Friday, July 18, 2014

Wishing On Alfred Mutua's Falling Star

A version of this was published in The Star

Legend has it that wishing upon a shooting star makes the wish come true. These broken pieces of rock and dust, burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, have for ages been thought to be signs that the gods are listening particularly attentively.  I think it is time to make a wish.

For more than a year, Dr Alfred Mutua, the media savvy governor of Machakos county has been a star in the Kenyan political firmament. His revolutionary idea, that government was instituted to deliver timely service to the people at a price that didn’t break the bank, is said to be causing major disquiet among the rest of the political leadership and even in the civil service. He is a darling of development-addicted Kenyans who for too long have been waiting for their fix. Today, his slogan - Maendeleo chap chap! – is the political drug of choice, swallowed whole and requiring little chewing over.

 His every move, announced by amazing pictures on social media, was met with universal acclaim. Ambulances, police cars, stadia, a people’s park, a road. For a population more used to government being run for the sake of those in government, this seemed a godsend. A model for other counties to emulate. The proof that devolution can work.

It is only of late that his record has started to be questioned. In the past, so enthralled were we that when uncomfortable questions threatened to rock this narrative, we were quick to dismiss them. When the Auditor-General pointed out some strange accounting practices –including a Kshs 7.5m “confidential expenditure” by the Governor that was paid out in cash and no receipts ever provided, we chose to ignore it. Questions as to who would drive the police cars and man the promised police stations given that security was not a devolved function were swatted aside, just as the purchase of ambulances and building of health centres was presented as comprehensive health policy.

So what if the police cars were still registered to individuals? Why worry about the suspicions of corrupt contracting coming out of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission? Who cares that the newly built pitch is unplayable in the rain or that the newly built road has developed potholes after less than a month? We have development. And we have it cheaply and quickly. The government is working for us.

However, the sad truth is that what we have been given is fake development. It is the illusion of progress without the substance of it. And you would think that a country built on grand illusions and vacuous promises would be quick to spot it. But, as the Ethiopian proverb goes, “fish discover water last.” Like fish, we have become so immersed in political and economic phantasmagoria that we have lost the ability to perceive it.

From colonial times to the present day, we have been treated to government that claims to rule on our behalf, to deliver la dolce vita, to educate and enrich, protect and provide. But it has always been the providers who have grown fat as our own waistlines have receded. They have given us a democracy where our votes and our problems don’t count. They have created for us a free press that neither articulates our issues nor holds the powerful to account; a police force that only serves to protect them from us; education and health systems that they wouldn’t dare put their own children through. And we have applauded them for it, spilt blood and treasure on their behalf and sang the songs of a fake patriotism.

 Nothing epitomizes this than the refusal to interrogate what was happening in Machakos. The ease with which we are ready to believe that anyone questioning this must be doing so in the service of a political witch hunt bespeaks a terrible desperation for anything resembling good governance and an unshakeable, delusional belief that if only we persevere, good things will eventually come. It is a test of faith. We must keep the peace. Accept and move on. Maendeleo will come.

After analysing its budgeting practices, Jason Lakin writing in this week’s edition of TheEastAfrican, has noted that what is happening in Machakos is pretty typical of the county experience so far. “Miraculous? No. Menacing? Not really. Just decidedly mediocre,” is his damning verdict. Our celebration of this mediocrity should give us pause. What else are we glossing over? What other questions are we not asking?

Therefore, my wish upon Dr Mutua’s falling star is that as it burns up in our angry and self-righteous atmosphere, it will spark of a moment of national introspection. That we will rediscover the real meaning of terms like accountability, development, democracy, rights. That we will be less vulnerable to sweet words and empty actions but rather more insistent on truth, even when it is ugly.  That we will discover water.

Monday, July 07, 2014

What The Elite Don't Want Us To See

A version of this article was published on Aljazeera Online

Just over a month ago, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga returned from what he described as a three-month sabbatical with a call for a national dialogue and announced a series of countrywide political rallies culminating on the historic Saba Saba (or 7/7 for the 7th of July), the anniversary of a banned 1990 rally, a highlight of the push for what came to be known as "the Second Liberation".

It is a hugely significant date. During the fight against the Moi dictatorship, Saba Saba came to be a symbol of defiance, a reminder of the time when Kenyans faced up to and overcame their fear of the regime. Today, however, it is proving to be the exact opposite. Raila's return has rallied both friend and foe in a way perhaps only he can. In his absence, Kenyan politics sometimes seemed all at sea, the opposition completely rudderless as waves of scandal threatened to beach the Jubilee government itself. But now, the opposition have their champion and the elite it's bogeyman.

The scare-mongering has since begun in earnest. The country was already on edge following the many unresolved terror attacks -mostly blamed on the Somali insurgent group, Al Shabaab. Intemperate politicians on both sides have been fanning the flames of tribal hate, and social media has filled with the same kind of vitriol seen before and after last year’s general election. The government has done little to calm the fears. Quite the opposite. Despite token attempts at investigating and prosecuting hate speech, the Uhuru administration has largely regarded the situation as a political opportunity and engaged in more than a little scare-mongering of its own.

Both deliberately and by dint of its incompetence, it has driven the fear into overdrive. When gunmen stormed the coastal town of Mpeketoni and slaughtered nearly 60 people, the ineptitude of the security services was only overshadowed by the cynical attempt by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his henchmen to politicize the tragedy and blame it on the opposition. In an ill-advised statement to the nation, the President got into an unseemly blame game with the Al Shabaab who claimed responsibility for the attack. The government, however, had other ideas, preferring to point the finger at nebulous "local political networks," and to paint it as motivated by the kind of ethnic disharmony it claimed the opposition was causing with their meetings.

With Saba Saba now upon us, the media is inundated by appeals to peace and stability. Business and religious leaders as well as foreign ambassadors have issued calls for politicians not to "raise political temperatures" -shorthand for Raila to call off the rallies. A national day of prayer has been scheduled at the President's request. A bunch of folks calling themselves Kikuyu elders, have carried out supposed traditional cleansing ceremonies at Uhuru Park, the venue of the rally, and expressed dark forebodings of the coming chaos and bloodshed.

We have been here before. Just as in the run up to the March 2013 election, Kenyans are being scared into silence; into not asking uncomfortable questions; into turning a blind eye to government malfeasance and into acquiescing in the derogation of the fundamental freedoms.

That derogation has already begun with a High Court judge reportedly issuing (and later rescinding) orders barring Raila and his fellow CORD leaders from calling for mass action, despite the clear constitutional protections for "the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities." The court apparently declared CORD leaders would be held personally liable for any damage caused during the rally, a ruling which would set a chilling precedent for any organisers of public protests or demonstrations. It is not unheard of for such to be infiltrated by thugs and troublemakers who may be hired by the authorities themselves to discredit the protesters.

The fact is neither the government nor the opposition has shown any interest in addressing the root causes of failures of the last 15 months. Neither has demonstrated any willingness to examine the historic and systemic issues behind the authorities' inability to protect the people, to confront the spectre of grand corruption, the rising cost of living, the crisis in education. They have shown little interest in the lessons contained in the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

Why would something as mundane in a democracy as an opposition political rally cause such uproar and fear? The problem is not with the rally, but with the shaky democracy. The terror reveals the hollowness of Kenya’s democratic transformation. Just as the problems with the 2013 election were swept under the carpet of "peace", so today Kenyans are being told to either shut up and go to work, or to call for a dialogue which is more about giving opposition politicians a chance to “eat” than with resolving fundamental problems.

Like they have done over the past 50 years, our political elite is determined to hype ethnic differences as a cover for its thieving ways. It is creating tribal animosity and fear to circumvent real and meaningful discussion over the causes of our penury, over the real reasons for our insecurity and why it is that the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights by even a section of Kenyans generates such terror.

They do not want us confronting our fear and realizing that it has been wielded as a weapon against us by the people in State House, in Orange House, in the fancy mansions governors are building across the country on the backs of their subjects, in Parliament and County Assemblies, and in the gleaming towers of big business.

They do not want us to see the systems of oppression of privilege and oppression that have been maintained since colonial times, to understand how these constantly work to extract dignity, rights and resources from the majority and bestow them upon a minority at the top.

The truth is the shenanigans and fear-mongering surrounding the Saba Saba rally have nothing to do with improving the welfare of Kenyans. On the contrary, they are about distracting us from the farmhouse window and from seeing that the pigs have hung us out to dry – that the Liberation has been stolen.

Apparently High Court Judge Isaac Lenaola did not reverse himself on the matter of mass action but did lift his earlier order that the CORD leaders would be held responsible for any loss emanating from possible violence at the rally.