Monday, April 29, 2013

Broken News

Every newsman worthy of the name desires a scoop. A chance to break the news or catch public officials with their hands in the till. It is why they swarm at the sniff of scandal. It is a chance to make one's name and fortune while providing a public service. So why is Kenyan media not swarming to Garissa?

To be sure, there is more than a hint of scandal there. Following a spate of terror attacks, the government sent in a a high level fact finding mission led by Internal Security permanent secretary Mutea Iringo. What it uncovered was scandalous in itself: a powerful network of business and government officials facilitating an illegal trade in imported and tax-evading goods from Somalia, a trade which was funnelling money to the coffers of the al Shabaab terror group, allowing it to sustain fighters as well as purchase arms and explosives, some of which are used in attacks in Kenya. According to the Daily Nation, while initially the attacks in Garissa were in reaction to Kenya Defence Forces entry into Somalia, the most attacks, including the one at Kwa Chege food parlour which killed 10 people, have been masterminded by local businessmen with the aim of pushing out their competitors. According to one unnamed official, "Almost the entire government team is rotten."

All this is should undoubtedly have investigative journalists smacking their lips and editors dreaming up headlines. And it doesn't stop there. The Iringo mission then proposes an 11-point action plan directed at the police chiefs in the area which included carrying out a massive security operation. This operation is to be run by the same "rotten" government team (the police chief, for example, was not replaced until a week into it and, as the unnamed official quoted above went on to say, Garissa area would be left without an administration in place if radical action was to be taken at a go).

Nonetheless, our ever-vigilant media quickly dubs the operation "an anti-terror crackdown." No questions are asked when not a single individual of the nearly 600 people arrested  is charged with any links to the attacks. When the Daily Nation reports on the arrest of six men described as “high value” suspects, one of them said to be a coordinator of Al-Shabaab activities in the town and the rest his key link-men, but none of them are arraigned in court. When it turns out that the real suspects are actually those running the operation and their friends in the business community. When it is clear that the operation seems to indiscriminately target ethnic Somalis and that none of the businessmen and government officials actually suspected of links to the terror acts are arrested.

Following the failure to catch anyone of note, the media is not even remotely curious when the government then declares that the criminals it seeks have fled to other areas necessitating widening the scope of the operation.

David Kimaiyo, the Inspector General of Police, has said all officers involved would be dismissed and charged in court once investigations are completed. “I’ve sent senior investigators and they are already in Garissa. Once they are through they will provide a list and make recommendations on who should go home but of course with evidence." None of our journalists asks why he would need evidence to arrest police officers but none to arrest citizens.

So how does one explain the silence in the press about all this? Why has it not been on the front pages of every newspaper? The media obviously know what is happening. Are they deliberately downplaying the abuse of citizen's rights and citizens' intelligence because it involves people they do not consider to be real or, in the words of Louis Otieno, "indigenous Kenyans"? Or are they so in thrall of our "awesome" President, as Larry Madowo described him, that they are unable to see the wood for trees?

Or is it, perhaps, that our media, and especially our electronic media, no longer employs newsmen, just entertainers? Perhaps we are the ones who should ask questions when Citizen TV advertises for a news anchor and insists on a photograph of the applicant. When TV news becomes a space where beauty trumps brains and where we are fed on a diet of advertising and entertainment rather than real news. How will we be  able to keep the government in check if we do not know what it is doing? Or has somebody decided that there is no need for the government to be kept in check?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Coming Home To Roost

Earlier this week, I was invited to participate in a discussion on the media coverage of the recent election. It was quite an interesting and informative engagement with opinion seemingly split broadly into two groups: those like me who think the press was induced into a "peace coma," and ignored fundamental and widespread problems witnessed during the poll; and others who, though admitting that the reporting may not have scaled the heights of journalistic achievement, believed that the call for peace and cautious stance contributed to a remarkably peaceful and violence-free election.

Whilst we were debating all this, the Uhuru government launched its security operation in Garissa. In less than a week, two people were dead, hundreds had been arrested and many more had fled the town in terror of an operation the Daily Nation calls "an anti-terror crackdown". Those nabbed included at least 7 recently elected county representatives. 80 people were arraigned in court but none for any links to the recent spate of attacks in the city, the justification for the operation. In fact 75 of those were in court for the apparently horrendous crime of not applying for an ID. Meaning they were Kenyan citizens. Meaning the police knew that they were Kenyan citizens.

The more one looks into it, the more it seems that the operation is targeting ordinary citizens, specifically ethnic Somalis, and inspiring the very terror it is meant to quash. It looks like collective punishment. So why isn't the media replete with howls of indignation and outrage? Why, despite being offered multiple opportunities to question the President this week, not a single journalist raise the issue?

Heard about the rape epidemic in the poorer areas of Nairobi? The violence visited daily on the poor? No one asked President Kenyatta about that either.

And, to be fair, it is not only the media. Where is our civil society? Where are the voices of our eloquent defenders of human rights and constitutional limits on the arbitrary exercise of power? They are also conspicuous by their absence.

I think we are seeing the consequences of trends that we encouraged or ignored during the last election cycle. When we kept quiet about the denigration and delegitimizing of civil society by their traditional enemies, the political class. When we ignored the lobotomising of the news and encouraged our journalists to be performers and entertainers rather than newsmen. When we allowed them to privilege the voices of the rich and powerful, and their narratives of economic development, and refused to hear those of the poor and displaced. When we turned a blind eye to malfeasance in the name of peace and accepted the wisdom that the only alternative to a poorly run election is chaos, not a better run one. When we shouted from the rooftops about a new constitution and devolved government but only whispered about the Bill of Rights. When we pooh-poohed justice and celebrated mediocrity.

Today, it is citizens in places like Garissa and the slums of Nairobi who are paying the price. There's perhaps a false comfort in the idea that it doesn't really matter because we had already, through years of abuse and neglect, relegated them to second class citizens existing on the margins of society. This, we think, could not happen to us, in our stone houses with three square meals, an internet connection and a car outside.

Well, what's to stop it? Remember it was a coalition of media and civil society (including churches) that forced reform on the government. Today, all these are facing a crisis of confidence and legitimacy.

Institutions do not only exist in government. And, in fact, it is those institutions outside the government -primarily the the press and organised civil society- that are the most important check on government excess. When we allow them to be hollowed out and undermined, we all ultimately suffer the consequences.

We must beware when what passes for news is a regurgitation of government propaganda. We should be afraid when we let the government dictate the agenda and when our journalists are more interested in the President's wardrobe than they are in his closet. That, my friends, is not the path to peace.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Shut Down and Shut Up

The search for a teenage terror suspect -accused, along with his brother, of bombing the Boston Marathon two days ago, killing 3 people and injuring nearly 150 more- yesterday shut down the entire city. Think about that. 650,000 people living in the birthplace of the American Revolution, which gave the world its most constitutionally shackled government, have been terrorized into staying at home by the hunt for a 19-year old student.

Closer to home, the Uhuru government has finally broken its two day silence on the terror attacks in Garissa which killed 10. It was a tragedy which President Uhuru Kenyatta felt did not merit a mention in any of the speeches he has given since, let alone a special media address or visit to the town ala his counterpart in the White House. 

Now he has apparently released a statement expressing "his concern over the continued killing of civilians and security personnel" and ordering security chiefs to head to Garissa on Saturday. I am not expecting to hear of a lock down there. Given the history of government action in that part of Kenya, it would probably create more fear than the original attack. 

But a lock down of sorts has already been underway across most of the country for some time. It is not a physical one though, which is easier to identify. One can see the pictures of empty freeways and train stations in Boston and immediately know that something is amiss. 

Not here. It is, however, not dissimilar to what is happening in Boston. A deep-seated terror has overtaken the land and the authorities, with the help of a compliant media, have instituted a shut down. Only this is a mental and spiritual one. A desertion of the streets of thought and conscience. A confinement in the tribal homes. The 2008 post-election violence has become today’s bogeyman.

How else is one to understand the silence that has greeted the Supreme Court’s release of it judgement? One would have expected our “vibrant” media to be all over it, taking it apart, explaining the precedents it sets or overturns. Where are the eloquent lawyers to whose endless analysis and opinions we were subjected in lieu of actual news during the election? Why, for that matter, did the Chief Justice not read his judgement in open court?

Why, a month after the election, and with the Supreme Court asking for a corruption investigation into the procurement of technology for the election, haven't we heard of the police or the EACC launching investigations? Where are the demands for an audit of the way the entire election was handled, for reforming the Commission and its way of doing business?

How can the man who masterminded one of Kenya’s biggest financial scams through which the country lost up to Sh100 billion walk free after all those years of tribunals and trials? Was the Goldenberg scandal, which bought Kamlesh Pattni national infamy, just a figment of our imagination? For that matter, why was Brother Paul even allowed to run for elected office

I guess a country that has just chosen a guy accused of bankrolling militias to kill innocent Kenyans to be its President would not be expected to be squeamish about the face of the guy accused of almost bankrupting the country twenty years ago gracing an election billboard. But what should we make of the fact that the Nation filed the story of Pattni’s acquittal under the title “Politics”?

This is all about fear. Fear of one another. Fear of the uncertain. Fear of looking foolish.

We need to leave our comfort zones and venture outside. We need to remember the taste of freedom and the scent of justice. We need to start thinking and feeling again. It is time to show some outrage. To speak up. Let’s not move on. Let’s go back and make it better. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Dissenting Opinion

Legal judgements do not always make for absorbing reading. I suppose this is because judges want to sound measured and impartial, disinterested if not particularly interesting to those whose study of the law consists of a few seasons of Boston Legal.

And so it was when the Supreme Court released its judgement, finally offering up a justification for its decision to uphold the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as President of the Republic of Kenya. Still, as I dutifully and valiantly trudged through it 113 pages, I found myself getting all emotional about this lack of emotion.

Now I'm a great Boston Legal fan so I will not pretend to understand the intricacies of law or the ways of lawyers. My ignorance was not helped by the reluctance of the media to unpackage the judgement and explain the old precedents it has overturned or new ones it has established (BTW, why is that?). In any case, how a ballot transmogrifies into a vote holds little fascination for me. What did, however, was to see the problems of the election reduced to such bland, tasteless and uninspiring arguments.

“Is that it? Where is the outrage?” I kept asking myself. Surely, the frozen IEBC screens that kept a nation in purgatory for a week deserve more than a “We came to the conclusion that, by no means can the conduct of this election be said to have been perfect, even though, quite clearly, the election had been of the greatest interest to the Kenyan people, and they had voluntarily come out into the polling stations, for the purpose of electing the occupant of the Presidential office.”

I am sure the distinctions of who bore the shifting burdens of proof as well as just how convinced the Court needed to be (beyond reasonable doubt or on the balance of probability or somewhere in between) have their place in the sanitized arena of the courtroom where everyone is friendly and learned. But out here, where elections are more about raw emotions than rational choices, such abstract considerations are a luxury we cannot afford.

Whether “the Petitioner clearly and decisively show[ed] the conduct of the election to have been so devoid of merits, and so distorted, as not to reflect the expression of the people’s electoral intent (italics theirs)” is of less import as a test here. In the end, the fact of who won pales in significance in comparison to the manner in which that win was secured.

By now, the substance of the legal battles enacted live on TV will have ebbed from most minds but few will ever forget those IEBC screens. In the real world, it is those screens that militate against legal assumptions such as omnia praesumuntur rite et solemniter esse acta: all acts (of public bodies accused of irregularities) are presumed to have been done rightly and regularly. We dare not presume a thing like that. How can we when it is public bodies that have given away our land, detained, tortured, disappeared and murdered those they were meant to serve, and turned a blind eye when thieves loot the treasury and granary?

In truth, while the Supreme Court has quite correctly pronounced itself on the validity and legality of the IEBC register(s), methods and declarations, the ultimate judges of the credibility of the exercise are the people of Kenya. If a number of them feel that their votes did not count, feel disenfranchised by the system, then to that extent the processes failed.

The Court’s opinion is undoubtedly the one that matters in deciding whether the election achieved the standards set forth in our law. And I wouldn't have it any other way. But there are other opinions and other courts. The opinion of the public court, imperfect and prone to mood swings and vulnerable to deceptions, matters most in sustaining and developing a democracy. It is the opinions of the millions who live and breathe outside its hallowed halls that should always have been the focus of our attention. So, when one hears stories of people wanting to burn IDs or saying they'll never vote again, it is clear that there are real credibility issues that need resolving. The question must now be: How do we restore the faith of half the country in a system that they believe, rightly or wrongly, has betrayed them once too often? How do we provide relief to the other half who feel the need to constantly and sometimes hysterically defend the electoral result?

I think a good place to start would be a comprehensive, honest and impartial audit of the entire electoral process, everything from the registration of voters to the tallying and transmission of results. Something more than the corruption investigation that the Supreme Court has recommended.

Lets's fix this before we "move on." It must not be swept this under the national carpet. And while we’re at it, an airing of our collective closet -the TJRC report is due in just over two weeks time- would help immensely in tempering the emotion associated with elections and creating space for more rational deliberation, perhaps too not unlike what happens in the courtroom. After all, we could use a break from the interesting times.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Let Them Do Their Worst

North Korea seems to punch way above the weight of a country perpetually on the brink of starvation. It seems every time the Supreme Leader feels like it, he can send the world’s only superpower into a tizzy. Lately, he’s been playing up the idea of a war on the Korean peninsula, abrogating the 60-year armistice with the south, threatening all manner of terrible inflictions and issuing warnings to diplomats that his government could not protect them once the impending hostilities were underway.

Only, there are no impending hostilities. It is an entirely contrived and scripted crisis reminiscent of the Barry Levinson movie, Wag The Dog. Yet the dog is wagging. Alert levels have been raised, naval assets redeployed, allies assured of protection, anti-missile systems sent to faraway islands. The question concentrating minds in Washington and Beijing and Tokyo and Seoul is “What does he want?”

Of course, this is not the first time the North Koreans have manufactured a crisis and the only reason anyone takes them seriously is that they may have a nuclear weapon as well as one of the world’s largest armies and we are not too sure that their instinct for self-preservation will always keep them from using both.

In a sense, our elected representatives are not all that different from the North Koreans. They too are prone to throwing childish tantrums, threatening all manner of consequences if we do not acquiesce to their demands. Like the North Koreans, they have a nuclear option –they can shut down the government by refusing to pass crucial legislation- and say they are willing to use it. This too is proving a successful tactic as minds across the country are focussed on what they want: an outrageous increase to their bloated salaries before they have even set foot in their offices. Like the US, our government is also casting about, trying to talk them down and come up with a number they can get on and work with.

Well, as a father, I know a thing or two about childish tantrums. And the first lesson one learns is not to reward them. In fact, the best policy is to simply ignore them. The more attention you pay, the more intense they become. Soon, this tiny, weak human being who could not survive more than a few hours on his own, who is dependent on you for every form of protection and sustenance, becomes convinced of his power over you. The tantrum becomes the expression of that power and its effectiveness is predicated on your not calling the bluff.

So my wife lets my kids hold their breath, sulk in the corner or scream till they are blue in the face. It doesn’t take long for the myth of power to crumble. I think there is a lesson there for my fellow Kenyans and the world. We do not have to respond every time spoilt MPigs or tin-pot dictators regress to their terrible twos because we refuse to cater to their every whim. There’s no need to feed their delusions, or give in to their imagined power.

Sometimes, we just have to ignore them (and their demands), as we did successfully with the matatu strike a few years ago. Call their bluff. Let them do their worst.

We should however be on the look out as MPigs being Mpigs, they may try to sneak in their increments through the back door.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Easy Patriotism

This morning, I attended my daughter’s school’s prize giving ceremony. One of the many presentations put on by the kids was a rendition of Eric Wainaina’s Daima Mkenya. As they sang sweetly and innocently, I found myself mourning a lost childhood, a bygone age when being Kenyan was easy. When all one had to do was fly a flag, sing an anthem and say a pledge of loyalty. When we did not need to be convinced of our Kenyanness.

By contrast, much of the rest of the programme was spent lecturing us, the adults, on the need to keep peace, to stay united, to remember our Kenyanness. It seems that as we grow older, the easy patriotism of childhood, unencumbered by complicated issues of identity, history and ethnicity, becomes less satisfying. How we understand ourselves and the ties we have to others, even to childhood friends with whom we may have once stood on a stage and performed a patriotic skit, become hostage to the vagaries of experience and exposure. We still have our moments of easy nationalism, such as when a national sports team does well or when one of our world-beating athletes wins a gold medal.

For most of the time, however, Kenyanness is something we have to recreate and rediscover for ourselves. It is hard work to be empathetic to your fellow countrymen, to try to understand and find common bonds with people -sometimes thousands of kilometres away, sometimes just across the road- whose experience of reality is far removed from ours, whose culture and customs are alien to us. It is uncomfortable to countenance the poverty and misery that exists in our midst and to contemplate our role, and that of our fathers, in the subjugation and impoverishment of our fellow citizens. For the most part, we prefer not to think about these things. We just want to get on with our lives.

Time heals all wounds, we tell ourselves. If we work hard, produce enough to grow an economy, then all will be forgiven and forgotten. The discomfiting issues will go away, or at least we will not have to deal with them. This now seems to be entrenched as Kenya’s post-election maxim. Let us move on and build the nation. To be honest, there’s nothing I would like better. I would love to agree with President Uhuru Kenyatta that, a few moments of anxiety aside, the poll “helped define and make stronger our democracy” and that “Kenyans had real choices.” Or with Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan graduate student at the University of Oxford, who wrote that the poll showed that “democracy in Kenya is working the best way it can."

I would like to believe that what we just witnessed was nothing exceptional, in the grand scheme of things. After all, as Charles Onyango Obbo puts it, “are messy and divisive not just in Kenya but everywhere.” So what’s the point of dwelling on it? Like everyone else, I long for an easy patriotism.

But I know that something is seriously wrong when we have to be constantly reminded that the outcome of an election is not a matter of life and death, when people stockpile food and water in its anticipation. I cannot ignore the fear that the election exposed, and the ease with which we were stampeded into tribal stockades. I know that this was not the best election we could have had, and that a democracy in which a large proportion of the population feels it has no say is neither working nor strengthened.

I sense a problem when choices have less to do with the welfare of the people than with that of those who lord it over them, when election campaigns are used to undermine global institutions.

I also know that while the economy matters, a lasting peace can only be built on a foundation of justice. And that it is only when we openly acknowledge and address the wounds of the past that we can truly move on.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Can Uhuru Free Himself? Not Likely.

 The richest man in Kenya is now its leader and in his first address has indicated that he is viewing our problems from a distinctly economic and technological perspective. Throughout the inauguration ceremony, we heard promises of double digit economic growth, free laptops, free maternity health, a fund for women and youth.

But the events of the last month have exposed have exposed deep rifts in the national psyche that cannot be papered over with money alone. President Uhuru Kenyatta, to his credit, recognized that his election has divided the country but said little on how he was planning to undertake the process of reconciliation. He would do well to go a little further. Though he is the lawful President of Kenya, he should acknowledge that the election, in the manner in which it was conducted and adjudicated, has not only alienated a significant proportion of the population, but has harmed the credibility, if not legitimacy, of his victory. There is thus a large disaffected constituency he will need to actively win over, if he is serious in his desire to be the president of all Kenyans.

Vague appeals to national unity, to moving on and working together are not enough. His government must demonstrate the will to reform the flawed electoral system that has brought him to power. As he works to deliver laptops to primary schools, he must also insist on a full and comprehensive audit of why all the systems set up to guard the transparency of the election failed. After all, many were deployed in these very schools.

It was also encouraging to hear him talk of "a permanent peace through which democracy is glorified and not undermined" as opposed to "a perfunctory peace" that is held hostage to the five year election cycle. Than in itself is a valuable acknowledgement of the spell of fear and paranoia that has swept the country over the last month and that is beginning to be buried. I hope he also recognises that this national pathology has deep roots in traumatic historical events and outcomes that the country has avoided confronting for the last five decades. If he truly wants to get rid of it, he must not allow us to move on until we have truly come to grips with it. I hope his administration will begin by lifting the ban on public demonstrations to allow the people opportunity to peacefully vent whatever frustrations they may be harbouring. After all, he did declare his commitment to the protection of fundamental freedoms. I hope he will not seek to roll back the gains won over the last 20 years.

The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which is expected in less than a month, should provide another perfect opportunity to further this work. However, that will require a commitment to truth and justice. Given how his election campaign has, with more than a little success, sought to disparage and deligitimize civil society organisations that advocate for justice and good governance, as well as the accusations of interference with witnesses at the ICC and the personal cost he would bear if the prosecution were to be successful, many are understandably sceptical about his resolve in this regard. But perhaps with the heat of the electoral battle now fading, and with the case against him at the Hague looking less likely to succeed, he may decide to surprise us all.

Will we now see a let up in the assault on civil society, the bedrock of any democracy? Will we see moves to provide some semblance of local justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims of, not just the violence of 2008, but of the political violence that has accompanied every election since 1992? They, sadly, didn't merit a mention on his speech. Will he be committed to justice for the millions more who have been impoverished by the succession of corrupt and greedy regimes that begun with his father's and whose policies have bequeathed him much of the wealth he enjoys today? Not having mentioned corruption once in his speech, does he consider stamping out the vice a priority and will he be able to resist the vulture "businessmen" associated with his own campaign?

In a very real sense, if President Uhuru Kenyatta is to live up to his promise of working towards "a rich and abiding peace," he will have to confront the very system that has put him where he is. He, perhaps even more than the rest of the country, would need to confront and expose painful realities about the conduct of his family and its old friends. He would have to live up to his name and free himself, and thus his countrymen, from the shackles of the past. If he found the courage to do so, he might just be the best thing that ever happened to Kenya. So, Godspeed to him.

But we all know that this is unlikely to happen. The likelihood is that President Kenyatta will, like his predecessors, have little interest in justice or fighting graft. Instead he will, as he has already done, continue to urge us to get back to work, to build the nation, to forget the election. He will seek to bribe us and buy our loyalty with free goodies and he will continue his campaign to undermine both the ICC and local civil society. Whether he succeeds in this will be up to the rest of us. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Brave New Kenya

It’s less than a week since the Supreme Court put a stamp of legality, if not exactly credibility, on the presidential election. As Uhuru Kenyatta prepares to be sworn in, and the country is tries to regain some semblance of normality, it is hard not to feel that something fundamental has changed.

Not long after Chief Justice Willy Mutunga announced the decision, TV anchors were giggling at footage of a woman being forcefully undressed and her undergarments strewn about (They would later apparently issue grudging apologies on Twitter). “I don’t know whether I should laugh or get mad,” says one, apparently unsure of what would be the appropriate response to the public humiliation of a woman just because an ignorant mob did not approve of the way she was dressed. A few months ago, they would probably have been screaming blue murder. In this new era, there also seems to be little appetite for the prosecution of the attackers. In fact, the media appears determined to sweep the whole incident under the national carpet.

Neither has much been made of the case of blogger Robert Alai, who was arrested and charged in criminal court with posting offensive, annoying and false message on his twitter account about Head of Civil Service Francis Kimemia. The clamour to erase criminal libel laws has apparently today grown into a deafening silence.

It feels like something is amiss when one sees reports (later denied) of the government apparently contemplating giving sole broadcasting rights to a public event, not to mention one as important as the inauguration, to a private company. Or when one of the most respected and sober commentators appears to agree with the most rabid characterisation of prominent human rights and political reform activists, claiming they are leading us “into the dark embrace of imperial slavery.”

Perhaps we are just trying to find our bearings after weathering the electoral storm. However, I just can’t shake the feeling that our trust in the rusty moral compass that has been our guide through the political storms of the last quarter of a century has been somehow shaken.

In these new waters, the familiar landmarks are still there but seem strangely reversed. The villains of yesterday have become the new heroes of today; the rehabilitation of Daniel Moi as a lovable and wise elder statesman is almost as complete as is the demonization of those who stood against him. In a darkly ironic twist, during the election season one paint manufacturer saw fit to run ads calling for brightly coloured "peace, love, unity," the slogan behind which Moi had wreaked havoc with our lives and livelihoods. Those who oppose impunity, who take a stand against corruption and electoral malpractice, who demand the freedom to speak their thoughts or dress as they wish - these are today’s enemies.

Today, success seems measured in monetary terms. When one paper this week reported on the recently introduced traffic rules, the piece focussed on the fact that the government had collected Kshs. 500 million in fines from the over 2000 drivers that were being arrested daily. That the laws had had little effect in reducing deaths (road users were still dying at the rate of over 280 per month) merited only a passing mention in an obscure paragraph at the end of the article.

When assessing the performance of the Kibaki government, much is said of the improvements in infrastructure and economic growth, most of it ignoring the fact that when measured by longevity, knowledge, and a decent standard of living for its populace, the country's score, though improved, still comes in pretty much near the bottom of the global pile. Equally, when we discuss the new constitution, we focus on the devolution of resources and relatively little ink is spilt discussing the Bill of Rights.

I can’t help wondering whether we have just struck a grand bargain with our murderous elite. Whether we have not traded in justice for peace and values for prosperity. A laptop for our kids and superhighways, virtual and real –these are today’s struggles. Notions of equality and accountability are so yesterday. The imperialist West with its flaky notions of freedom and human rights and its flailing economies no longer holds any attraction for us. We prefer the hard pragmatists in the East. Our new political model is China. What does it matter if you break a few eggs to bake the national cake? Liberal democracy may sound nice but it won’t put food on the table.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Of Neighbours and Machetes

National security has always been the excuse of choice for repressive governments seeking to clamp down on dissent. It is such an attractive ploy because the definition of what constitutes national security, let alone a threat to it, is not only extremely vague but very much dependent on what shadowy figures with "intelligence" declare it to be.

It is they who have the wisdom to handle the sorts of information and knowledge that could not be possibly entrusted to Ordinary Joe. All he is asked to do is sign the checks and trust that whatever is done in his name is for his own good, even though it may require the sacrifice of some essential liberties.

In the just concluded elections, the perceived threat to national peace and stability was again the weapon of choice against dissent, wielded not just by the government, but also by a society uncertain of what it would do if it were shown the intelligence. The violence of just five years ago fresh on our minds, we became a terror unto ourselves.

In 2007, so we are told, historical grievances, sparked by the refusal to accept a stolen election, led to a spontaneous orgy of killing and destruction. This, I think, is largely a work of fiction. Or at best, it is a selective retelling. It seems pretty much everyone who has looked into it has concluded that most of the violence was premeditated and prearranged. Meetings had been held and targets pre-selected; pre-outraged thugs had been paid, prepped, armed and ferried about. Politicians and radio stations incited, homes and churches were burnt and people died.

Today, it is not the fact of pre-ordained violence that we are constantly reminded of. Rather, it is the refusal to accept the official version of events, what many saw as a plainly fraudulent outcome, that is portrayed as the casus belli. The narrative of our sojourn into hell has been spun as a consequence of defying our betters, of demanding to see the intelligence and make up our own minds. If only we knew our place, accepted and acquiesced, then things would have been Oh! so different.

Now, this was far from the first election to have been stolen in Kenyan history. In fact, since the return of multi-party politics, the results of every single presidential election, except the 2002 one, have been disputed. Those in control of the state, as well as their rivals for that control, have been primarily responsible for the political violence that accompanied these contests but have sought to paint it as spontaneous "tribal clashes" over historical grievances. Regardless of the fact that it was actually their greed and ambition that created these grievances in the first place, in the official (and increasingly popular) narrative, it is the victims, both historical and current, who bear the blame.

This narrative has transformed what is essentially a political negotiation between individuals over control of state resources using militia and IDPs as pawns into a tribal fight between the communities they claim to represent. By articulating reality in this way, politicians have managed to socialize responsibility for corruption and violence while paradoxically, privatising the benefits of power. Thus the actions of any politician become identified with those of his tribe, his thievery becomes that of the tribe, his violence that of the tribe.

We have bought into this crude version of events in which the victims have donned the garb of perpetrators. Instead of blaming individuals for fomenting chaos, we have chosen to see entire communities as culpable. We accepted the "official truth" that we were all responsible for the 2007 tragedy, that we were all potentially murderous. In doing so, we have generated a climate of fear and hatred wherein every dispute is seen as an existential threat. Since every neighbour is a potential machete-wielding psycopath in disguise, every action and utterance is the potential spark for mindless, all-consuming violence. This is the genesis of our mutual terror of one another, the consequent quashing of dissent, and the loud and incessant calls for a peaceful silence.

To extricate ourselves from this pernicious ideology, we need to go back to the beginning. To recognise that we have been gullible and begin to reconstruct narratives that more accurately reflect the truth. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, due out in a month's time, will be crucial in this endeavour. If the Commission is true to its mandate, the report will lay bare the iniquities of the past and give us an opportunity to rethink the lessons we have drawn from it. Perhaps then we can begin to identify for ourselves where the real threat to our collective security comes from.