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.

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