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.

1 comment:

Jesse Masai said...

Gathara, good writing as always. Keep in touch (jesse dot masai at gmail dot com).