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Friday, June 29, 2018

Protecting Kenya's Civic Space


This wasn’t how things were meant to turn out. It was so very different 16 years ago, when we sang of how Unbwogable we were and dreamt that Yote Yawezekana Bila Moi. Across the entire governance space, the state was in retreat. By 2002, a true civic space had been created which was evidenced by the flowering of music and arts. Organized civil society could indeed claim a lot of the credit for it through their efforts to advance political rights and freedoms as well to broaden the democratic process.

Fast forward 16 years and the situation is reversed. To understand what went wrong, we have to look back at our history.

According to Wikipedia, “civic space is created by a set of universally accepted rules which allow people to organize, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them.” From colonial times to the present, organized civil society has played a prominent role in the struggle to create and protect this space from the predations of the state.

In fact, civil society groups were the forerunners of political parties. It was folks like Harry Thuku and organisations like the Young Kikuyu Association and later the East African Association who early on articulated the political visions and programmes, and defined the goals, values and principles that would drive political action for a generation and beyond. Their significance for the civic space lay in the fact that their struggles often went beyond the acquisition of power to encompass respect for fundamental rights, social and economic justice as well as the freedom and dignity of Kenyans as human beings.

After WWII, with a broke Britain beginning to retreat under pressure of such organizations, many in civil society -from journalists to trade unionists to activists- transformed into politicians. By the time independence arrived, civil society organisations had taken back seat. Politicians and political parties were doing the driving. And very quickly, they constricted the space for citizens to communicate freely and influence politics. It would be a pattern with which Kenyans would become familiar.

In the first decade-and-a-half of independence, politics and governance were for the most part left to the politicians. However, the 1980s and 1990s, as donors increasingly conditioned their support on governance reform and democratization, civil society became more vocal. Outfits like the National Convention Executive Council and religious organisations under the Ufungamano Initiative refused to leave constitutional reform to the state. Others, like the local chapter of Transparency International, were determined to hold their own against the government in the anti-corruption space. By the 2002 elections, Kenyans had clawed back many of the freedoms and reclaimed many of the spaces that the colonial state had denied them.

Sadly, though, we made the same mistake we had made 60 years before. Many of civil society’s leading lights switched sides and became politicians, ran for office and actually won. Others were raptured into government via appointment. Organized civil society was effectively decapitated and went quiet. Once again, the civic space was slowly constricted. Soon the Mwai Kibaki regime was sending GSU into the Bomas of Kenya to stop debate on a new constitution, sending masked police into The Standard, teargassing demonstrators and stealing elections.

The same happened in 2013 and 2017. And every time civil society has retreated, the state has expanded with the consequent loss of civic space and the threat to civic freedoms.

Our history has shown that the state will not be reformed from within. Rather it will only be kept accountable by citizens interacting with each other freely within a civic space. The guardians of that space are organized civil society – churches, NGOs, media, trade unions, academia and other institutions citizens establish outside the state. We should thus be worried when civil society stalwarts troop to the state. Journalist-turned-politician, Mohamed “Jicho Pevu” Ali, and his Parliamentary colleagues, Charles “Jaguar” Kanyi from the musical world and trade unionist Wilson Sossion are walking a path many have trod before them. And we now know what comes after.

Holding the state requires powerful actors outside the government and able to challenge it. We should therefore urgently find ways to incentivize the habitation of non-governmental spaces. We must also work to protect the existing spaces where citizens today can congregate and freely interact - especially on the internet and on social media – from a state that is keen on policing them. The fox must not be left to watch over the hen house.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Why Prosecutions Won't End Graft

Anti-corruption crusader and Publisher of The Elephant, John Githongo, writes in the E-review, “Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians … these players are born of a system of politics and governance that is itself inherently corrupt; one in which the thieves and those who facilitate them thrive.” Understanding this is the key to solving the corruption riddle.

Many times, it has been suggested that graft is a cultural problem that grew out of a supposed “African” tradition of gift giving. Now, it is a good practice to be skeptical every time someone uses the word “African” to imply a uniformity on the continent – and here a healthy dose of skepticism would be justified.

As Joe Khamisi’s history of corruption - Looters and Grabbers – demonstrates, corruption was the gift of colonialism. It was, and still is embedded into the very fabric of the state the British created. The logic of that state was to legitimize the stealing by the few from the many and that is evinced throughout its design.

In fact, Kenya was corrupted even before it became Kenya. By 1907, 13 years before the territory officially became a colony, bribery was already a feature of the nascent state. Khamisi cites Hugh Cholmondeley, popularly known as Lord Delamere, a leader of the British settlers, describing the relations between the public and the new rulers: “Time and time, I have had a native say they were stopped by an Indian policeman. When I asked them how they got away, they always said, ‘Oh, I gave him something.”

Khamisi also describes how corruption seeped from the white colonial establishment down to its African enforcers, the appointed chiefs and policemen. A state built to steal was itself peopled by thieves. As David Anderson says in Histories of the Hanged, “Europeans were as guilty of corruption and malpractice in colonial Nairobi as anyone else, and Africans at the bottom of the colonial racial hierarchy were most often its victims”. The Rose Commission, which was established in 1955 to look “into alleged corruption or other malpractices in relation to the Affairs of the Nairobi City Council” found that “the practice of City Council servants demanding or accepting, and of contractors offering, bribes or, if you prefer, money presents-for services rendered or to be rendered, [was] by no means uncommon”.

Corruption was baked into the state and its templates were established from early on. At the top, the white elite ripped off the state through public projects such as the railway and the construction of public housing, while at the bottom, poorly paid chiefs, members of African courts and police supplemented their incomes by extorting from the people.  As Khamisi puts it, citing David Leonard’s African Successes: Four Public Managers of Kenyan Rural Development, “Through corruption and bribery, chiefs were transformed into willing agents of colonialism and were “implicitly encouraged to use their positions to amass wealth and demonstrate to all and sundry that it paid to cooperate with Europeans.”

In this manner, corruption became institutionalized as a way of doing government business. And when those chiefs and their kids inherited the state from the British, they really did not know any other way to be. Following independence in 1963, the civil service was massively expanded. But the Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s dad) administration was not keen on paying for it. Following the colonial model, in 1971 the Ndegwa Commission recommended allowing them to supplement their wages with private business, which had the effect of legalizing corruption. The looting ramped up and it has been escalating ever since.

Understanding the systemic roots of corruption would allow Kenyans to see that successful prosecutions, while a necessary part of a credible anti-corruption strategy, will not fix the problem. Deterring and punishing the corrupt is no substitute for fixing a system that not only permits, but also rewards graft. Convictions, even in the unlikely event meaningful ones were secured, would be ineffective so long as a third of the government’s budget, some Sh600 billion according to the EACC, continues to be available to be stolen every year.

The fact is, the rewards of corruption far outstrip Kenya’s capacity to punish it. The country’s energies would be better spent in holding political leaders accountable, not just for delivering convictions and harsher sentences, but for shutting down the gravy train. And that will require reforming how the Kenyan state works.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Tribute To Kenya's Forgotten People

Last week, the country lost a great patriot, one, however, whom most Kenyans had probably never heard of. My grandmother, Eunice Nyawira, passed away in her hospital bed after a long illness. Born at the dawn of the colonial era, she lived to see Kenya gain her independence and the subsequent betrayal of their hopes. She is part of a generation that is dying out and with them goes a great deal of history, not just of our family, but also of the nation they leave behind.

These are the ordinary people whose passing goes unlamented for the most part in a country that reserves its adulation for its politicians. I did know a great deal about my cucu and I took her presence for granted, assuming she would always be there to tell her story. It is something I will regret for the rest of my life.

The current hagiographic memorialization of Kenneth Matiba and the angst over the fate of electoral commissioners just makes this loss seem even more severe. History has always been presented as the tale of a few powerful men and Kenyan history in particular revolves around the fates of Big Men like Matiba. In this telling, the experiences and acts of a humble peasant woman in a nondescript corner of what is now Nyeri county hardly seem to merit more than a few lines in the obituary pages. 

However, it is on the backs of people such as Cucu Nyawira that this country was built. It is their numerous small acts of resistance – such as when she confronted colonial officials in Nyeri to get my late mum admitted into Ngandu Girls, or when she organized food for Mau Mau fighters, for which she was briefly arrested and detained - that provided the podium on which the Big Men stood. An illiterate woman who bore and educated 10 kids, who organized her community to build schools, to create better housing as well as water storage is exactly the sort of everyday Kenyan we should honor and celebrate daily.

There are millions of unsung heroes and heroines like her across our land. Ordinary Kenyans who did and continue to do extraordinary things. They are the rocks upon which families, communities and nations are founded. Their stories deserve to be collected and shared, their lives celebrated. They are a valuable store of history and with each loss of one of their number, that store is irredeemably diminished. While they are still with us, we should have a nationwide project to collect and document their stories and their lives. And not just the elderly generation, but all of Kenya’s generations. Rather than Kenyan history being the story of its Big Men, we should make it the story of all its people.

I imagine this being a collective and collaborate effort. No one person or even one organisation could do it. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission took years to interview 40,000 Kenyans. To build a database of the stories of millions would simply be overwhelming. However, we do have the internet and the unlimited resources that it provides. If we could get Kenyans to contribute their own stories and those of their relatives and friends, then we could begin to assemble a massive popular archive. 

And the stories needn’t be solely about superhuman exploits.  In fact, the most important contributions would be the tales of everyday living and survival that would shine a light on who the Kenyans are and how they experienced history.  I, for example, remember Cucu Nyawira's delight upon learning that Egypt, where, according to the Bible, Jesus' family had fled to to escape persecution, was actually in Africa. Also her patient skepticism when informed that people had walked on the moon. She also told me of granaries Kikuyus used to set aside aside after the harvest specifically for the poor and the disabled, challenging the idea that charity is a thing we learnt from the West.

It would undoubtedly be an extremely ambitious undertaking but one that I believe would be worth every effort. “In my culture, when the elderly die natural deaths we throw a big party and sing and dance and trade stories about the life they lived and the lives they touched,” tweeted political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, recently. Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to Eunice Nyawira and the unseen millions like her to whom Kenya owes everything.