Monday, May 19, 2014

The Past Is Never Dead

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun. Over the last week, the truth of that phrase has been reconfirmed in Kenya. Six years ago, the country was almost dissolved in an orgy of bloodletting. Two years later, we inaugurated a new constitution meant to ensure that never happened again. Today, however, the ruling elite is busy recreating the very conditions that led to the violence and making a mockery of the aspirations of millions of our citizens.

It seemed oh so different just over a decade ago, when we thought we were “Unbwogable” and “Yote yawezekana bila Moi”. At the time, as we approached the 2002 general election, everything truly seemed possible and the future was full of promise, not fear. In a very real sense, we were leaving the humiliation, self-doubt, failure, corruption and violence in the past where it belonged, and moving on. 

Sadly though, the past was not through with us. It refused to die. Within months, the politics of ethnicity and corruption would resurface and in five years, we would be at each others’ throat. By 2013, we were most definitely a “bwogable” nation, scared of the thoughts in our own heads and terrified of the future; seeking solace and safety in the very people responsible for taking us to the brink in 2008. 

The past is still not through with us. Last week, we heard the same grumblings about the ethnic preferences characterising presidential appointments that heralded the unravelling of the NARC coalition a decade ago. The same ghost of corruption that haunted NARC from early on is rarely far from nearly every policy proposal made by the Jubilee government. The traditional victimisation and collective punishment of the Somali and Muslim communities is today presented as counter-terrorism policy. 

The imperial presidency has also made a comeback, not only with the unilateral move by President Uhuru Kenyatta to increase the powers of county commissioners but also, apparently, his own to agree security deals worth nearly Kshs. 15 billion to increase its surveillance of Kenyans without seeking Parliamentary approval. He as well chose to ignore the protestations of Parliament and the advice of the Auditor-General and unilaterally authorize the payment of over Kshs. 1 billion to briefcase companies in deals he himself, as leader of the opposition in 2006, had declared to be illegal. 

The past isn’t dead. It refuses to be buried under constitutions that exist on paper but not in hearts. It will not be drowned out by the statements of a government that prefers rhetoric to action. It is not even past but expressed when those close to power can openly discuss the murder of an inconvenient blogger and incite violence against certain communities without fear of prosecution. When the President promises yet more investigations into the AngloLeasing scams while ignoring the Kroll report, which details where the country’s thieving elite has stashed away its ill-gotten gains, and that of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission which offers us a way to begin addressing the decades of state persecution of the citizenry. When his administration presents a budget which allocates more money for his wife’s “hospitality” than to the entire Anti-Terrorism Police Unit and when it refuses to prosecute the poaching kingpins behind the devastation being wrought on our wildlife today. 

We have spent over a decade trying to outrun the past, to ignore it, to hide from it or to hide it. None of that has worked, nor was it ever likely to. The past is something we must acknowledge as being the stuff of the present. “What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare and if we do not begin to confront it, it will also be the stuff of our future. It should be clear that as the very conditions of ethnic polarization, concentration of power, inequality and impoverishment that led to the violence in 2008 are re-established they can only bring about similar results. If we are to get off the cycle of polarization, corruption, poverty and violence, we must learn to do things differently. 

Face up to the past instead of trying to escape it. Perhaps instead of ignoring corruption, we decide to do something about it. Instead of victimising innocents, we try to understand our vulnerabilities to terrorism and to improve the capabilities of our security forces to investigate and prosecute the real attackers. Maybe we try to implement the reports that we commission, to enforce the laws that we pass and to implement, not just the letter, but more importantly, the spirit of our constitution. 

A major theme of Faulkner's, according to Gene Andrew Jarrett, Professor and Chair of the English Department at Boston University, is that “the life of the past in the present and in the future has often been a curse, often too difficult to defeat in one blow." A single act, such as passing a constitution or voting out (or in) a particular leader, is thus unlikely to exorcise our demons. However, if we consistently choose to learn from the past instead of running from it, and resist the temptation to indulge our elites in return for the promise of a temporary safety, we can then have a realistic chance of not repeating it.