the end of last week, the Star's weekly pullout, Expression Today, contained what comes perilously close to a collective mea culpa for the coverage of the election.

"We over-trusted the IEBC," NTV Managing Editor declares. The overriding concern of journalists, one of the articles concludes, was "peace," not using election reporting "as an opportunity for national political education" in the words of Ipsos Synovate research Analyst, Tom Wolfe. Capital FM News Editor, Michael Mumo, says he was puzzled by the media downplaying or ignoring events that did not fit into the "peace" narrative (given his job title, one wonders why he should be puzzled at all and who in fact was making the news decisions!) Even the usual apologists seem to accept the media was too busy preventing a repeat of the 2007/2008 violence to actually do its job, though they obviously think that was a good thing.

The pullout criticizes the lack of analysis and discussion of the Supreme Court decision as well as the "sloppy" coverage of the decision of the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to drop charges against Francis Muthaura and its implications (and that of the other crumbling cases) for the search for justice in Kenya.

Sounds like a good start, eh? But as I read it, I found myself having to constantly refer to the date on the masthead to ensure I was actually reading the most recent edition. For all the navel-gazing, the media is still transfixed by the election period.

If the media truly wants to regain the trust of its audience, it needs to do more than a little self-flagellation. Actual changes must flow from a deeper understanding of, not just failures during the election, but the disturbing trends we have witnessed since.

Like the poor coverage of stories such as the Garissa "anti-terror" operation, the lack on interest in the delays and shenanigans leading to the release of the TJRC report, the blind fascination with the new administration and mindless parroting of government propaganda, the triumph of form over substance, showmanship over journalism, entertainment over information.

Perhaps the media could start to tackle the undisguised misogyny that has become a staple of our news. Like the humiliation of seven young women whom the media publicly accused of bestiality without offering a shred of proof. Like the Nation publishing a suggestion from one of our prominent psychiatrists that victims of sexual abuse may themselves be mentally ill for wishing to report their abusers. Like TV anchors seeing the funny side of a woman being stripped in public for supposedly dressing indecently. Like the recent article that observed that though still "wonderful, colourful creatures," women still need men to help them run companies and to presumably cheer the inevitable cat-fights.

How about they query articles such as Jacob Ng'etich's who, writing in the Standard, has produce a glowing rendition of Deputy President William Ruto's rise to power absent any mention of the shadowy moments of that career: the allegations of corruption, the charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly funding and organising murderous militia during the 2007/8 post election violence.

The truth is our press has much to seek forgiveness for. But before they get that, a full and honest audit of their performance to date, as well as a commitment to doing things better, is the least we should demand.