Friday, April 15, 2016

Why Kenya Thinks It Wins When It Loses

As is the case with other nations, the Kenyans memorial landscape is littered with moments of heroic triumph and unspeakable horror. Within its contours, one will find the anniversaries of murders and massacres as well as achievement and acclaim.

Today marks the three-month anniversary of a terrible tragedy -  the slaughter of nearly 200 Kenyan soldiers by the Al Shabaab terror group at El Adde in southern Somalia. Two weeks ago we observed another tearful memorial for a remarkably similar atrocity – the slaughter last April of nearly 150 people in another Al Shabaab attack, this time on the Garissa University College.

These two horrors are united by more than the fact that they were committed by the same terror group, the large numbers of casualties involved and the unspeakable grief they brought to our shores. For the last three years, there has been a remarkable, and remarkably successful, attempt to dress up nearly all major Al Shabaab atrocities as Kenyan glories.

From President Uhuru Kenyatta declaring the defeat and shaming of our enemies at Westgate to KTN speaking of the triumph at Garissa and the ubiquitous reference to the heroism of El Adde, we have appeared to be a society determined to turn tragedies on their heads and to snatch victory from the jaws of disaster.

This is more than the celebration of individual heroic behaviour as the tragedies unfolded. While there has been some articulation of this, most notably at Westgate, the main thrust has been to paint the events themselves as showcasing the conquest of the “Kenyan spirit” over adversity. In short, we won every time we lost.

But in these contexts, what do words like "victory", "triumph" and "heroes" mean? What work do they do?

I think it is clear that such double-talk is meant to obscure more than it illuminates. It is remarkably similar to the doublethink in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like in Oceania, today’s doublethink is created and perpetuated by official newspeak and designed to make all other modes of thought traitorous and shameful if not impossible.

In this brave new world, those who today insist on truth and accountability for the failures at Westgate and Mpeketoni are accused of being Al Shabaab sympathizers; or of indulging morbid fantasies when they demand to know the actual number of “heroes” being feted at El Adde and details of what actually happened. This official discourse pretends to honor “sacrifice” while devaluing the lives that have been sacrificed by the official negligence and incompetence it is trying to cover up.

Today’s newspeak goes beyond describing tragedies as triumphs. It is constantly being deployed in the service of an empty, unthinking and unquestioning "positivity". The government and its lackeys in the press and on social media are fond of categorizing criticism as either positive or negative. These categories respectively roughly follow the contours of what they are willing to admit and respond to, and what they are not. “Negative” criticism is demonized as soul destroying.

In this scheme of things, it was not the government’s inability to provide lucid answers to questions about how it spent the Kshs 275 billion it borrowed via a Eurobond two years ago that causes investor jitters. Rather it is the very fact that these “negative” queries are raised in the first place that is the problem.

Similarly, it is not official laxity and ineptitude that exposes us to terrorist attack; it is the demand to audit and fix such laxity and ineptitude that emboldens the enemy. It is thinking that seeks silver linings but ignores the cloud.

But why do so many Kenyans buy into it? My guess is it is because it is comforting. People engage in spin to hide or hide from truth. Those hiding truth are running away from accountability. The rest of us are running away from vulnerability. It is, after all, a profoundly scary thing to admit that those we have charged to protect us are failing.  It is much more comforting to insist we are feeling safer even as loud noises routinely terrify students into leaping out of windows and soldiers into firing aimlessly.

We would thus rather proclaim and commemorate empty triumphs than acknowledge our vulnerability and ask the hard questions.


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