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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.