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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Government Knows Best

Barely four years after it was inaugurated with much pomp and ceremony, Kenya’s new constitution is being undone. The Security Amendment Bill introduced in Parliament last week portends the return of the all-powerful, unchecked executive and its intrusion into almost every facet of Kenyans’ lives.

Under the guise of giving the government the tools to fight insecurity, the proposed gives government wide and unchecked discretion in defining what constitutes a threat and taking measures to mitigate against it. It cuts a large swathe through constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy, fair trial, assembly, information, expression and thought as well as freedoms from arbitrary detention and even torture, in a misguided attempt to respond to rising incidents of insecurity including terrorist attacks.

This atrocious piece of legislation is just the culmination of a long period of Kenyan elites undermining the foundations of liberal democracy in Kenya. The fact is, while the adoption of the new constitution should have heralded the democratisation of government, the logic of tyranny was largely left intact.

In Kenya, as elsewhere, the fight for freedom has primarily boiled down to a struggle against the notion that government and ruling elites know what’s best. From colonial times, the people in power have disguised their oppression under a proclaimed special knowledge and patronising parental concern for those they oppressed. The British claimed to govern in the interests of the native population, to be the altruistic purveyors of civilisation, even as they murdered, looted and repressed.

However, it is plain that many who led the struggle for freedom, did not themselves fundamentally reject this idea. Successive post-independence governments similarly claimed to be “baba na mama” to the Kenyans they were robbing blind and whose rights they were trampling underfoot. For them, it was not oppression that was the problem, but rather who it was doing the oppressing. Following their footsteps, in 2003 the late John Michuki, a former colonial enforcer reinvented as a minister in the government of Mwai Kibaki which ended four decades of despotic KANU rule, suggested that constitutional reforms were no longer necessary since the sole objective had been to unseat the dictator, Daniel arap Moi.

In fact, with Moi’s demise, the struggle ceased to be about principles and increasingly became about power, and between those who had it and those who wanted it. Many of the leading lights of civil society and the church marched straight into government and into the annals of corruption and kleptocracy. Not only was there a failed attempt to foist a bastardized version of a new constitution on Kenyans in 2005, but by 2007, the electoral arrangements that had been negotiated with Moi to ensure a credible poll in 2002, were being rolled back.

Following yet another round of election related blood-letting, a new constitution was inaugurated in 2010 which was meant to change the way our politics worked. But, as last week sadly showed, that is yet to take root. Too many ordinary Kenyans have been seduced into thinking that the government knows best, that it is actually the checks on the arbitrary exercise of power that are the problem, that instead of protecting constraining rogue government, the constitution is making us more vulnerable to terrorism. Despite the fact that it has largely failed to implement the security system as envisaged in our constitution and laws, the government has spun its own incompetence into a narrative of excessive constitutional restraints.

So once again we hear the refrain that “Uhuru Kenyatta is not Moi. You can trust him with power.” The false narrative is propagated that it was Moi, not the concentration of unchecked power in the Presidency, that led to the state-sponsored terror that killed many more Kenyans and destroyed many more Kenyan lives than its religiously and ideologically inspired cousin. We even hear talk that some oppression is actually fine, even desirable, and that Moi, who has today been rehabilitated from oppressive and kleptocratic tyrant to strong and wise leader and elderly statesman, was an effective bulwark against terrorism, even as he massacred and terrorized.

Kenya’s slide into the seductive embrace of authoritarianism has been aided by the silencing of alternative voices, the continuing demonization of civil society and the lobotomising of the news agenda. Its purpose is to keep the citizenry divided, blind and uninformed, only privy to the official truths of government spin-masters. The publication of government press releases as news by the insipid media, and the Church’s support for tyranny demonstrate just how successful the government has been.

The Security Amendment Bill is the fruit of these efforts and Parliament’s rush to adopt it is proof that the idea of the Assembly as a check on Executive excess and not a rubber stamp for its decisions, has also been abandoned.

In the end, it is the people who must do the work of protecting the country from its government, the labour of upholding the constitution. While some, under the banner of “civil society” or “opposition” can take the lead, it does not absolve the citizen from this duty. Just as it is the ordinary Kenyan who will suffer from the worst excesses of unaccountable government, it is we who must resist its re-emergence.

We must not be suckered by the false notion that the government knows best. It doesn’t. And even when we might be inclined to believe its good intentions, history shows, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Those you think are on your side today may very well turn out to be your oppressors tomorrow and the laws being cheered on today will be the yoke of tomorrow’s subjugation. That is the reality that Kenyans will sooner or later have to wake up to. 

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