Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kenya: Is The Dream Over? Wake Up And Smell The Fear.

Lately, questions have started to be asked about the conduct and outcome of the election. And the more information leaks out, the more the questions keep coming. For me, the first significant crack in the official facade came at the end of May. Buried deep in an otherwise unremarkable story about the IEBC's proposal to change the way public funding for political parties would be calculated, is a startling admission by an unnamed Commissioner: "We are having sleepless nights reconciling the presidential results and those of the other positions. Over a million votes must be reconciled with the others."

If the Commission is indeed burning the midnight oil to "reconcile" the fact that one million voters seemed to have discarded 5 of the 6 ballots they were given without anyone noticing, and then only cast a vote for the presidential election, then that would raise more serious doubts over the integrity of Uhuru Kenyatta's victory. More than three months after the election, the IEBC is yet to release the full election results and every day, this delay further erodes the already shaky public confidence in the electoral process. A recent opinion poll by Infotrak found that nearly half of all of Kenyans had their doubts which pretty much reflects the divided nation. Even Western governments that were eager to ignore concerns over the veracity of the results and in a rush to  embrace the new administration, seem to be backing off a little. "Uncertainty following Kenya’s elections" was last week given as one of the two reasons US President Barrack Obama's is ducking Kenya (the other is obvious).

You would think that all this would be enough to shake the Kenyan media and society out of its post-election slumber. You might expect outraged protests, ala Brazil and Turkey. Of course you'd be wrong. As a society, we seem resolutely determined, in what has become the prevailing mantra, to "accept and move on." Although a vocal and increasingly strident and shrill minority continues to man the online barricades and trade insults, much of the society has indeed moved on. But what is it that we have moved on to and what have we accepted?

Every time I hear the phrase, it seems to mark the end of a dream. Today the election seems like a world away. Instead of a celebration of nationhood, it has become something else to forget, another nail in Kenya's coffin. As the simmering resentment of those on the losing side is swept under the carpet of indifference and resignation and the winners attempt to drown their doubts in a histrionic cacophony of  shallow optimism and empty chest-thumping, one can't help feeling that questioning the poll is flogging a dead horse. 

Time to wake up and smell the fear, I suppose. There is a real reluctance to go back and explore what happened. A real terror of peering behind the curtain of official truth, of what that might reveal, of what it might provoke. In this atmosphere, thick with our terror of each other and of our common past, "accept and move on" is a comfort blanket that smothers the spark of outrage while soothing the afflicted conscience. In its embrace, we are suffocating the idea of Kenya, of a nation of rights, responsibility and opportunity for all; where life, hope and choices are not defined by one's surname.

Even when we rail against the brazen greed of MPigs or the alleged racism of ArtCafe, the anger sometimes seems contrived. We wish we could feel as genuinely Boniface Mwangi seems to, and in the throes of an imagined outrage, we may even swear to attend the next Occupy Parliament demo. Deep inside, I think, we recognize that something has changed. Something fundamental. A sense that Kenya and Kenyans cannot long endure in this fearful place where we have exchanged the truth for the lie, where we hide things in plain sight.

That realization is, I think, Kenya gasping for breath, for life. Yet we want to move on and forget. Every morning it is a little easier to ignore the cries of a dying nation, to accept that the pursuit of justice is an inherently dangerous thing. As every day inflicts upon us new outrages, pretty soon, what should be outrageous becomes normal. And we learn to ignore or silently endure the humiliations. The national spirit shrivels even further.

Where we once looked to freedom and rights, understood ourselves to be exceptional in our part of the globe, were proud of our fractious and loud media and civil society, today we celebrate silence and lies and tyranny and manipulation. Where we once we saw ourselves as a beacon for the region, we have become a place to hide, where questions are not answered but themselves queried. No longer an island of peace, we are today content to swim in a sea of chaos, corruption and injustice.

The other day I got to thinking that perhaps we've given up on doing better because we believe we've already tried it and it didn't turn out so well. In 2002, we elected the activists. We tried the good guys. We gave them their shot and they gave us tyranny and assassinations, and corruption and Anglo-Leasing and the Arturs. Perhaps this is why we now do not care for civil society. And why we've turned the country over to the bad guys, the corrupt, the wicked, the indictees and the drug dealers. They surely could do no worse!

But the election has given us an important insights into our own part in abetting this poverty of values among the governing elite. The brutal, kleptocratic leadership can afford to ignore us because they are aware that deep down we are afraid that we are just like them. That we are just as murderous. It is this awareness that we fear but it is also, paradoxically, the truth that will set us free. For only by accepting responsibility for the past, can we own our future. By learning to believe in our own agency and to stop hiding behind the tribe or leader.

I don't want to accept and move on, to forget what the election revealed. I don't want to turn from it or paper it over or minimize it. I want to face it. Remembering and acting upon that remembrance is the only salvation for Kenya.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Devolving Media And Civil Society

Nakuru is impressive. Visiting for the first time in many years, I was struck by the changes in city's skyline. It has the feel of a boom town and, I was told, real estate prices have shot through the roof. Two years ago, the UN rated it as Africa's fastest growing town and the fourth fastest in the world. No mean achievement.

While there, I was privileged to met an elderly lady who was introduced to me, in that quaint rural tradition which names parents after their children, only as Mama George. She's a seasoned political activist who despite her advanced years, is still full of passion ("Government makes my blood boil," she told me). Her wrinkled eyes danced as she related tales of the fight for multiparty democracy, walking from Nakuru to Nairobi to participate in the Saba Saba protests and how every January, a group of these veterans still gather in Nairobi to water a tree they planted in honor of the struggle. It is a travesty, I remember thinking, that we do not ourselves exalt these heroes; ordinary Kenyans who did extraordinary things; who refused to be cowed by the violence of a dictator; whose courage and determination laid the ground for the freedoms we take for granted today.

I didn't ask what she made of today's society but I suspect I know what she would think of the fear we displayed during the election; of the refusal to face up to our history; of a nation that forsakes justice for a temporary peace and values economic growth over its citizens' rights and freedoms.

But Nakuru has other lessons to teach. Driving just outside the town centre, one encounters huge heaps of garbage. The towns landfill is overflowing and everyday truckloads of rubbish are being deposited by the roadside. It's not just a stinking eyesore, but a potential public health hazard. KTN covered this a few days ago but it is clearly not an issue the national media is in any danger of running away with. It is reminiscent of the garbage crisis in Mombasa which may get a sporadic mention in between the mouthfuls of soap operas. It led to conversations with locals about the need to restructure our press and civil society to keep up with devolution.

As Kenya moves to devolve governance, one wonders how county residents will keep county governments honest. The experience with devolved funds, such as the Constituency Development Fund, over the last decade should be a wake up call. The opacity and lack of accountability that  characterized the operation of these instruments must not be repeated with county governments. Similarly, the traditional neglect of local government (except for the fights that accompanied mayoral elections) must not be transferred to county governments. We must not allow county issues to continue to be crowded out by the national conversation.

However, our media and civil society organizations are currently not suited to deliver this. They remain  resolutely centralized, Nairobi-based and focused on national issues. We need to start thinking about how to encourage the growth of county based CSOs which can articulate local issues and put pressure on the devolved governments. Ditto for the media. Local reporters covering local issues for local publications or broadcasters would be critical to keeping the county governments on their toes. Following up on their handling of issues such as the garbage crisis in burgeoning Nakuru is not the sort of thing national media do well but would be the bread and butter of county media. Strong local media would not only improve governance, but also a shot in the arm for county economies, creating jobs and providing a means for county level businesses to reach local consumers.

Devolving media and civil society along with government is essential if citizens are to hold county authorities to account for the services they are owed. It will ensure that county governments will be focused, not on posturing for a national audience, but on local issues, which will ultimately have the most impact on the lives of the people. If we as a society did this, we may just stand a chance of winning back the favour of Mama George.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Real Tyranny Of Numbers

Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury, Henry Rotich, yesterday unveiled a budget which included measures to reintroduce the controversial VAT Bill which, he says, seeks "reduce the cost of compliance" with our tax collection mechanisms. This Bill, which will likely see a large increase in the price of basic commodities including food, sanitary towels and books, is presented by a government that during the election promised to lift 10 million people out of poverty.

How this is achieved by making everything from sanitary towels to food and books 16% more expensive and driving up the cost of living sounds very much like modern-day alchemy. But that is until you consider how our system works. You see, in Kenya, policy is not about helping human beings -individuals or even communities. It is about the statistics and indices whose upward or downward trend is a measure of our success or failure as a society.

These figures and averages, instead of providing insight, are now used to mask reality. The joke goes, when Bill Gates walks into a bar, on average everyone there becomes a millionaire. Similarly, the growth in averages like GDP, is used to hide the fact that much of society is still actually deeply steeped in poverty and that much of the increase in wealth is concentrated at the top. We define poverty by how much disposable income a family has, not by, for example, whether they can access a decent hospital and how far they have to walk to get there. Thus our solution is not to build more health centers, but to grow the economy.

This tyranny of numbers, the triumph of neo-liberal thought, is having a real and disturbing effect on how we understand ourselves and our society.  We have been transformed from wananchi to taxpayers, from citizens to consumers. The economic relationships have been privileged above all others. It is of course reflective of a global trend where entire countries and regions are now referred to as nothing more than markets.

We are encouraged to think of ourselves as disposable units of production; our land, history, art, culture, and even education as nothing more than repositories of monetary value. Thus we prostitute our traditions for the sake of a few tourist and politician dollars. Art becomes investment, not a means for society to understand itself. Wildlife is not a heritage to be studied and understood but a resource to be sustainably monetized.

Journalism is today about performance and entertainment, not information and education. The news is a show and the electorate little more than a passive audience. Why would they be expected to be interested in, much less understand, the nuances of something as boring and undoubtedly complex as voting systems or the VAT Bill? Leave it to the pundits, lawyers, politicians and economists. They know best.

We are even passing this on to our children. Earlier this week, Cabinet Secretary for Education Jacob Kaimenyi, announced that engineering and medical students in public universities are to pay more than their counterparts in the humanities. Lecturers' pay is to be similarly differentiated. The message is crystal clear. Some university courses are more preferable and profitable. Some knowledge, especially sciences and tech, is more desirable. Education is not about molding minds and unleashing creativity. It is about generating a globally competitive workforce. Students are future workers not thinkers.

A lecturer in Makerere University describes it as the “marketization” of education. “Our society has lost track of the meaning and value of knowledge and education,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, who teaches History. In fact, many universities have already started operating, in the words of Christopher Lucas, author of Our Western Educational Heritage, as “an appendage to the world of business.” A study carried out a few years ago revealed that although courses such as agriculture, conflict resolution, criminology, disaster management, literature, poetry, and ethical education, though more relevant to sustainable development, are being relegated to the back burner.

This contraction in our imagination of what it means to be a human being, or a citizen, explains why we are so easily bought off, so easily "misled" by our politicians. It explains why our idea of Kenya is more akin to a cake than a country; why we speak of turns to eat; and why governance is about sating appetites, not service. It is why we continue to be ruled by the demagogue, the tribalist, the mendacious and the kleptomaniac.

It is why we are content to reduce our citizenship to mere economic participation and condition fundamental rights on economic status. Why we are happy for poor kids to attend free schools without asking about the quality of the education they are getting. Why we are blind to our history, and the history of that history. Why we fear to ask difficult questions and are constantly terrified by the violence we believe simmers under the surface of our otherwise "peaceful" political life.

The fact is, we will not grow our way out of these issues. Economic growth will not be a panacea for the inequality and poverty that afflicts our society. On the contrary, it will exacerbate them. We must rethink the rationale of the state, the why of Kenya. We must break out from the tyranny of the numbers and realize that the economy and the market exist to serve us, not the other way round.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Media Culpa

It is a strange world our media seems to inhabit nowadays. At the end of last week, the Star's weekly pullout, Expression Today, contained what comes perilously close to a collective mea culpa for the coverage of the election.

"We over-trusted the IEBC," NTV Managing Editor declares. The overriding concern of journalists, one of the articles concludes, was "peace," not using election reporting "as an opportunity for national political education" in the words of Ipsos Synovate research Analyst, Tom Wolfe. Capital FM News Editor, Michael Mumo, says he was puzzled by the media downplaying or ignoring events that did not fit into the "peace" narrative (given his job title, one wonders why he should be puzzled at all and who in fact was making the news decisions!) Even the usual apologists seem to accept the media was too busy preventing a repeat of the 2007/2008 violence to actually do its job, though they obviously think that was a good thing.

The pullout criticizes the lack of analysis and discussion of the Supreme Court decision as well as the "sloppy" coverage of the decision of the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to drop charges against Francis Muthaura and its implications (and that of the other crumbling cases) for the search for justice in Kenya.

Sounds like a good start, eh? But as I read it, I found myself having to constantly refer to the date on the masthead to ensure I was actually reading the most recent edition. For all the navel-gazing, the media is still transfixed by the election period.

If the media truly wants to regain the trust of its audience, it needs to do more than a little self-flagellation. Actual changes must flow from a deeper understanding of, not just failures during the election, but the disturbing trends we have witnessed since.

Like the poor coverage of stories such as the Garissa "anti-terror" operation, the lack on interest in the delays and shenanigans leading to the release of the TJRC report, the blind fascination with the new administration and mindless parroting of government propaganda, the triumph of form over substance, showmanship over journalism, entertainment over information.

Perhaps the media could start to tackle the undisguised misogyny that has become a staple of our news. Like the humiliation of seven young women whom the media publicly accused of bestiality without offering a shred of proof. Like the Nation publishing a suggestion from one of our prominent psychiatrists that victims of sexual abuse may themselves be mentally ill for wishing to report their abusers. Like TV anchors seeing the funny side of a woman being stripped in public for supposedly dressing indecently. Like the recent article that observed that though still "wonderful, colourful creatures," women still need men to help them run companies and to presumably cheer the inevitable cat-fights.

How about they query articles such as Jacob Ng'etich's who, writing in the Standard, has produce a glowing rendition of Deputy President William Ruto's rise to power absent any mention of the shadowy moments of that career: the allegations of corruption, the charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly funding and organising murderous militia during the 2007/8 post election violence.

The truth is our press has much to seek forgiveness for. But before they get that, a full and honest audit of their performance to date, as well as a commitment to doing things better, is the least we should demand.