Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Courage To Be Free

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," said Benjamin Franklin. The arrest and nine-hour detention of Brazilian David Miranda at London's Heathrow airport has today re-ignited debate over the erosion of civil liberties in the war against terror. Miranda's treatment was widely seen as a vindictive attempt to intimidate his partner, and Guardian reporter, Glen Greenwald, for publishing information on US government spying on both its citizens and people across the world.

The source of Greewald's information was Edward Snowden, whom the West has turned into a fugitive, following in the footsteps of Wikipedia's Julian Assange, still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Chelsea Manning, who was recently sentenced to 35 yeas imprisonment for being the providing Wikileaks with thousands of secret US diplomatic cables. The scale of this unprecedented attack on civil liberties supposedly guaranteed in the West was recently underlined by reports of UK government goons overseeing the destruction of hard drives containing information relating to the Snowden leaks in the Guardian's basement.  "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more," one said.

As noted by Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organisation that defends freedom of expression, Miranda's arrest has also highlighted the fact that odious so-called "anti-terror" legislation is actually being used, not to target terrorists, but against against activists and journalists who dare to question and expose the "all-encompassing security response to terrorism and the human rights violations that result from it".

Any of this sound familiar?

In Kenya, the diminution of fundamental freedoms in the name of an elusive "peace" or security has been a fact of life for a long time now. By the time the election season rolled around, we had gotten used to the idea of trading innocent lives and the rights to a fair trial for the illusion of security. We cheered whenever the police announced their latest kills. "Cops gun down suspected thugs in shootout," was a regular headline. "Suspected" became more than a word. It became a means to strip people of their humanity. So few raised their voices when suspected thugs were shot and suspected witches were burned.

(It is worth noting, however, that in the hallowed halls of the powerful, "suspected" didn't have a similar connotations. For example, when calls grew for senior officials implicated in theft to resign, the government invented a new taxonomy where they could "step aside" and continue earning their obscene wages without the bother of working for them.)

In the run up to the election and in the time since, the dread of a 2007/8-like post-election conflagration has created an atmosphere where the public is increasingly willing to acquiesce to, if not support, the silencing of voices challenging official conduct and narratives. Like the Guardian in the UK, our media have become complicit in this silencing, destroying journalism standards under the watchful eye of the government's security apparatus. Editors have allowed the news to be lobotomised. Journalists do little other than parrot the official line and are more concerned with their celebrity status than in an informed audience.

The period following the election has demonstrated that, like in the West, these silences are not erected to protect the public, but rather to protect the elite, who have used the period to line their pockets with public cash, from prying eyes and uncomfortable questions. We have seen a bill in Parliament to "improve" the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission's report by deleting their names from it, the rehabilitation of Daniel arap Moi from erstwhile kleptocratic and brutal dictator, to lovable elder statesman as well as the revival of Nyayo-era intimidation by officials openly issuing warnings to those "fomenting disaffection against the government."

In this atmosphere, organised civil society has been effectively silenced. Calls for reform of the electoral system have been branded as the resurrection of a dangerous electoral politics. Human and political rights activists with a distinguished history of standing up for Kenyans' freedom and dignity are today designated as Western stooges and regularly receive death threats. With no public outcry, the government has passed a law allowing it to register and regulate the operation of civil society organisations. It has similarly drafted a bill to similarly muzzle the compliant press, again facing little public opposition.

In Kenya, as in other parts of the globe, there is an effort to convince the public that fundamental freedoms need to be curtailed for the sake of security. "Security, rather than human rights, has emerged as the algorithm de rigueur," says Callamard. This argument must be resisted for it seeks to mask the real causes of conflict and precludes effective remedy to both deliver justice and enhance security. The actions carried out under the cover of darkness or the cloak of secrecy, actions claimed to be necessary for national security, have time and again been shown to be neither necessary nor in the national interest. Revelations such as those from Wikileaks have demonstrated the folly of putting our faith in official pronouncements or in public professions of commitment to protection of fundamental freedoms.

We must instead insist on the means to monitor and punish any government malfeasance. We must insist on a press that is truly free and that takes its duty to inform, rather than entertain, the nation seriously. We must also insist that the government keeps its dirty hands off civil society and leaves them be to question and interrogate official conduct and policy. We must insist on a better electoral system and refuse to be bought off by talk of building the nation, economic growth and free maternity and laptops.

We must build up the courage to be free and come to understand that it is we, the citizenry, who are the ultimate guarantors of accountability in government. If we shrink back out of fear, if we sacrifice "liberty for a little temporary safety" then we not only won't deserve, we also won't achieve either freedom or security.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don't Forget The Other National Disaster

When the arrivals section of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport's Terminal 1 went up in flames, it was interesting to watch the government spring into action. within hours, President Uhuru Kenyatta was at the scene and he stayed there for a few hours more, supposedly to supervise the admittedly crappy response. He and his mandarins were on TV and online providing regular updates. Within days, he had restructured airport security, ordered an investigation into the fire and promised to build a new terminal and fully refurbish the existing three. "We are on top of this. We will find the problem and we will fix it," seemed to be the message.

It is a complete reversal of his ostrich-like attitude to the elections in March. Despite the many failures then, we have heard nothing about an audit or about reform. Quite the contrary. His deputy has declared that the IEBC did a "fabulous job." This cavalier approach is all the more surprising given that it was a bungled election that set the country alight 5 years ago.

You would think that a burning airport would be of less consequence than a burning country. But the Kenyatta administration seems to care more for the former than the latter.

The smouldering terminal is the perfect symbol for a smouldering nation. The election fiasco has left many angry and disillusioned with the hollowness of democracy. Autocracy stalks the land. From the rehabilitation of Daniel Arap Moi to the increasingly bellicose and threatening language of the new Principal Secretaries, it is clear that the country is heading down the wrong path.

The airport fire was the result of multiple institutional failures. Over the last few days, the evidence of the country's lack of effective disaster prevention and response tragedies has been overwhelming and is leading to calls for change. Already, President Kenyatta has declared the overhaul of our national disaster services with the formation of a new agency to spearhead coordination. But what about that most severe of threats to our national fabric, the election?

The institutional failures in March must also be addressed. When the IEBC cannot say who or how many voters it registered; when all the systems meant to ensure the transparency and credibility of the poll fail; when the newly minted Supreme Court refuses to consider evidence on a technicality and offers up a moronic judgement; then we are playing with fire.

Just like there were reports of immigration and Kenya Airports Authority staff shooing people away from a small fire while leaving it to become an inferno, our politicians are shooing us into the safety of our tribal stockades while leaving the country to burn. We must resist this. The charade of "accept and move on" poses real risks down the line. If we do not seek to understand and address the problems of the last election, we will go into our next one even more divided and even more frightened.

Today the air is thick with talk of national disaster preparedness. Every pundit on TV and on the internet is offering his two cents on what failed and what needs fixing. Yet the March elections were every bit a national disaster as was the JKIA fire. And when we speak of improving our capacity to prevent and respond to disasters, we must also speak of how we are responding to the election and what we are doing to prevent catastrophe in 2017.

I, for one, would much rather see President Kenyatta taking the lead in, and giving regular updates on, that effort. And I would much rather the talking heads were putting that at the top of the national agenda. Let's get on top of this. Let's find the problem and let us fix it