Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Republic Of Fear

It used to be we were only afraid of the state and its capacity for illegitimate violence. We blamed politicians, not opinions, for inciting tribal clashes. It was the government, not citizens, which gagged the press or forbade dissent.

No more.

Welcome to the Republic of Fear. Where terror rules and citizens are frightened of what lurks in the dark recesses of their hearts. It is a country where no questions are allowed which may break uncomfortable silences or awaken the ghosts of deadened intellectual faculties.

This is the nation we are building in Kenya. A country of official truth. When citizens feel disenfranchised by bungled elections, we tell them to shut up and keep the peace. Wait for the Supreme Court to tell you what you should or should not think. Do not trust yourself, just as we do not trust you.

Well, the Supreme Court has given its ruling. The election and declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as President-Elect were done in conformity with the law. That is the official truth. We will wait for two weeks to learn of the reasons underlying it. In the meantime, we are told to keep calm. In the Republic of Fear, inconvenient opinions and uncomfortable thoughts are banned. But, unlike in the past, this is not a ban enforced by the security agencies. It is imposed by mobs of citizens which roam our airwaves and digital superhighways, armed with virtual machetes and ready to hack away at the first hint of free thinking.

We have already let them burn down the temples of dissent. Our famously rumbustious press now remains mute when expensive BVR kits and results transmission systems don’t work and when the IEBC presents woolly sums, and when protestors (today called rioters) die following the Supreme Court verdict. Our civil society organisations have been silenced by dubious allegations of pursuing foreign agendas. When politicians kiss and make up, "historical grievances" and the IDPs they have generated disappear.

Only official election results matter -or more accurately, only the official version of election results matters. Media houses with reporters on the ground at all polling stations cannot call the election as their sums may differ from official tallies. And if they do differ, they are not to ask questions. The official truth trumps all! Today our journalists are reduced to performers and comedians – a role they seem to have accepted with relish as cheerleaders for the “Keep the Peace” and “Let’s Move On” bands.

But what exactly are we moving on to? Rather than signal Kenya’s rise from the ashes of the violence of five years ago, the elections have revealed just how much further we still have to go. We have spent the last half-century of independence in a battle against the state, in an effort to tame and reform it. In large measure, the people’s triumph, as reflected in the new constitution, has turned out to be a hollow victory.The struggle against the state obscured a much more fundamental challenge. With these elections, that mask has been removed. It is now obvious that the real enemies lie within. It is our passions and minds that need reforming. It is our fear and distrust of one another that need taming.

No longer can we just blame a thieving political class. It is rather a time for deep reflection on our own conduct and beliefs. The media can and should lead this effort. It is the least they can do to begin to atone for their own conduct over the last month.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Peace For Our Time

On 30 September 1938, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, walked the steps of a plane at the Heston Aerodrome in London brandishing a piece of paper, the result of negotiations he had had with the German Chancellor. “I believe this is peace for our time,” he would later say, a phrase he would come to regret. For a world still traumatised by the Great War which had ended just two decades prior, the news of an agreement between the British and the Germans averting another catastrophe was welcome.  “Good man,” US President Franklin Roosevelt telegraphed from the across the Atlantic.

The Munich Agreement would turn out to be nothing more than a temporary stay and within a year the globe would be consumed by an even greater conflict. Three quarters of a century later, Kenyans find themselves at a similarly pivotal moment. Like the British at the time, memories of a recent conflict are still fresh. Like them, our overriding objective is to avoid a repeat. We too have been guilty of selling out the weak in the course of doing so.

Today, all eyes are on the Supreme Court. With bated breath the country awaits its decision on the petitions challenging the outcome of the election. The court’s decision may resolve the question of who becomes the next president of the republic, but like the Munich Agreement, it will only be a balm on a festering wound. It will not address the feelings and emotions tearing at our hearts, the underlying currents rending our national soul.

The fixation with who becomes president is diverting our energies from more fruitful pursuits. More important than who moves into Statehouse after its current tenant vacates is what that person does. And we should give thought to a post-election agenda to tackle the issues that have been highlighted by the election.

The urgent priority must be to begin the process of healing the country following a bruising election. The president, whoever it is, must recognize that half the country voted against him. This is not a time for chest-thumping and claiming wide ranging mandates. It is rather a time to reach out.  Also, there is an urgent need to build bridges between our polarised communities and begin to address the root causes of that polarisation. We cannot afford to spend another five years burying our heads in the sand. Our ignorance has not brought us bliss, and it is unlikely to.

The work of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission will be crucial to this. The Commission’s report is due out in just over a month’s time and should cover gross violations of human rights, economic crimes, illegal acquisition of public land and the marginalization of communities. That report can form the basis for a national catharsis. For the first time, the country can bare its soul and confront the past. It must be made public and not be hidden like other reports that have gathered dust on the presidential shelf. Victims must be given the opportunity voice to their pain, families to grieve and sinners can seek penitence.

According David Tolbert, president of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, “truth commissions work more effectively when they complement the work of criminal justice, reparations programmes and institutional reform.” If the TJRC will have done a thorough job, and it is hoped that it will, then its report should make for uncomfortable reading for many of our most powerful and long self-serving public officials. The TJRC may not have the power to prosecute, but it can recommend prosecutions, reparations for victims, institutional changes, and amnesty.

The implementation of these recommendations will fall squarely on the incoming administration and its leader must be seen to act quickly and to act comprehensively. It will not do to repeat the pattern of the past with the charade of half-hearted prosecutions. If it is to be a credible exercise, the justice must be real. There must be no return to business as usual. Necessary reforms must be undertaken to prevent future injustice.

If this is done then Kenya will be well on its way to a real recovery. Defending the rights of the weak and the marginalised, not ignoring them, is the true path to a genuine peace.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Kenya for All Kenyans

2002 was a momentous time, a good time to be a Kenyan. The elections to be held later that year which would see the exit of KANU as the governing party after nearly 40 years in power. The atmosphere was electric, election campaigns were in full gear and, contrary to previous polls, there were few reports of violence. Kenya had come of age. After decades of struggle against the tyranny of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, the people were about to strike a blow for democracy, for good governance and to annihilate corruption.

For me, the zeitgeist was all encapsulated in a song that became the signature tune for the coalition standing against Moi’s hand-picked successor. “Unbwogable!” by the Luo duo Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji. “I am unbwogable, I am unbeatable, I am unsueable … Who can Bwogo me?” we all sang. It didn’t matter that the lyrics were about indomitable Luos. By then we were all Luos. We were all Okuyu or Kamba. In short, we were all Unbwogable Kenyans.

Fast forward to 2013, and little of that remains. Faith in our united strength has given way to an abiding fear of the other and we have sought solace in the comfort our tribal cocoons. It begun almost as soon as the Kibaki administration took power, with wrangles over MoUs and cabinet positions. These were quickly followed by mega-corruption scandals of the sort we thought were a thing of the past. Citizen arrests of corrupt traffic police officers, common in the first euphoric days of the Rainbow government, quickly dried up as we woke up to the cruel hoax that had been perpetrated. Nothing had fundamentally changed.

The anticipated prosecutions of Moi regime figures never materialized and the very people that had been eager to feast at the table of US Ambassador Smith Hempstone and call for economic sanctions against the country, now only “vomited on donor shoes” whenever called into account for their orgy of graft. Suddenly, the overhaul to the constitution that they had championed, was neither urgent nor did it need to be as comprehensive. Newspapers were raided and we were warned about rattling snakes. Foreign criminals broke our laws with impunity, called press conferences to threaten the Police Commissioner, and could stroll unimpeded into our supposedly secure airports.

By the time the first constitutional referendum rolled around, we seemed distinctly bwogable. The polarisation signified by the “41 against 1” formula would slowly, and inexorably lead to the balkanisation of the country into tribal units and the violence that erupted following the disputed 2007 elections. The uneasy ceasefire that has held since then, was itself inaugurated with the spectre of mass starvation as politicians looted the national granary and stole food from the mouths of the hungry.

The idea of Kenya that had blossomed in 2002 thus proved to be nothing more than a transient phenomenon, a moon flower. Perhaps it was the irrational exuberance of youth that led us to believe that a different Kenya was possible; perhaps it was our sheltered upbringing as privileged members of an aspirational middle class nurtured on a diet of false patriotism, fantastical promises of development, western sitcoms and CNN. Perhaps we wanted to see in ourselves something that wasn’t really there.

For Kenya had not been founded as a community of Kenyans but as a playground for the privileged. The uplifting of the living standards of the majority of the people has never seemed to be the goal of our politics and our politicians. As I have written before, it has always been about the wenyenchi, not the wananchi. Democracy, human rights and all other fashionable slogans have been for them little more than a pathway to power and riches.

Any who thought otherwise were quickly shunted aside. Today we glorify their courage as we trample underfoot everything they stood for. On national holidays, we dutifully trundle out the sanitized memories of Dedan Kimathi, Bildad Kaggia, Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, Wangari Maathai and others. After the celebrations are done we hide them away till next year, not wanting to be reminded for too long of what was, and perhaps still is, possible. Their modern day equivalents are cast as neo-colonial stooges and ostracised for imagining a Kenya for all Kenyans, where justice reigns, with equality and opportunity for all.

We no longer believe in ideals or values or greatness. The country has become little more than a flag to wave to the world, especially when one of us excels internationally, in order to obscure the rot and stench within. In the rubble of the crumbling cases at The Hague we are happily burying any notions that the fortunes of our people matter and that someone should be held to account for depriving them of life and livelihood.We would rather build and repair the roads between our towns while neglecting the bridges between our communities. We connect cities but not citizens.

We are now creating new songs that reflect the limited visions we have adopted. Last weekend, the streets of Nairobi rung with a bastardized version of our national anthem. The words “natukae na uhuru, amani na undugu” were no longer about living in unity, peace and liberty. In the common imagination, uhuru now refers not to an ideal but to a person. Others now sing about living with Raila, Kalonzo and Wetangula. Unbwogable is rarely heard on radio stations anymore.

I suspect that we are in a situation not very different from that of our parents. Following the initial euphoria of independence, I am pretty sure that the predations of the Kenyatta and Moi governments had vanquished in them the idea of a Kenya for Kenyans. “Kenya Nchi Yetu” is probably for them just a reminder of the idealism of a bygone age. Yet its message is not very removed from that of Unbwogable. That the citizens can decide to remake the country. That a Kenya that is different from its previous incarnations is possible. One that caters to the desires and needs common to all and not the self-aggrandizing ambitions of a few. If we can commit to that, then perhaps one day our kids can learn to sing confidently of their genuine greatness.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Scaling Olympus

US psychologist, Dr. Wade Noble, defined power as the ability to define reality and to have other people respond to that definition as if it were their own. Taking this to heart, Kenya’s political class have become adept at translating their personal experiences into common realities. They are relentless in articulating their particular version of reality, and never miss an opportunity be it at community forums, social functions such as funerals and weddings, and even Sunday church services. Theirs is by far the dominant voice in our mass media.

As a result, their personal issues quickly morph into communal rivalries and, conversely everybody it seems has a stake in their personal success. Or should I say, perversely? For thus the victims of the 2008 post-election violence have become convinced that it serves their interest when no one is punished for their dispossession or for the murder of their relatives. And thus we are convinced of the overwhelmingly urgent need to investigate a helicopter crash involving a few VIPs while continuing to ignore the daily carnage ordinary folks face on our roads.

So what is the narrative they sell? First they have convinced us that the political space properly belongs to politicians. It is their very own Olympus. The rest of us mortals can once in a while help decide who ascends into their blessed company, but that is where our participation ends.

Secondly, Olympus does not operate according to the rules and values of ordinary men. While we down here may value honour and think that it has something to do with knowing and doing what is morally right, in the heavens honor is a title. One may lie, steal, and betray friends and confidences, conspire to maim and murder. But, as Mark Antony might say, they are all Honourable men (and women). Furthermore, once raptured to the heavenly kingdom, the gods are cleansed of all earthly transgression and so vast are their powers that they can swop right for wrong.

Finally, though the gods on Olympus are endowed with infinite wisdom, they dare not waste it on the mundane problems of mortals. They have bigger fish to fry (and eat) which imposes considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs.

This narrative about politics needs to change. For as long as we see it as a dirty game played by politicians, it will continue to be about power and position, not about solutions. Today’s political narratives are divorced from people’s everyday lives. All politics is local is a maxim that doesn’t seem to apply to us. Even at the local level, it is not local issues that matter. We may have devolved our system of government but our politics remain stubbornly centralised. Ask any elected official about his programme and he will in all likelihood point you to the manifesto his national party issued a few days to the election and which he has probably not been bothered to read.

During the campaigns, it was notable how much the Presidential race overshadowed local races. Figures from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission show that on Election Day, communities with no direct ethnic stake in either of the two major coalition presidential tickets were less likely to get out and vote. This is illustrative of the low priority local issues are accorded. We are probably more invested in who wins the English Premier League than in who runs our county assemblies. As one commentator put it : “Down-ticket candidates ... allowed their individual positions to be subsumed by the presidential contenders. Instead of running on local issues, which will ultimately have the most impact on the lives of individual voters, most [were] hoping to ride the top-of-the-ticket platform to victory. Which [left] voters looking to make informed choices with little information.”

We have allowed our politics to become about coronating a President on Election Day, not about choosing between competing  visions on how to solve people's problems. We have reduced citizen participation in our democracy to standing in line and stashing ballots into ballot boxes once every 5 years. The rest of the time, we let the politicians do their thing, meaning voters have little involvement in local institutions. Civic education, again is reduced to the art of teaching voters how and in which box to cast their vote and how to distinguish between green and peach (or whatever that colour was). There is little effort expended to explain to citizens how devolution works. Two years after it was passed, the constitution passeth all understanding except to those privileged with a law degree.

As a result, instead of helping us truly and honestly identify issues and resolve differences, our politics generates a narrative that, as another observer noted, sweeps differences under the rug and replaces them with nationalistic propaganda. The lack of genuine interaction, dialogue and reconciliation perpetuates a culture of fear. Fear of the other, of history, of reality.

We need, instead to build a new brand of politics from the bottom up; to re-imagine Kenya as a nation that attracts, and not compels, the loyalty of its people, both as individuals and in their communities. We must reclaim the spaces and vernacular for honest conversations. Words like equality, justice and truth must cease to be old shibboleths rolling off politicians’ lips and become our real passwords to a better Kenya.

Our politics should give our people the means to discuss local problems without being drowned out by the national conversation; to ask the questions they really want answered and raise the issues close to their hearts without the fear that they will be ignored, prosecuted or labelled "tribalists" or "hate-mongers." In short, give them the means to articulate their own reality and get the politicians to respond to that as if it were their own. After all, that is what democracy should be all about.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Monsters Under The House

At the end of my first term in high school, I watched a screening of Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, the tale of an ordinary family unknowingly living in a house built over a graveyard without the bother of moving the bodies. Of course, this does not go down well with the spirits of the dead, who make their displeasure known by slowly torturing the family into madness. In one of the scenes, a man stares in horror at a mirror as fingers tear away at his reflection’s decomposing face till it falls into the bathroom sink. Needless to say, I have never looked at bathroom mirrors in quite the same way since.

Last week, it was Kenya’s turn to look into the mirror. Elections provide opportunities for national self-examination and renewal, for the country to take a long, hard look at itself, assess it achievements, reorient its priorities. However, like I have done too many times since I watched that movie, we chose to turn away, afraid of what we might see.

Fear can make people do strange things.

We had already normalized the abnormal, making it seem perfectly acceptable to have two ICC-indicted politicians on the ballot. At the first presidential debate, moderator Linus Kaikai had been more concerned with how Uhuru Kenyatta would “govern if elected president and at the same time attend trial as a crimes against humanity subject” and not whether he should be running at all. Any suggestion of consequences for Uhuru’s and William Ruto’s candidature had been rebuffed with allegations of neo-colonialism, interference and an implied racism. People who had spent their adult lives fighting for Kenyans’ justice and human rights were vilified as stooges for the imperialistic West for suggesting that the duo should first clear their names before running for the highest office in the land.

As the elections approached we were assailed with unceasing calls for peace and appeals to a nationalism we knew to be to all too elusive. We voted and celebrated our patience and patriotism, brandishing purple fingers as medals for enduring the long queues. And we heaved a collective sigh of relief when it was all over. We afterwards wore our devotion to Kenya on our sleeves and on our Facebook pages and Twitter icons even as we were presented with the evidence of our parochial and tribal voting patterns which fulfilled Mutahi Ngunyi’s now prophetic Tyranny of Numbers.

By now, a compact had developed between the media and the public. Kenya would have a peaceful and credible poll no matter what. The narrative would be propagated by a few privileged voices and it would countenance no challenge. The media would sooth our dangerous passions with 24-hour entertainment shows masquerading as election coverage. We would laugh the uncomfortable laughs, and plead and pray that politicians would not awaken the monster we recognised in each other. Let sleeping ogres lie, seemed to be the national motto. Meanwhile, those who could stocked up on canned food and filled up the fridges and stayed away from work. As food prices quadrupled we desperately clung to the belief that all would be well if we kept our end of the bargain and didn’t ask uncomfortable questions.

When nearly all the measures the IEBC deployed to ensure transparency during the election failed, this was not allowed to intrude into the reverie. Instead the media continued to put on a show and we applauded them for it. Uncomfortable moments were photoshopped out of the familial picture. Foreign correspondents who dared to question our commitment to peace were publicly humiliated and had their integrity impugned. I played my part in this. When the New York Times dared to suggest that if Raila Odinga contested the outcome “many fear [it] could lead to the...violence that erupted in 2007,” it didn't take long for the reactions to come. “Foreign press haven’t given up [on the possibility of violence],” I tweeted. Others quickly joined in, some suggesting that the writer was stuck in 2007.

However, if we are honest, it is us who were stuck in the narratives born of the last five years. It was not, as suggested by the NYT in a later piece, a renewed self confidence that drove us. Quite the opposite. It was a fear, a terror, a recognition that we were not as mature as we were claiming to be; that underneath our veneer of civility lay an unspeakable horror just waiting to break out and devour our children. We were afraid to look into the mirror lest our face fall in the sink.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. In this case the war was internal, hidden from all prying eyes. Who cares about the veracity of the poll result? So what if not all votes were counted? We had peace. “The peace lobotomy,” one tweet called it. “Disconnect brain, don't ask questions, don't criticize. Just nod quietly.”

Yet we should care. Our terror and the frantic attempts to mask it were a terrible indictment. As another tweet put it, it “reveals how hollow the transformation wrought by the new constitution.” Instead of being a moment for national introspection, the election had become something to be endured. The IEBC was expected to provide a quick fix to help us through it but was never meant to expose the deeper malady of fear, violence and mistrust which we have spent five years trying to paper over with our constitutions and coalitions and MoUs and codes of conduct. The fact is we do not believe the words in those documents, the narratives inscribed on paper but not in our hearts.  And this is why we do not care whether an election springing from them documents is itself a credible exercise.

What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge? What peace lives in the perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?

Cowards die many times before their deaths and we have been granted a new lease of life. However, if we carry on as we have done over the last five years, if we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified of the monsters under the house.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Kenya Election: Anger Grows as Poll Violence Appears Unlikely

A local journalist displays a camera vandalized by 
frustrated foreign correspondents at a polling station.

Anger and frustration are said to be rising within the foreign correspondent community as expectations of widespread chaos during the Kenyan election fade.

Hopes had been raised by the butchering of 12 people, including 6 police officers, in the coastal city of Mombasa, but have now been replaced by a growing sense of disappointment.

Many have expressed shock at the alarming shortage of bad news stories and pictures of machete-wielding tribal youths.

"This is a hoax!" exclaimed one of the correspondents. "Even the politicians are saying they will accept the results. What are we supposed to report now?" he asked dejectedly.

At polling stations, tens of bewildered reporters were seen huddled in small groups and conversing in low tones. "This is not what our audience is expecting to see," said one, who declined to giver her name. "They watch CNN and read the Financial Times and know that people are arming themselves and politicians won't concede," she said.

"Kenyans are playing with fire," said another. "If they do not get their act together during the presidential run-off, major news networks will no longer be interested in covering the country," he added.

Kenyan authorities are scrambling to diffuse the tensions, promising a slew of corruption scandals and broken promises in the coming months but this is unlikely to assuage the anger. "We were given the same promises before the election but now look at what has happened," said one photographer."We cannot trust them any more and we will be taking action," he added ominously.

A hotline (072-PISSOFF) has been opened to assist any reporters who may be traumatised by the lack of violence.