Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Kenyan Lootocracy

The footage of KDF looting the Westgate mall when they were purportedly fighting terror has caused understandable angst and anger among Kenyans. What is not clear to me is why we act surprised. After all, looting during times of national crisis is almost something of a national pastime.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find such instances. Remember the post-election violence? There was plenty of looting then. A shopping centre in Kisumu was stripped bare. Passengers getting off matatus in Kibera were robbed in broad daylight by supposed pro-democracy protesters.

Then once we had the Grand Coalition government, its first order of business was instituting a scheme to loot the national granary at a time when famine was stalking the country. By the time the politicians were done, a third of the country was starving.

In fact, throughout our history, Kenya has functioned very much as a Lootocracy. We were established as one by the British who after all came here to build a railway so they could loot the "Pearl of Africa". In the process, the decided they might as well steal from the natives in the area in between kingdoms of Uganda and the sea.

At independence, they handed the country over to a cabal of their lootenants, most of them former collaborators and homeguards, who continued to perfect the art of plunder and to transform it into a national ethos. Whatever they could lay their hands on, they stole. Government policy is today simply a vehicle for looting. Whether it is free primary education, retirement benefits for politicians or the VAT bill, it is still all about extracting money and resources from the natives.

This is why the MPigs feel little shame about demanding an obscene salary. Why the Judicial Service Commission feel nothing about earning equally obscene allowances for placing their bums on seats  and doing jobs they are already paid to do. It is why the commissioners of the defunct ECK would hold one-person meetings to access the same allowance. Why the police can loot and rape and kill refugees with impunity.

Thus, it is more than a touch hypocritical when we shout about KDF pillaging a mall but are silent when the government says it can only satisfactorily account for 6% of the money it spent last year. Or when Nairobi County proposes to spend nearly half a billion shillings to install 42 CCTV cameras around the city while it costs Pakistan less than 20 million to install 260 of them (our Chinese friends are apparently charging us a 16,200% premium).

The truth is few Kenyans would have behaved any different had it been them in that mall. The crowds that were gathered outside may have been there out of sympathy and curiosity but it is doubtless that many were there to scavenge too. It is the common story of long-lost "relatives" suddenly materializing at the homes of recently departed tycoons to demand their share of the spoils. Julius Nyerere once described us as a man-eat-man society. I think we behave more like a nation of vultures.

I think decades of predation by the government has destroyed our sense of community. We have become atomized, each man for himself, by the abuse meted out by state. Under the guise of “development” it has reduced humanity to a game of numbers, people to economic units, to little more than indentured labour in the machinery of extraction. Life itself has become commoditized. We have learnt to value productivity, not human beings, build markets not communities.

Our morality, our outrage, even our grief are all for sale to highest bidder.

I wonder what would happen if we tried to reimagine our communities, to see all people as people. Would we be more likely to build bonds with our neighbours instead of spying on them at the state’s behest. What if we saw the children of the poor who are currently locked into a failing education system as people? Would we be settling for gimmicks like the elusive free laptops as a panacea? What if we saw refugees or the victims of post-election violence as people? Would we demand justice for them? What if we saw women and girls as people? Or homosexuals as people? Or the other tribes as people? Or even ourselves as people?

Unfortunately until now, the lootocrats have encouraged us to do the opposite. To live by the law of the economic jungle, to uphold the morality of the market, only seeing each other as either potential threats or potential prey. They have urged us to fear others and not to trust ourselves. Because, just like we saw at Westgate, and during the elections and in countless other instances, the Lootocracy thrives in a climate where people are too terrified to ask uncomfortable questions.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Kenyan Roulette

Once, when I was young boy, one of my numerous uncles, a policeman by trade, came calling. He had with him a rifle and he set it down in the corner of the room. I couldn’t take my eyes of it as he and my dad chatted away. Its presence in the room was both terrifying and comforting. Terrifying because of what it could do. Comforting because, at least in my childish imagination, it would be doing it on my behalf, wielded by people on my side against those who would do me harm.

As I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I have come to see that the state’s capacity for violence is rarely comforting, that the state rarely wields its violence on my behalf. Rarely does it carry guns into homes to protect the people within. Neither is it a source of comfort to encounter them in the streets.

Though we like to tout ourselves as exceptional, as an island of peace, Kenya is actually a very violent place, where the language of violence is routinely used to mediate relationships, between parents and their children, teachers and their students, the men and their women, the rich and the poor, the state and its subjects Security and peace seem to have become the passwords to a system of exclusion that means at any time any of us could be at the receiving end even as we declare we have peace and security. On the receiving end, in fact, to preserve peace and security.

Violence has become normalized, acceptable, desirable even. It has become a way to build the nation by constantly defining ourselves in terms of opposition to one another. Kenyanness is constantly recreated  by acts of violence. Thus it becomes the height of patriotism to call for a war with Uganda over a tiny piece of rock in Lake Victoria. And unpatriotic to question the actions of the government in Somalia or in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attacks, Kenya will again be redefined by the violence we will mete out against those we have othered. Today it is the Muslims, the refugees, the Somalis, and the Somalians. There will be little outrage when doors in Eastleigh are kicked down and people in Garissa are hauled away and some village in Somalia is leveled the name of fighting terrorism. Just as when it’s the turn of civil society activists and ICC witnesses to be threatened or hunted down in the name of preserving a tenuous peace. Before them, the Kikuyu, the Luo, the the Kalenjin the Oromo, the Sabaots, the Pokot, the Turkana, the Whites, the Indians. Everyone gets their turn on the Kenyan Roulette.

In this Republic of Fear, there is little need for justice, or values, or rights. Only someone on whom to focus our ferocity, and with whose body and dignity to establish our claim to togetherness. We constantly terrorize and dehumanize. It is a place where the victims of that violence are told to accept and move on. Where cops laugh at women reporting rape. Where a senior public official can tell the hundreds of thousands displaced by the 2007/8 post-election violence that they came out “way ahead” and face no opprobrium. It is a place where we fight, not to end oppression, but for our turn to be the oppressors, our turn to eat.

The republic is defined by the very violence we say we want to end but yet celebrate. Where the fear, adorned in the language of civility, is what unites. Where we are one because, not despite, our terror of one another. A place where reconciliation becomes a euphemism for “until next time.” A place where economic growth need not generate good jobs nor end poverty, where the purveyors of violence take what they want, when they want. Where we dare not question official truths lest we are ourselved othered.

I suppose we are not unique. It is in the nature of states to be violent. They are after all the product of exclusion. Parceling out the world according to arbitrary imaginary lines drawn on maps by men of power can only create communities where the state is allowed to decide who is a human being and who is not and where we can legitimately have otherwise obscene arguments over who deserves dignity and who doesn’t. Where humanity is accessed and indeed defined by things like citizenship and passports and IDs, the state gets to certify your very existence and can declare you a non-person.

The malevolent power, represented by the menacing presence of that gun in the corner of the room, can only offer a temporary comfort, an illusory safety, a false peace. True comfort will only come with true community, when we embrace our humanity and refuse to be defined by the logic of the state, by the logic of othering, the logic of fear. When we are one with all, not just with those who look like us or speak like us or believe what we do. Otherwise, we'll just have to take our chances on the roulette.