Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Monument To Exclusion

Kenyans love their monuments. A look around Nairobi's central business district will reveal a good number of them, commemorating everything from the first world war, to the fight for independence, to the KANU dictatorship and even the public transport system.

However, there is one curious and inconspicuous piece of unintentional public art that more than any other speaks to the state of Kenya today. Along Mama Ngina Street, one of the city's only two distinct walkways, stands a City Clock whose base the Nairobi County Government has seen fit to decorate with barbed wire. The message is clear. "No idling about. Keep on walking."

Thus even on one of the few streets that have supposedly been set aside for pedestrians, for the people and not the cars, we are encouraged to keep shuffling along. Not to hang about. We are constantly reminded that the city is not ours and that our presence in it is merely tolerated.

It's location, on the street named after the billionaire wife of the first President Kenyatta, a few metres away from the statue and street honouring Dedan Kimathi, whose revolution was stolen by the political elite her husband and son represent, is a wonderful metaphor for the Kenyan public space, which while pretending inclusion, is actually better characterised by the lack of it. 

Take for example the ongoing debate on the wage bill. It was kicked off a few weeks ago, with a conference of bigwigs bemoaning the burden that their salaries has imposed on "Wanjiku" -the ordinary Kenyan. At this meeting, Wanjiku herself was afforded a hearing, a token appearance that was as brief as it was forgotten. In being included, she was actually being excluded. This was a debate whose terms would be defined, not by those who carry the burdens, but by those who benefit from the current state of affairs.

As it turns out, it is all  a smokescreen, a very clever piece of political judo which seeks to turn the tables on Wanjiku herself: taking advantage of the outcry against the obscene wages and allowances paid to a few public officials to manufacture a crisis and set the stage for rolling back the political order inaugurated in 2010 which mandated the decentralisation and devolution of power. It is a reminder the political elite's historic antipathy to sharing power. In the run up to Independence, as noted by Professor Daniel Branch in the introduction to his book Kenya, Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2012, the KANU delegation to Lancaster House agreed to accept a constitution it did not want on the understanding that once it had the government, it would change what it considered "a temporary document only."

Four years ago, the elite was once again forced to accept a constitution it didn't want. Now it is set to exploit the discussion on it's own wages to undo that document and reinforce the peculiarly Kenyan approach to democracy where the people are encouraged to turn out in large numbers once every five years to rubber stamp pre-determined electoral choices, and then are expected to essentially keep their opinions to themselves in the intervening periods. The illusion, if not exactly the reality, of participation.

Similar tactics were at play last week. On Thursday, President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered his annual address to a joint session of Parliament. The 46 minute speech mentioned the poor thrice: once while recognising that the expansion of VAT "may have been perceived" as hurting them, which he described "as a painful jab," and, twice when announcing "a social safety net programme ... to transfer [untold billions in] cash to the most vulnerable." Far from a jab, this was a sucker punch from a President who justifies the requisition of the resources of the poor and their concentration in the hands of the rich in the name of "funding development" while at the same time pledging fidelity to "the value of inclusion" defined as offering the poor vague promises of handouts.

(A day later, the President met with what were described representatives of the Kenyan Somali community to urge them to fight "terrorism" even as the police terrorized city districts with a significant population of ethnic Somalis, arresting hundreds, including Kenyan Somalis. Despite the harassment, isolation, demonizing and scapegoating of ethnic Somalis and Somali refugees that has been a characteristic of the Kenyatta administration's response to terror attacks, the President continued to pretend inclusion declaring "Muslims are in the center of my government.")

"Will the elite which has inherited power from the colonialists use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes or will they succumb to the lure of wealth, comfort and status and thereby become part of the Old Establishment," asked Mwai Kibaki in 1964. In fact, as the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission confirmed, and every Kenyan knew, the "Old Establishment" was never overthrown. The colonial state endured and the elites, who have always "encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by [tribe]," opted to hype ethnicity to crush demands for redistribution of resources from the centre while paying lip service to the ideal of unity.

Like that City Clock on Mama Ngina street, the wage bill debate is a monument to the deceptive methods that have been utilised by a few to retain power and privilege at the expense of the many. If the rest of us do not come together to call time on such mischief, it will not be long before we wake up to find that the clock has been turned back to a darker era.

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