Wednesday, December 31, 2014

If New Year Wishes Were Horses...

Yesterday, Kenyan police made a remarkable find. With the help of the public and after combing an overgrown compound in the Rift Valley town of Burnt Forest for three hours, they discovered an aluminium container buried under the ground. Inside were six AK47 assault rifles and about 700 rounds of ammunition.

While the circumstances surrounding the discovery were themselves little short of astounding, a little noted feature of the story was the use of so-called “gun detectors” alongside police dogs. Media footage appears to show police meticulously using the devices to scan the search area for weapons. On closer examination, however, the devices resemble the fake bomb detectors sold to authorities around the world by convicted fraudster James McCormick.

Kenya was one of the first countries to purchase the devices in 2004, and even after they were shown in a UK court to be “completely ineffectual as a piece of detection equipment” and contained no working electronics, our police have kept faith in them. “They are in operation and they work,” declared Nairobi police chief, Benson Githinji, just last year.

The use of equipment that has been shown to be useless is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise that has infected the government’s approach to insecurity, and indeed to many of the problems bedevilling Kenya. Over the past year, it has kept repeating the same actions over and over, and hoping for different results.

Thus the so-called war on terror revolves around the familiar tropes of criminalising entire communities and violation of civil liberties that have previously failed to stop attacks. Instead of rethinking its strategy and adopting new, effective and comprehensive tactics to tackle the security meltdown that terrorists have been taking advantage of, the government continues to bang our collective heads against a brick wall. It has even sought to give its failing methods the force of law through the recently passed Security Laws Amendment Act.

And when confronted with criticism, its preferred response is to shoot the messenger, not pay heed to the message. So when Aljazeera aired its expose about extra-judicial executions of terror suspects, the government’s reaction was to ignore the substance of the allegations and to threaten the media house and its journalists. The new laws target the dissemination of news about terror incidents, essentially requiring police approval of any reports. It is hard to imagine that exposes of state incompetence, such as the KTN investigation into the response to the Westgate attack which provided the now familiar footage of soldiers looting the mall while pretending to fight terrorists, will henceforth be allowed on air. It is worth noting that at the time, the Inspector General of Police was not keen on reporting that embarrassed the government and actually ordered the arrest of the journalists involved.

In other areas too, the government has continued to plough ahead with measures that bring little relief to the common citizen while providing huge opportunities for rents for the elite. Following his predecessor’s lead, massive infrastructure projects, featuring either single sourcing or dubiously awarded contracts, have become the order of the day. Corruption and impunity reign supreme as elites graduate from chai to chicken. Meantime, Kenyans are saddled with poverty, disease and ever higher levels of debt and living costs.

As in Burnt Forest, where no journalists seemed to question the use of the “gun detecting equipment,” the government’s incompetence has been abetted by that of the country’s media houses. What Israeli politician, diplomat and author, Abba Eban, said of the Arabs is true of our press:  they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Over the past year, the government has rarely been called to account by the press or even had its narrative questioned. It is almost never asked to substantiate its claims of having prevented many terror attacks, of falling crime rates or significantly reduced energy costs. From superficial reporting on the challenges facing the country to the limited coverage of the opposition’s Saba Saba rally, to the parroting of government narratives on various issues, the media has distinguished itself by its insipidness. Coverage, though somewhat improved compared to 2013, continued to be episodic and devoid of context.

Therefore, as we ring in the New Year, I continue to hope that as a society, we will begin to demand better. That we will tire of the mediocrity and mendacity that has become a mainstay of the government’s policy pronouncements and insist on well thought out and well-articulated strategies that actually address our real problems. For example, that we finally decide to address the many weaknesses with the electoral system that were revealed by the last election cycle, keeping in mind that bungled elections have proven to be the greatest threat to our national security. Or that we will question the reality of government pronouncements of a “transformed” education system and insist on more than just superficial actions like the provision of laptops or abolishing of the school ranking system.

In all, I hope that we will go beyond a reflexive shouts about institutionalism and towards a candid examination of the nature of our institutions, the system they engender and the fruits they produce. That we will continue the effort to re-imagine and re-create Kenya as a country that works, not just for a few, but for all her citizens. And finally, that the media will find the courage to lead the nation in this endeavor. I will try to play my part and pray others will as well.

Let this be our common resolve, our resolution for 2015.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Isaack Hassan's Holiday Message To IEBC Staff

Tanzania's Nativity Scene

Throwing The Book At Terrorists

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Press Release: KGWA Fully Supports Changes To Kenya's Security Laws

Nairobi 21st December, 2014. The Secretary General of the Kenya Ghost Worker Alliance, Mr Casper Mwakazi, has expressed the organization's full and unstinting support for the efforts of the Government of Kenya to secure the country from the menace of terrorism.

On Friday, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a set of tough measures designed to ensure the country can detect and prevent terror attacks. This came after a chaotic session of Parliament passed the contentious Security Laws (Amendment) Act, 2014.

In a statement sent to media houses, Mr Mwakazi praised the President for taking a principled stand on the issue. He faulted those saying the legislation had been rushed and had not benefited from wide consultations. "I can confirm that the KGWA was one of the organizations consulted by the government over the amendments," he said.

He added that, for the sake of national security, the Association had offered to temporarily fill the position of Inspector General of Police left vacant by the resignation of David Kimaiyo three weeks ago.

“It is unfortunate that some misguided Kenyans do not understand that these measures will exorcise the spectre of terrorism haunting our country,” he said. "Just because the benefits of the law are not immediately apparent doesn't mean they are not there," he said.

He urged Kenyans to maintain trust in their elected leaders, cautioning against selfishness. “The rights we are sacrificing in the interests of national security, are nothing compared to the peace of mind the government will gain,” he said.

He also noted that even though the new law posed a threat to the livelihoods of human rights activists and journalists, that would be offset by the opportunities it would open up for the members of the KGWA.

In this regard, Mr Mwakazi also welcomed reports that the government was considering a fresh head count of public workers. The last recount, carried out a few months ago, resulted in 12,000 KGWA members almost losing their jobs.

“The KGWA remains optimistic that any new recount would vastly reduce the number of our members affected by this draconian measure. We renew our call for a transparent process and dialogue to resolve any outstanding issue,” he said.

The statement concludes with the KGWA motto: “Work by faith, not by sight.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Government Knows Best

Barely four years after it was inaugurated with much pomp and ceremony, Kenya’s new constitution is being undone. The Security Amendment Bill introduced in Parliament last week portends the return of the all-powerful, unchecked executive and its intrusion into almost every facet of Kenyans’ lives.

Under the guise of giving the government the tools to fight insecurity, the proposed gives government wide and unchecked discretion in defining what constitutes a threat and taking measures to mitigate against it. It cuts a large swathe through constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy, fair trial, assembly, information, expression and thought as well as freedoms from arbitrary detention and even torture, in a misguided attempt to respond to rising incidents of insecurity including terrorist attacks.

This atrocious piece of legislation is just the culmination of a long period of Kenyan elites undermining the foundations of liberal democracy in Kenya. The fact is, while the adoption of the new constitution should have heralded the democratisation of government, the logic of tyranny was largely left intact.

In Kenya, as elsewhere, the fight for freedom has primarily boiled down to a struggle against the notion that government and ruling elites know what’s best. From colonial times, the people in power have disguised their oppression under a proclaimed special knowledge and patronising parental concern for those they oppressed. The British claimed to govern in the interests of the native population, to be the altruistic purveyors of civilisation, even as they murdered, looted and repressed.

However, it is plain that many who led the struggle for freedom, did not themselves fundamentally reject this idea. Successive post-independence governments similarly claimed to be “baba na mama” to the Kenyans they were robbing blind and whose rights they were trampling underfoot. For them, it was not oppression that was the problem, but rather who it was doing the oppressing. Following their footsteps, in 2003 the late John Michuki, a former colonial enforcer reinvented as a minister in the government of Mwai Kibaki which ended four decades of despotic KANU rule, suggested that constitutional reforms were no longer necessary since the sole objective had been to unseat the dictator, Daniel arap Moi.

In fact, with Moi’s demise, the struggle ceased to be about principles and increasingly became about power, and between those who had it and those who wanted it. Many of the leading lights of civil society and the church marched straight into government and into the annals of corruption and kleptocracy. Not only was there a failed attempt to foist a bastardized version of a new constitution on Kenyans in 2005, but by 2007, the electoral arrangements that had been negotiated with Moi to ensure a credible poll in 2002, were being rolled back.

Following yet another round of election related blood-letting, a new constitution was inaugurated in 2010 which was meant to change the way our politics worked. But, as last week sadly showed, that is yet to take root. Too many ordinary Kenyans have been seduced into thinking that the government knows best, that it is actually the checks on the arbitrary exercise of power that are the problem, that instead of protecting constraining rogue government, the constitution is making us more vulnerable to terrorism. Despite the fact that it has largely failed to implement the security system as envisaged in our constitution and laws, the government has spun its own incompetence into a narrative of excessive constitutional restraints.

So once again we hear the refrain that “Uhuru Kenyatta is not Moi. You can trust him with power.” The false narrative is propagated that it was Moi, not the concentration of unchecked power in the Presidency, that led to the state-sponsored terror that killed many more Kenyans and destroyed many more Kenyan lives than its religiously and ideologically inspired cousin. We even hear talk that some oppression is actually fine, even desirable, and that Moi, who has today been rehabilitated from oppressive and kleptocratic tyrant to strong and wise leader and elderly statesman, was an effective bulwark against terrorism, even as he massacred and terrorized.

Kenya’s slide into the seductive embrace of authoritarianism has been aided by the silencing of alternative voices, the continuing demonization of civil society and the lobotomising of the news agenda. Its purpose is to keep the citizenry divided, blind and uninformed, only privy to the official truths of government spin-masters. The publication of government press releases as news by the insipid media, and the Church’s support for tyranny demonstrate just how successful the government has been.

The Security Amendment Bill is the fruit of these efforts and Parliament’s rush to adopt it is proof that the idea of the Assembly as a check on Executive excess and not a rubber stamp for its decisions, has also been abandoned.

In the end, it is the people who must do the work of protecting the country from its government, the labour of upholding the constitution. While some, under the banner of “civil society” or “opposition” can take the lead, it does not absolve the citizen from this duty. Just as it is the ordinary Kenyan who will suffer from the worst excesses of unaccountable government, it is we who must resist its re-emergence.

We must not be suckered by the false notion that the government knows best. It doesn’t. And even when we might be inclined to believe its good intentions, history shows, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Those you think are on your side today may very well turn out to be your oppressors tomorrow and the laws being cheered on today will be the yoke of tomorrow’s subjugation. That is the reality that Kenyans will sooner or later have to wake up to. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Kenya's War On Terror Is No Solution To Insecurity

The past two weeks have been pretty horrid for President Uhuru Kenyatta. His decision, after Al Shabaab terrorists last weekend massacred 28 Kenyans in the north-eastern town of Mandera, not to cut short his official visit to the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, backfired terribly. And when he did eventually return to face criticism for his administration’s seeming disregard for national security issues, his speech blaming the public for rising insecurity (and a mother for the rape of her baby) did not go down well.

Then on Tuesday morning, despite his deputy’s assurances that nearly 100 terrorists, including those who committed the bus attack, had been killed and their camp just across the border destroyed, Kenyans woke up to news of yet another massacre in the same area. This time, the victims were 36 quarry workers, killed in remarkably similar circumstances.

With public outrage and calls for heads, including his, to roll, reaching a crescendo, President Kenyatta finally decided to sacrifice the two people who, more than any other, were considered responsible for the security debacle. He prevailed upon the Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, to resign and effectively fired his Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph ole Lenku.

For the moment, this seems to have sated the anger. However, there are more battles on the horizon and it is important that Kenyans do not lose focus.

In the Barry Levinson movie, Wag the Dog, a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's attention away from a potentially disastrous presidential sex scandal just days to the election This is achieved by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania. However, the fiction can only last for so long and, to keep the public eye focused away from scandal, has to be continually embellished till the election is won.

Over the last two years, Kenyatta has implemented his own version of this script. In the run up to the 2013 election, with an unsavoury charge of abetting and financing the mass murder of their countrymen hanging over his and his running mate’s heads, his hired guns manufactured a war. They latched on ill-advised warnings about the advisability of electing politicians indicted by the International Criminal Court, accusing the West of trying to dictate the outcome of the election. The duo rode the subsequent wave of faux-patriotism all the way into power (aided by suspiciously incompetent electoral commission and Supreme Court).

Once ensconced in State House, the duo have continued to embellish the tale, mixing both real and imagined fears -from the ICC to Western imperialism to Al Shabaab-  to create an cocktail of fear and an environment where questioning their motives or peering too closely is seen as a veritable act of treason.

On Tuesday, the President came out once again to remind us that Kenya is at war with terror. In a speech reminiscent of George Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress following the 9/11 attacks, Kenyatta declared that “a time has come for each and every one of us to decide and choose. Are you on the side of an open, free, democratic Kenya which respects the rule of law, sanctity of life and freedom of worship, or do you stand with repressive, intolerant and murderous extremists?” Bush had put it more succinctly, “either you are with us or with the terrorists.”

Now, it is understandable why the Global War on Terror trope is so appealing to an administration trying to rescue its flagging legitimacy in the face of constant reminders of its inability to protect its citizenry. It is also, however, deeply misleading.

The President appears to conflate the twin evils of ideologically driven terrorism and violent crime and to view both through the prism of the former. “Terrorism and violent crime are grave threats to our nation,” he avers and then goes on to declare that “we are in a war against terrorists in and outside our country.”

But terrorism does not explain why our women are afraid to walk the streets or ride in public transports for fear of being stripped and sexually assaulted by mobs of men. Or why the poachers exterminating the country’s wildlife are accorded government protection. It does not tell us why Kenya is rapidly becoming a hub for illicit money and illegal drugs, why inter-communal violence rages across the land and, perhaps most pertinently, why security agencies are unable to respond to timely intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks.

The fact is, his declaration of the War on Terror disguises and distracts from a broader and far more consequential breakdown in the country’s security system. It is this breakdown, not our democratic space as some have suggested, that the terrorists are exploiting. According to 2013 police statistics, the same ones the government uses to insist that crime rates have dropped by 8 percent, violent crime, including robberies, rapes and homicides, is actually significantly higher. 

However, the real story is the one that the statistics don’t tell. According to one survey, over 60 percent of crimes are not reported to the police, so their numbers probably severely understate the problem. Worse, police officers and security agents are regularly implicated in these crimes. Who can forget the scenes of looting at the Westgate Mall or the vandalised ATM's at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport following the fire?

Restoring the integrity of the security system is the most important challenge facing Kenyans and this will not be achieved by bombing Al Shabaab to smithereens. Neither is the departure of ole Lenku and Kimaiyo, while welcome, a panacea for endemic problems. In fact, it has proven that the Jubilee administration is amenable to public pressure and this must be kept up to ensure that comprehensive reform of the security sector is not swept under the War on Terror carpet.