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Friday, April 29, 2016

Burning Ivory, Burying Elephants: How GoK Undermines The Conservation Cause


Burning ivory is nothing new. Since the President Daniel Arap Moi lit a 20ft pile of tusks at the Nairobi National Park in April 1989, many others around the world have followed suit, some choosing to crush rather than burn. Moi’s successors as President have also maintained a tradition of occasionally staging ivory burns to send a message that ivory has no value beyond the life of an elephant.

Tomorrow, President Uhuru Kenyatta will do him one better, tagging not just the second burn of his Presidency but also the biggest of them all – he will incinerate almost all of Kenya’s ivory stockpile, some 105 tonnes as well as another 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn. This he will do before an assembled audience of other African Heads of State, Hollywood celebrities and, perhaps most importantly, global media. Once again Kenya will shine as a paragon of elephant conservation.

Only it isn’t. In fact, Kenya has kept burning ivory while burying its elephants. While nowadays the conservation community is wont to heap accolades on the Kenyan government for its stated commitment and actions to halt the poaching of our wildlife, just two years ago, they were singing an entirely different tune. Veteran conservationist, Richard Leakey, who last year made a celebrated return to the Kenya Wildlife Service as the Chairman of its Board, had in 2014 warned that poaching was “a national disaster” and that known ringleaders were operating with “outrageous impunity”.

While many point to corruption among the law enforcement agencies as the source of this impunity, few eyebrows are raised when it is revealed that decorative ivory is to be found in State House and specifically in the President’s and First Lady’s offices. There were no murmurs of discontent last year when the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit released a photograph of President Kenyatta receiving US Secretary of State, John Kerry, at State House Nairobi, flanked by two elephant tusks.

In an oped in the Guardian, Paula Kahumbu, another strong and necessary voice for elephant conservation, writes that the ivory burn is not “really about burning ivory at all: it’s about saving elephants … eliminate demand for ivory and put value instead on living elephants”.  In other words, any economic value that may be gained now or in the future from the sale of ivory is not worth the extinction of the species.

But this is an argument that the government itself has undermined. When agreeing to the routing of the standard gauge railway through the country’s wildlife sanctuaries, KWS’ Leakey said that although “ideally there should be no transportation in a national park," the plan was a "pragmatic" balance of wildlife and development concerns. In this case, building through the park as opposed populated areas will save money.  The deal cemented the idea that wildlife is fair game when it stands on the path of “development”, a sharp contrast to the rhetoric surrounding tomorrow’s event.

Finally, there is the question of who actually benefits from the conservation of elephants. It is not enough to simply burn ivory to send messages to the outside world. Elephant conservation should not be about preserving them for tourists or burnishing politicians’ credentials or the government’s image. There needs to be a concerted effort to engage Kenyans and especially the communities bearing the cost of living alongside these animals, both in terms of lives and livelihoods, while enjoying few of the benefits. 

In his famous “bunny huggers” speech at the 1997 CITES conference in Harare Leakey linked wildlife conservation to the struggle for “accountability, justice and opportunity”. He noted that Europeans do not seem to have suffered from the extinction of species such as mammoths or woolly rhinoceros. “Will Africans miss the elephant or the rhino if these too disappear?” he asked. As the Kenyan government and the global conservation movement prepare for their moment in the spotlight, it is a question they would do well to ponder.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why The Kenyan Identity Is Wearing Thin

Kenyans do love their sports. In fact, little appears to weld them together more tightly than shared support for a team or an athlete.  In August 2008, barely 6 months after the inter-communal slaughter that followed disputed elections claimed over 1300 lives and brought the country to the brink of civil war, Kenyans were united in cheering the country’s athletes at the Olympic games in China. Today, most weekends echo with war cries as the various soccer tribes meet up to do battle online and at homes and bars countrywide. It is at such times, one can catch a fleeting glimpse of what Kenya truly is.

Last weekend we had another chance to see it. As politicians did their best to polarize and divide the people, the historic win in Singapore by the national rugby sevens team was achieving the opposite. These two events did not cancel out each other. The people were not any less divided over local politics or any less fervent in their support for Shujaa - as the sevens team is sometimes called (mistakenly according to Wikipedia).  Just as 8 years ago there was apparently little contradiction in people cheering runners from communities they were at war with half a year before.

In his recent columns, economist Dr David Ndii has suggested that our national and ethnic identities are locked in an epic, existential conflict, and that “tribe has eaten the nation”. He has portrayed Kenya as a marriage of tribes, each trying to outdo the others. A Kenyan identity, he seems to say, is to be articulated as an antidote to this infighting, failing which, a divorce would be inevitable.

The reality is, however, considerably different. Within what it means to be a Kenyan, there appears to be a seamless integration of polarizing tribal politics with celebrations of national achievement. Being Kenyan appears to demand the ability to inhabit seemingly contradictory spaces and identities almost simultaneously. We can be in both Afraha and Singapore, in Beijing and Kiambaa. We can be the most virulent tribalists while dressed up in national colours.

A Kenyan identity hangs rather more comfortably alongside a tribal one than Dr Ndii suggests and people seem to move in and out of them depending on whichever one they prefer to express at a particular moment, in much the same way they navigate their choice of dress.

Like clothing, the identities we wear are allow us to run with particular crowds. But Dr Ndii is partially mistaken when he posits that identity is "about belonging and believing, as opposed to having or not having." The “belonging” is, in fact, a passport to the “having”. The identity is actually a means to access physical and psychological resources.

Thus we are most Kenyan when we seek the resources that identity offers – be they collective security after a terror attack or to be part of the winning team in a sporting event. We are also most tribal when we seek the resources offered by that identity – most often when demanding our “share of the national cake” or “our turn to eat”.

In truth, our closets are full of multiple, and at times contradictory, identities which we put on and take off depending on who we want to be or seem. The real threat to the national identity thus is not that people have an ethnic one, but that the “Kenyan” costume has been eaten up by moths and offers diminished returns. The fact is our ravenous elites have hollowed out the promise of Kenya and few want to put on its tattered uniform.

Our sportsmen and women have always shown us the way to fix this. We must build up the Kenya brand, not by a vacuous “positivity” as government-types would have us believe, but by actually working towards a Kenya that delivers real victories for its people in their everyday struggles. We must also resist the attempt by elites to disguise both the problem and their own culpability for it by hyping ethnicity to foil accountability.

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 "ashaming" 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.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Kenya's ICC Experience: Few Winners, Many Losers



Now that the remaining Kenyan cases at the International Criminal Court have been terminated (at least for now), there will undoubtedly be much debate on who the winners and losers are. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, were already ahead on that score even before their cases collapsed. It is almost certain that without the ICC indictments they would not be in power today. Now, not only do they not need to worry about the Court for the foreseeable future, they also are, by virtue of their incumbency, in pole position for the next electoral contest in about 16 months’ time. 

However, the picture is not all rosy. The two have laid claim to a spurious exoneration, which conveniently ignores the fact that neither was acquitted. In fact, if one was to consider their oft-repeated desire to “clear their names”, one would have to conclude that they failed pretty badly. That both cases were stopped for a lack of evidence, with the ICC judges citing both the Kenyatta administration’s obstructive behavior and “the troubling incidence of witness interference and intolerable political meddling”, will continue to cast a pall on the duos reputations.

One must also wonder what will become of their political union which was forged in the heat of the common ICC threat. Will it go the way of the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition, which begun to disintegrate shortly after its victory over the Moi regime? It remains to be seen whether the fruits of victory would be ashes in the Jubilee coalition’s mouth.

The Kenyan government is another entity claiming a dubious victory. “The court itself looking at the evidence and the law has arrived at a judicial decision which vindicates the position taken by the government,” declared Attorney-General Githu Muigai. The court’s citing of the the government for obstruction does not seem to perturb him in the least. Neither, apparently, does the September 2013 Sunday Nation claim to have established the existence of “a shadowy team hunting down witnesses”.  There has since been no evidence of the government doing anything to find and prosecute those involved.

Further, it will not be forgotten that the government expended public resources and much diplomatic capital proclaiming immunity for the Head of State despite the constitution clearly limiting such immunity. The embarrassing scenes of it playing both victim and bully at international fora will also not quickly fade from memory.

While the winners may be somewhat ambiguous, the losers are clear. The ICC has undoubtedly suffered a serious blow to its credibility. The incompetence of its prosecutor, the mud Kenya and her African allies have thrown, and its cruelly exposed impotence when facing a hostile government have all worked to tarnish the Court’s reputation.

The victims too have lost out on what may be the last opportunity to hold someone to account for their plight. The government’s decision to transform “a personal challenge” into what President Kenyatta this week described as “a nightmare for my nation”, coupled with the fact that to date only a handful of people have been prosecuted for the murder of over 1,300 Kenyans and the rape, mutilation and displacement of thousands more, shows that there is little political will to punish those responsible.

But perhaps the biggest loser will be Kenya itself. Elite fear of the ICC was one of the reasons why the last election had low levels of violence. Now as another polarizing poll looms, that fear is fast receding. And with the electoral system in shambles and the Supreme court reeling from corruption scandals, the country is right back where it started: another disputed poll could set the country alight. 

Even worse for both ordinary Kenyans who would bear the brunt and for the ICC, the court would not only not deter, but perhaps even incentivize political violence since it is now clear that taking power is the only guaranteed way to avoid its clutches.