Friday, December 30, 2016

Kenya's Biggest Electoral Problem? Not Solving Electoral Problems.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth famously declared 1992 an “annus horribilis”, one which, she said, she wouldn’t look back with undiluted pleasure. For many around the world, 2016 has similarly turned out to be a horrible year. From the deaths of several pop culture icons; to the millions forced to flee senseless killing and destruction in the middle east; to the political earthquakes that were the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the UK, 2016 has been one for the books.

For Kenyans, the year is ending largely as it begun: in uncertainty, fear and with a sense of foreboding.

We were barely through the second week of January when reports begun filtering through of an attack on Kenyan forces serving in an obscure centre somewhere in south western Somalia. El Adde would soon become one of the most familiar Somali place names in the country as the true scale of the tragedy unfolded, despite the government’s best efforts to hide it. With between 140 and 200 Kenyan soldiers slaughtered by the Al Shabaab terror group and another dozen taken prisoner, it was Kenya’s largest military defeat and made a mockery of the claim to being one of the continent’s most effective armies. Following the incompetence and malfeasance on show during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and in Mpeketoni and Garissa University thereafter, El Adde was the final nail in the coffin of the Kenya Defence Forces vaunted reputation.

In the final weeks of the year, the air has been thick with more fears, this time of a distinctly homegrown variety. The long-simmering dispute between ruling party politicians and their counterparts in the opposition coalition over the ground rules for next year’s general election has once again burst out into the open. The ugly scenes and reports of fisticuffs in the National Assembly that accompanied the passage of the amendments to the Elections Act as well as the opposition threat to renew their campaign of street protest have raised temperatures and the potential for politically-instigated violence across the country in 2017.

On the face of it, these two situations couldn’t be more different. However, a deeper examination reveals that they spring from the same root: namely the Kenyan penchant for ignoring and postponing problems rather than confronting and resolving them.

At least since Westgate, it had been clear that there was something seriously wrong with how the Kenya Defence Forces conducted operations. And every year since has brought more cause for concern. Yet, whether it is accusations of being engaged in the smuggling sugar into Kenya and charcoal out of Somalia or allegations of indiscriminate shelling of civilian villages both inside and outside Kenya, or of bungled responses to terror attacks, the response has been either denial or a deafening silence. There have been no attempts to hold the military top brass to account for the many failures or, at least publicly, to understand and eliminate the reasons for them. What a senior police officer told the Nation is probably true of the military: “The police service has basically learnt nothing from Westgate, Garissa, Mpeketoni and others.”

Similarly, it has been clear, since the 2013 general election, that there were many serious flaws in the country’s electoral system. From the fact that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission did not know how many voters it had registered, to the preponderance of voter registers, the frozen screens at national tallying centres and the admission by one Justice that the Supreme Court might have ruled differently given more time, the signs of systemic failure were clear.

Yet for nearly three years there were no demands for a comprehensive and independent audit of the system to identify and fix the problems. Instead, as the current furore over the electoral law demonstrates, we have allowed the politicians to hijack the discourse of reform, just as they did in 1997. That, unfortunately, did not turn out well a decade later.

The amendments to the Elections Act passed earlier this year following the street demonstrations initiated by the opposition, mandated that the elections be run on an integrated electronic system, defined as "including “biometric voter registration, biometric voter identification and electronic result transmission system”, which the IEBC was meant to have put in place by December. That has not happened. And so even the current standoff over whether there should be a back up to the electronic system is somewhat moot as there is nothing to back up. 

Yet all parties keep declaring their commitment and fidelity to the electronic system. Even the Jubilee cohorts pushing for a manual back up, keep saying that it would only be needed in case the (non-existent) electronic system breaks down. The truth is, it is all theatre. It is all for show. Instead of dealing with the real issues, the furore is about obscuring them. It is about keeping us focused on the problems of our politicians, not our own.

Nine years ago, Kenya was nearly dissolved in an orgy of killing and destruction that followed a bungled election. The stage for that catastrophe was set a decade earlier when we allowed the push for comprehensive electoral reform to be hijacked by the political class under the banner of the Inter Parties Parliamentary Group. In the end, the IPPG only put a band aid on our gaping electoral wound which was callously ripped off by Mwai Kibaki when he tore up its “gentleman’s agreement” in 2007.

Not fixing our problems is what has landed us in the trouble we are currently in. And if we hope to ensure 2017 is more annus mirabilis than annus horribilis, then that is a habit we must break.

Friday, December 16, 2016

53 Years A Colony

Every nation has its foundation myths. The Koreans, for example, have Tan'gun, the scion of a son of the gods and a bear-turned-into-woman who became the first human king of the people of the peninsula. Kenyans are not to be left out. Whenever national holidays roll around, the air is always thick with talk of forefathers and tales of the dreams that supposedly drove them to found the nation. Believing it has always required a little suspension of disbelief.

This past week was no different. President Uhuru Kenyatta used his Jamhuri day address to remind us about “the unity our fathers believed in, and enjoyed, unity without which they would not have won the independence war.”  Never mind that the Mau Mau actually lost the “independence war” and our “fathers”, and his father particularly, were hardly paragons of solidarity.

If we are called “to honour the heroism of those who won our liberty” as the President asserts, we must begin by being honest about what came before, how the past gave birth to the present and what we must change in order to create a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.

Being honest requires accepting some uncomfortable truths. Our “forefathers” did not found Kenya. It was created and built by the British. Here’s the rub. The state and its institutions were specifically designed to oppress and to extract from the local population and to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of an elite few.

The Mau Mau uprising was the culmination of resistance against this system that dates back to the dawn of colonialism. It is this system the many who went to the forest to fight, and the many who helped them, were committed to overthrowing. However, and this is a second uncomfortable truth, they lost. And though their efforts did expedite the grant of independence, it was not they who would inherit the state. Rather, it was handed over to a new, black elite that had little interest in reforming it.

"Will the elite which has inherited power from the colonialists use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes or will they succumb to the lure of wealth, comfort and status and thereby become part of the Old Establishment," future President Mwai Kibaki asked in 1964. In fact, as the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission confirmed, the "Old Establishment" was never overthrown and the colonial state endured.

So a third uncomfortable truth is that independence did not translate to liberty. President Kenyatta was lying when he spoke of “first age of heores” who “joined hands to overthrow the colonial order.” The oppressive colonial state persists to this day and has subverted almost every sincere effort to reform it. The first attempt was via the 1962 Constitution. A paper written 30 years later by the current Attorney-General spoke of a “misguided attempt to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded."

After decades of struggle, six years ago we embarked on yet another attempt to reform the state.  And, perhaps predictably, the heirs of the “Old Establishment” are again at work trying to do to the 2010 constitution what their fathers did to its predecessor. They have maintained the authoritarian structures, such as the provincial administration, and introduced laws meant to curtail constitutional rights and have consistently operated in ways that either disregard the document or actively undermine it.

Being honest about our past will allow us to appreciate that the struggle against subjugation that begun in the last decade of the 19th century continues to this day.  It will open our eyes to the fact that while our oppressors may have changed color, their methods and aims remain largely the same. It will also allow us to choose which of our “fathers” we wish to emulate. Those who stood up for the rights of the people, or those who became part of the Old Establishment? On that choice, our future will hang. 

Friday, December 09, 2016

Why Striking Doctors Are The Least Of Kenya's Health Problems

This week, the news has understandably been dominated by the countrywide strike by the nation’s health workers. On Monday, doctors and nurses across the land stayed at home in protest at the government’s failure to implement a collective bargaining agreement signed in 2013 that was meant to govern their pay and conditions of service. The strike has thrown an already rickety health system into chaos and contributed to the deaths of several patients and heartbreaking scenes of desperate suffering at health centres.

It is not the first time public health workers have walked off the job. In recent years, the health sector has been plagued by strikes. In December 2011, hundreds of doctors marched through Nairobi streets to demand a larger stock of drugs in hospitals, better equipment and better pay. Three months later, in March 2012, and again in September 2012, they again laid down their tools to demand government spend more money on health services. Similar strikes followed in December 2013, August 2014 and August 2015.

Throughout, the main focus of media reporting has been on the demands for better pay. Little attention has been paid to the complaints over working conditions and the terrible state of the health system in general. Yet the situation is dire despite, total per capita expenditure on health (both public and private) doubling between 2010 and 2014 and government share of that spending growing from 36% to 61% in that period. Kenyans and their government are increasingly spending more on healthcare. So what have we got to show for our money?

The short answer is: not very much. As I noted more than two years ago, according to the 2013 Kenya Service Availability and Readiness Assessment Mapping report, the country’s first attempt to get a comprehensive picture of the health sector, less than 6 in 10 of all health facilities in the country are ready to provide the Kenya Essential Package for Health –a sort of standardized comprehensive package of health services. Less than half have basic amenities and while two-thirds have half the basic equipment required, 59% do not have essential medicines. Only 2% of facilities are providing all KEPH services required to eliminate communicable diseases.

Further, as reported by The Star last year, the WHO Global Atlas of Health Workforce identifies Kenya as having a “critical shortage” of healthcare workers since independence. While the World Health Organization has set a minimum threshold of 23 doctors, nurses and midwives per population of 10,000. Kenya’s current ratio stands at a mere 13. Yet, according to one 2008 paper, the irony is that there is a large pool of trained, unemployed health workers available, but the process of recruitment is cumbersome.

Despite the government trumpeting its free maternity program, maternal health is still in the doldrums. In fact, Kenya is still one most dangerous countries to be pregnant and to give birth.  Nearly 8,000 women die every year due to pregnancy-related complications, while a fifth of babies don’t live to see their fifth birthday. And then there are the scams, such as the recently exposed Mafya House scandal where fraudsters have siphoned off up to Sh5 billion via questionable deals or the prevalence of fake doctors.

Devolution has undoubtedly brought health services closer to many who were previously left out, but even here, problems abound. These range from allegations of tribe-based hiring of doctors and questions over the efficacy of county spending plans to the national government foisting medical equipment on reluctant counties lacking the capacity to utilize it. There are also massive inequalities in access to healthcare facilities and in staffing which manifest in statistics such as a third of counties being responsible for 97 percent of all maternal deaths.  

But perhaps no other area is as neglected as care for the mentally ill. When about 100 patients reportedly “escaped” from the Mathari Mental Hospital on Monday, the media dutifully reported it as a consequence of the health workers’ strike. Yet earlier this year, a report in the Daily Nation indicated that the country’s sole referral hospital for psychiatric care was packed to the brim with patients, some of whom had been sent there by the courts for “failing to understand English, or Kiswahili … or for domestic issues that had nothing to do with mental illnesses.”

Worse, the conditions inside the hospital are appalling, with patients drugged into a stupor, abused, denied food and other basic necessities. In 2013 when 40 patients again “escaped” following a riot at the facility, the Nation reported “it was a case of hunger, abuse, lack of basic services and a fight for survival.” This deplorable state of affairs is perhaps not surprising when one considers that only 0.5% of funds earmarked for health is spent on mental health. This is despite the fact that, according to a 2011 CNN report, “the government’s own figures show that one-quarter of all patients going to hospitals or clinics complain of mental health issues.”

The fact is, even before the current strike, Kenya’s health sector was already in a state of crisis. It will not be cures by appeals to patriotism and fellow feeling or even solely by paying our doctors better. Rather than merely addressing the symptoms of decay, Kenya needs a sober examination and diagnosis of the underlying systemic and structural illness afflicting its health system. Then a similarly credible set of proposals to cure it. The campaigns that are underway for next year’s elections provide the perfect opportunity for Kenyan media and society to force the political class to do both. The question is: Will we take that opportunity? Or will we continue acquiescing to management of health by crisis? 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Why Kenyans Should Rethink Their Hiring Policy

Boniface Mwangi is looking for a job. It may have come as no surprise when, during the launch of his book two weeks ago, he declared he would be running for a Parliamentary seat. But that doesn’t mean we should welcome it with open arms.

Over the last few months we have been treated to similar announcements by journalists, clergy and civil society activists. And it is all depressingly reminiscent of 2002 and the dash for elected positions under the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition banner. And, in the euphoria of giving Daniel Arap Moi the finger, we did not think twice about the future effect of decapitating the organisations that had been instrumental in delivering that moment.

Well, that future was not long in coming. Very soon after the Kibaki administration, packed rafters with “good guys” -the same ones who had told Moi, in the famous words of Kiraitu Murungi, to tend his goats and “watch how a country should be governed” took over the old habits of looting and state-sponsored violence resurfaced. This time, though, the culprits were our former heroes. “Anglo Leasing was ‘us’ – our people”, Mr Murungi would later admit.

The “eating” was all the worse since these were the same people who had formerly stood up to the Nyayo regime and whose rapture into government had hollowed out the civil society and religious organisations that were so critical in holding it to account. So today, as tales of grand corruption fill the headlines, we should reflect upon the experience of 15 years ago and look to keep our “good guys” in the positions where they serve us best and where they can keep government on a short leash.

Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed is also looking for a job. The government has proposed her as the next head of the African Union Commission and is spending millions of our tax shillings to lobby heads of state across the continent to give it to her. But she is already contracted to represent and lobby for our common interests abroad and has instead spent most of her time instead protecting the interests of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto.

Despite the clear stipulation in the constitution that “the President may be prosecuted under any treaty to which Kenya is party and which prohibits such immunity”, which the Treaty of Rome does, Secretary Mohamed racked up frequent flyer miles and staked Kenya’s international prestige and interests on a shameful effort to pressure the International Criminal Court into dropping the crimes against humanity charges facing the duo.

Yet she has been conspicuously quiet on the plight of ordinary Kenyans unfairly banged up abroad. Currently, next door in South Sudan four Kenyans have been sentenced to life imprisonment following sham proceedings in which no specific accusations of wrongdoing were levelled against them. Efforts to get Secretary Mohamed to intervene and raise the issue with the South Sudanese government have borne little fruit, despite her frequent travels to Juba to shore up the peace process there and the clear leverage Kenya has over the Juba elite.

Andrew Franklin is also in search of employment. Along with around 750 Kenyans, the former US marine who has been living and working in Kenya for over three decades, applied for consideration as either Chair or Member of a reconstituted Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Two weeks ago, the selection panel announced it had shortlisted five out of fourteen applicants for Chairperson and another 31 for Members. Mr Franklin did not make either cut. That, in itself, is not troubling. What is worrying is the opaqueness with which the shortlists were developed.

Since last Friday, when the selection panel announced it was suspending the interviews for Chairperson after questions were raised about the suitability of the shortlisted candidates, there has been disturbingly little querying either in the media or by civil society of criteria used to exclude 720 people from the process of public scrutiny. It does not seem to raise eyebrows when the five applicants whose credentials have been put in doubt are still listed among those slated to be interviewed as potential Commissioners beginning this Saturday. That the panel itself has offered no information on this gives rise to suspicions of underhand dealings and political interference in the process. Given our past experience with the consequences of messing with the credibility of electoral bodies, it should give all of us pause for thought.

These three examples evince our dangerously cavalier approach to distributing public positions. Beyond individual desire, the rest of us who get a say in who actually gets hired must think much more strategically about the sort of system we want to govern our affairs. While it is doubtlessly important that we need good people running government, it is perhaps even more so that we have them outside of it. 

And even within government, we have seen the folly of giving one political party all the reins of power. The so-called Tyranny of Numbers today militates against Parliament serving as an effective check on Executive excess. In the prevailing environment, where loyalty to party leaders trumps loyalty to country, and where nominally independent don't act as such, it is better to have divided government with one party controlling the Presidency and the other Parliament. While not guaranteeing good governance, that at least offers the possibility of limiting the damage they can do. 

In similar vein, it is even more critical that we not allow the state to poach our best and brightest from the only other institutions that can hold it to account. For the sake of the country, Boniface Mwangi and others like him should keep doing the jobs they already have. Which is not only to ensure Amina Mohamed and her government colleagues start doing theirs before we spend tax shillings to get them employed elsewhere, but that the likes of Andrew Franklin and 720 Kenyans are accorded a fair hearing for the public jobs they have applied for.