Kenyans are a peculiar lot. Even though we love to condemn and demonize the ruling class, we are forever reluctant to accept that any of the individuals that make up that class may themselves be individually bad or inept. Therefore we are constantly making up excuses for their failures.
For example, during the murderous and kleptocratic Nyayo regime, it was common to hear the dictator, Daniel arap Moi, described as a kindly and wise old man who had unfortunately been misled by his coterie of advisors. Mwai Kibaki similarly escaped much of the blame for the deadly rifts his administrative choices deepened within Kenyan society and which set the stage for the bloodletting that followed the disputed 2007 election.
The many fumbles that characterised Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure have also been laid at the feet of bad advisors. Even his political rivals and critics have tended to lay the blame for his controversial decisions, from making illegal appointments of parastatal heads, to authorising the paying of billions of shillings to briefcase Anglo-Leasing type companies, to ignoring court orders, at the feet of the members of his kitchen cabinet.
The assumption that our rulers only want what’s best for us and are constantly being subverted by the hand-picked groups of courtiers and groupies they bring into office is both curious and delusional. And it prevents us from seeing the real nature of the regimes that continue to oppress and impoverish and marginalize large sections of our citizenry.
Take the discussions over the conviction of one Alan Wadi Okengo on charges of hate speech and for undermining the President’s authority as a public officer. The university student’s obnoxious and virulent postings of Facebook undoubtedly offended many and broke the law. From that perspective at least, his speedy arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing for hate speech for calling for the deportation of Kikuyus to central Kenya is to be welcomed.
However, as many commentators have rightly noted, others who have spewed similar hate both online and offline have yet to meet a similar fate. Compare the treatment of Mr Okengo with that of Hon Moses Kuria, who has now twice been in court, charged with a similar offence. While the former was quickly sentenced to jail despite his offer of an apology and retraction, there has been a seeming reluctance to lock up the latter. On the Gatundu MP’s second visit to the courthouse, the prosecution, while declaring that he had broken his bail terms, did not appear interested in having him committed to jail. Further, the legislator has been offered a generous out-of-court deal where he avoids jail time by apologising for and recanting his remarks as well as convening a “stakeholders’ meeting”.
But the pundits seem reluctant to draw the obvious conclusion: that the government is not really interested in fighting hate speech. Rather, it is selectively applying legislation to target hate mongers who happen to be critical of it. So that the fault is not in its actions, but in its intent.
The second charge is even more worrisome. Mr Okengo was faulted for a posting that ridiculed the signing into law of the Security Amendment Act by “silly and bangi (sic) President” and which was then construed as undermining the authority of a public officer. By this ruling, the court has vastly expanded the scope of Section 132 of the Penal Code. It is instructive to remember that this section was enacted in 1952, the same year the colonial government declared and Emergency over the agitation for freedom and independence, and the same year President Kenyatta’s father was thrown in jail. That this law is still on our books more than half a century after independence is an indicator of how little the state has changed since then. The people, in whose name it governs, are still seen as the primary enemy and its laws still seek to protect the elite in power from the citizenry and to constrain any attempt by the latter to propagate unflattering opinions of the former.
The Security Laws Amendment Act, which was the trigger for Mr Okengo’s rants similarly betrays the nefarious intent of the government, criminalising as it does, independent reporting of terror incidents and amending the Public Benefit Organisations Act -which is yet to be gazetted nearly two years after its adoption- to allow for the classification of civil society groups (the criteria is to be determined later but given recent attempts to amend the same Act, one need not be a genius to guess what it will be).
Creating fear and compliance among citizens, media and civil society is the ultimate goal of this regime. This is to be achieved by rolling back the rights and freedoms gained over the last quarter century and reconstituting the untethered, oppressive surveillance state of the Nyayo era. Thus, when Uhuru Kenyatatta and his mandarins talk of improving security, what they really mean is securing themselves and their positions from the rest of us.
But the personal responsibility of the head of state for ineptitude, corruption and despotism is one of the great unmentionables of Kenyan politics. It is that which shall not be named, perhaps because in naming it, we fear that we would call it forth and deprive ourselves of the comforting delusion that he cares. The father of the nation must remain godlike, unblemished, peerless, all-knowing and all-seeing, a veritable repository of wisdom an altruism.
As Kenyans, we must abandon the idea that those who take up the reins of power are necessarily doing so because they care for the rest of society. We must learn to be more critical and less accepting of the propaganda we are fed. As James Madison wrote, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is clear that we are not governed by angels and thus we must all oppose the attempts by President Kenyatta and his court to eliminate “the external and internal controls” on the government.