Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Kenya's National Prosperity Gospel

Pastor Victor Kanyari is a name that will be instantly familiar to many Kenyans. He rocketed to national infamy when he was caught on camera relieving thousands of faithful of their hard-earned money under the pretext of interceding with the Almighty on their behalf. The scam asked gullible people of faith to “plant seed” by contributing about $3 to his “ministry” in return for which they could expect miraculous answers to their prayers. Pastor Kanyari was caught on camera recording fake call-in radio shows and performing equally fake “miracle cures” at his church in downtown Nairobi. Despite all this, he is still a free man and no charges have been filed against him. According to a prosecutor with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the video recordings did not constitute evidence of wrong doing and other witnesses were unwilling to testify against the Pastor.

The Prosperity Gospel articulated and exploited by the likes of Kanyara, and many other millionaire preachermen and preacherwomen in Kenya and across the globe, emphasizes a radical Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one's material wealth (and restore physical health). Rising out of the US in the 1950s, it has spread across the globe with startling speed, spawning thousands of extremely wealthy pastors, if not exactly wealthy congregations.

However, the Christians were not the first to come up with this scam. In Kenya, our politicians have long perfected a version of it. What they promise is something called development in return for which we must seed their pockets with our taxes.

I have written before about this religion of development, Kenya’s very own National Prosperity Gospel which requires that citizens focus of the outward manifestation of development, not the substance of it. For example, at independence, an in common with other African nations, we focused on prestigious, highly visible “development projects” at the expense of much more modest interventions that would have generated greater benefits for the people. So we built highways and hospitals in the cities where the elite resided and all but ignored the rural areas where most Kenyans eked out a living.

Today, the Gospel is evident in the fact that we continue to invest in railroads and laptops we don't need, in fire engines and ambulances we don't or can’t use, and in expensive kit for police we have failed to reform. Today our "seed" will pay for laptops but not teachers, for ambulances but not doctors and nurses.

Sadly, ours is a desperate, gullible country with blind faith in the words and actions of development priests and charlatans. And when the promised benefits inevitably fail to materialize, it is the citizens, the believers, who are to blame for a deficit of faith. Those who dare raise a complaint are accused of a debilitating negativity that sabotages the economy. We are urged to embrace positivity. “Have more faith! Send more seed! The miracles will come,” we are exhorted.

Planting this seed requires us to provide our political priests with big salaries, cars and mansions, as well as opportunities to “eat”. When they prosper, the National Prosperity Gospel teaches, we have a vicarious share. However, more is required. We must also turn a blind eye to their thieving ways. Not ask uncomfortable question why, like Kanyari, no one is ever held to account when the promises of safety and prosperity turn out to be mirages.

During his recent visit, President Kenyatta requested Pope Francis to pray for his efforts to fight corruption. Which would have been fine if his administration were actually trying to root out the vice. He has recently announced the formation of an Asset recovery unit in the Attorney-General’s office but says nothing about recovering the over $1 billion in assets belonging to members of the Moi kleptocracy identified by the Kroll report  over a decade ago. Instead, he last year personally OK-ed the release of 1.4 billion shillings to shell companies associated with the AngloLeasing scandal. He said it was necessary to do this in order to secure the Eurobond, whose proceeds his government cannot account for today. But no one saw fit to remind the Holy Father of this. Keep the faith, are urged.

There is similar rhetoric on security and terrorism, where the government is unable to articulate the specifics of what lessons it has learnt from previous terrorist attacks and cannot be bothered to counter statements by senior police officers that it has in fact learnt nothing. Persistent and credible allegations that KDF officers across the border are engaging in illegal smuggling activities that benefit Al Shabaab are similarly given short shrift. Just have faith we are told. Blessed is he who does not see, yet believes.

Yet blind faith in government, or indeed anything or anyone, is a particularly dangerous pursuit. Kenyans must reject the National Prosperity Gospel. Development and riches will not come from having faith the likes of Kanyari and his ilk in government, but through critically and honestly evaluating and then addressing the reasons for our poverty.  And demanding proof for the things we are asked to believe.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Are Kenyans Ready For The Coming Storm?

"Show me a man's friends, and I'll tell you who he is," said American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. And this week, the Jubilee administration has shown us who its friends are. 

“Civil society, media and leaders from across our political social spectrum have come together and made their views known and in the hearts of every Kenyan we know that we must win this war [on corruption]” declared President Uhuru Kenyatta when welcoming Pope Francis on his maiden visit to Africa. At The Hague and in New York, however, his minions were using very different language.

At the former, the government, with the support of the entire political establishment, was engaged in an effort to get the Assembly of Parties to the Rome Statute to dictate to the International Criminal Court how it is to interpret the rules of evidence. The fuss was brought on by the Court’s decision to apply rule 68, which allows for the consideration of recanted testimony, to the cases facing Deputy President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang.

Setting aside for a moment the merits of the government’s argument that it was assured this wouldn’t happen (for which there appears some justification) and that the use of recanted testimony is inherently unjust (much more dubious), the fact is that this issue is still under active consideration by the court, the accused having appealed the decision of the Trial Chamber. Like the dictators of Kenya’s past, the government wanted to decree the outcome of that appeal.

Now, Kenya’s famously vocal civil society wasn’t about to let this travesty happen without a fight. So, it too sent a team to make representations to the ASP. They were seemingly quite effective as very soon the government side, which was spending over Ksh 100 million in public money on what President Kenyatta in 2013 assured us was “a personal challenge”, slipped back into its old habits of demonization and delegitimization. Talk of “evil society” and threats to brand legitimate Kenyan NGOs as “foreign agents” suddenly resurfaced.

However, this time the regime went a little further. In what has to be an all-time low for Kenyan diplomacy, at the United Nations General Assembly the government teamed up with the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a UN resolution recognising and protecting the role of human rights defenders. Kenya was among only 14 countries, the vast majority of them brutal dictatorships, to vote against the resolution. It was a thinly disguised attempt to scare local human rights activists, and perhaps to punish them for their opposition to the Uhuru administration’s agenda at the ASP.

By rejecting a resolution adopted by two-thirds of Member States and that calls for accountability for attacks on human rights defenders and their families as well as urging states to release defenders who have been arbitrarily detained, the Uhuru regime has once again let its mask of civility slip. The pretense of tolerance, of fidelity to the constitution and the rule of law had already been badly undermined by unending corruption scandals and the government’s own penchant for scapegoating entire communities, dissenters, media and civil society under the guise of fighting terrorism. But its fangs are only truly bared when it comes to the cases before the ICC.

The government has only ever been interested in getting these cases lifted, not injustice. That much is clear to anyone who cares to look. Its indifference to (and likely collusion in) the disappearance, intimidation and bribery of witnesses as well as its sustained campaign to delegitimize the Court proves as much. Anyone who stands in the way is fair game. Thus it is the civil society groups that were at the forefront of the demands for accountability for the 2008 post-election violence have borne the brunt of the government’s assault.

It is to their eternal credit that the likes of Africog’s Gladwell Otieno have refused to be cowed in the face of this onslaught. However, it is undeniable that the space for dissenting opinion is rapidly shrinking. The vote at the UN, coupled with the recent arrest of journalists for daring to report on queries by the Auditor-General into suspicious procurement at the Interior Ministry as well as the President’s assertion that any media reporting on corruption allegations would be required to provide evidence of the same, illustrate the government’s determination and increasingly brazen attempts to roll back the freedoms guaranteed by the 2010 constitution as well as to crush any prospects for accountability, not only for the deaths, injuries, rapes and displacement of 2008, but also for the continuing looting that impoverishes Kenya.

And given the crowd that their government is now running with, Kenyans would be prudent to prepare for the coming storm.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Frying Pan Into Fire: Will Beefy Governments Make Us More Secure?

The reaction to the terrible attacks in France and continuing anti-terror operations across Europe will sound familiar to many Kenyans but should make them sit up and listen nonetheless. Across the world, the rhetoric of war, the beefing up of security forces’ presence in our lives,  and the benumbed acquiescence of the citizenry to this governmental power grab have for the last four years almost become the de rigueur response to terror attacks.

From Paris to Nairobi, terrorists are decidedly succeeding in scaring people into abandoning long-cherished notions of liberté, égalité, fraternité and are consequently empowering and emboldening governments to act in ever more undemocratic and unaccountable ways. Democratic constitutions designed to contain the power of states are seeming ever more quaint and anachronistic in an era where regimes have reinvented themselves as protectors rather than oppressors of the people.

Today lockdowns, emergency powers, mass surveillance, armed police on the streets, criminalization of thoughts, expression and even dress are fast becoming an indispensable attributes of a “free society”. The diminution and sacrifice of civil liberties is seen as necessary to earn the favour and protection of temporal potentates.

Back to Paris, which has now suffered a second, high casualty terror incident in the space of less than twelve months. So far, criticism of the French security and intelligence services has been muted, even within France. This is understandable given the outpouring of sympathy the attacks have provoked. However, when a conversation on how men and women could smuggle military-grade weapons and suicide belts into the heart of the city does get under way, it will almost inevitably result in more assaults on liberté. Already, the French Parliament has voted to extend a state of emergency which grants “the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to ban demonstrations and impose curfews” for another three months.

In Kenya, pro-government types have already begun to latch on to the idea of uniting behind the regime as an example of how we should respond to attacks. “French opposition stands with the govt amidst kenya theyd be calling on the president to resign” went one tweet. In times of terror, they would have us believe, the government can do no wrong. The warped definitions of patriotism being forced down Kenyans’ throats essentially boil down to “my government, right or wrong”.

Anyone querying the narratives coming out of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration risks being branded a terrorist sympathiser.  National security has become the carpet which covers all ills. When a recent report exposed syndicates within the Kenya Defence Forces smuggling charcoal and sugar in southern Somalia where they are deployed as part of the AU peacekeeping force, the report’s authors were immediately condemned as unpatriotic and malevolent agents. The KDF spokesman went on national TV to announce that the KDF had “quietly” begun investigating them and their sources. Meanwhile, the allegations, which have consistently been made by others including the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea as well as independent journalists, went unanswered.

Similarly, when, a few weeks ago, journalists reported on security procurement queries raised by the Auditor-General, they were immediately summoned and one arrested by police apparently on the orders of Internal Security Minister Joseph Ole Nkaissery, who demanded they reveal their sources. Ironically, they were accused of endangering public safety for reporting that the Auditor-General had specifically stated that the “purchase of second-hand arms and ammunition… from ‘friendly manufacturers’” had “seriously compromis[ed] the operations of the security agencies”. Of course, like with KDF smuggling, little to date has been said about an investigation.

Our ears should thus prick up when President Kenyatta declares corruption a threat to national security. This is not to say that graft does not threaten the very fabric of the nation. It undoubtedly does. However, a glance at the opaque and unconstitutional means the Uhuru administration has adopted to deal with other national security threats, such as terrorism, should give us some pause. They have resulted in laws that, instead of tackling terrorists, have vastly expanded the powers of government and targeted its opponents as well as the media’s ability to report on terror attacks. The above example of Nkaissery’s mendacity demonstrates that the government has few qualms about using “national security” to shield itself from public scrutiny. Therefore, allowing it to frame the struggle against corruption in the language of national security carries significant risks.

The reason Kenyans should keep a wary eye on European reactions is because the administration will almost inevitably seek to legitimize its own bad behaviour and lack of accountability by referring to them. It will argue that the citizens of this “mature” democracy are blazing a trail we should all follow, one of unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the authorities. Just as few in France are today interrogating the retaliatory bombardment of the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa in Syria, so Kenyans are encouraged to gloss over the reasons for and achievements of the 2011 invasion of Somalia.  

Security, we are told, is a prerequisite for liberty. And in our terrorized times, this has translated to a preference for more brawny and less brainy states. However, beefy governments rarely countenance civil liberties. We conveniently forget that throughout history, it has been governments that have been the main agents of terror. And that from Burundi to North Korea, they continue to be the main perpetrators of it. True Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, Boko Haram and their counterparts across the globe horrible savage and vicious collections of mass murderers who need to be determinedly fought. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, last year terror groups were responsible for 32,658 deaths last year, the highest death toll ever recorded. 

However, it pales into comparison compared to the deaths caused by governments which US political scientist RJ Rummel estimated to be in the order of 262 million over the last century – an average of  over 2.5 million a year.  Government’s cause death and suffering on an exponential scale. There's even a term for it: democide. Beefing them up so they can supposedly more effectively and efficiently fight terrorists may very well be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

It is also important to remember another of Rummel’s findings: “Concentrated political power is the most dangerous thing on earth ….The more power a regime has, the more likely people will be killed. This is a major reason for promoting freedom." Democracies which fragment and distribute power are much less of a threat to their citizens than totalitarian regimes where power is concentrated in the executive or in the leader.

Given the above, here’s the really bad news: And, as Canadian MP, Elizabeth May, noted last year: “Once we give up our rights and liberties, it's very hard to get them back.” Rousseau was even gloomier. “Free people remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.”

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Labour Pains And The Teachers' Strike

The current standoff between the Kenyan Government and teachers’ unions over a pay award to the country’s teachers is causing disruption and concern across the political divide. It has already led to the longest teacher’s strike in recent memory and the total shut down of public schooling. Many within government circles are comparing it to the 1984-85 strike in the United Kingdom at the end of which the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had broken the back of the hitherto powerful National Union of Mineworkers. A similar fate is now predicted for the Kenya National Union of Teachers and its kid brother, the Kenya Union of Post Primary Teachers.

While it is unclear whether the prophets of union doom will be proven right, what is beyond doubt is the fact of union decline in post-independence Kenya. Ever since the dawn of the colonial era, organised worker resistance had been a fact of life. The trade union movement began in the early 1900s with attempts to organize workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The early union activities were aimed at improving working conditions and raising wages.

During the colonial period, trade unionists such as the great Makan Singh appreciated the link between worker welfare and politics. In fact, in April 1950, Makan Singh was the first person to call for complete independence for East Africa at mass meeting of Kenya African Union & East Africa Indian National Congress. Less than a month later, after a May Day speech in which he called for “workers and the peoples of East Africa [to] strengthen their unity, become more resolute and speed up the movement for freedom” he would be arrested and would spend the next 11 years in detention, longer than any other freedom fighters including the more famous “Kapenguria Six”.

Yet, in the years after independence he would be forgotten and the trade union movement he had helped found -and which had been used as a stepping stone to political office by the likes of Tom Mboya- would be politically neutered.

Prior to the actual granting of independence, an African coalition Government was established in 1962 with Tom Mboya as Labour Minister. As independence approached, there was consensus between employers and unions that industrial harmony was a prerequisite for economic progress. Capital and labour would collaborate to reduce the incidence of strikes and lockouts. However, a dispute over the question of trade union sponsorship of candidates for political office resulted in a decision that the unions would not behave as political parties.

To eliminate conflict in the union movement, which spilled over into the political arena, the Central Organization of Trade Unions was established by Presidential decree in 1965. This decree forced the amalgamation of the Kenya African Workers Union and the Kenya Fédération of Labour. COTU's constitution was drawn up by the Attorney- General and entrenched government supervision of COTU's internal affairs. COTU and its leaders were expected to remain loyal to the Government and to support the governing party. As the book, An Economic History Of Kenya, notes, “the trade union movement became gradually integrated into the corporatist apparatuses of the state and in the process became politically deradicalized and acquiescent.”

The scope of action of trade unions today is limited to worker wages and job security. Begging the government for an increase in the minimum wage has become an annual May Day ritual.  And as the labour movement has seen its major weapon, the right to strike, whittled down and the right to picket effectively outlawed, it has increasingly been forced to either turn to the Industrial Court for redress or to risk the consequences of an illegal strike.

Thus the current action by the teachers, coming as it has on the back of a government refusal to implement an award by the Industrial Court, can thus be interpreted as resistance to the shutting off of one of the few remaining avenues for workers to collectively petition and bargain. The claim by the government that it cannot afford the award is daily undermined by revelations of sleaze and outrageous perks for members of the political class. Further the government’s penchant for technological solutions has seen a reluctance to shelve a widely panned plan to provide laptops to school children in favour of implementing the award. By ordering schools closed, it appears that the government is determined to continue to prosecute its war against the unions.

The teachers unions, in particular, have been a thorn in the flesh of the government for several years. They are by far the largest, best organised and most effective of all trade unions. In 1963, KNUT was the only union with an income of over £10,000 and 13 years later, this had grown to £254,000. Today, together with KUPPET, it represents nearly 300,000 teachers. Thus a government takedown of teachers would send a message to all other unions, including the restive doctors and nurses associations.

Such an eventuality would be a mortal blow to all workers. Having already conceded the political space, the loss of their already limited avenues to confront capital and its lackey, the state, would not just be a final capitulation. It would be a humiliation for a movement with such a long and proud history of achievement and probably make Makan Singh turn in his grave.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why Booze Crackdown Is Really About Power, not Power Alcohol

John Mututho is at it again. The chairman of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse and author of the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act (better known as the Mututho Laws) is pushing for amendments to that would, in his words, see the state “control the primary production process”. This, in his view, would be the long term solution to dealing with the problem of illicit liquor.

The desire to control alcohol production and consumption is not new in Kenya. It has existed from pre-colonial times Most traditional societies closely regulated it, with drinking being the exclusive preserve of male elders. There were dire warnings about the consequences of youthful indulgence which was perceived as a threat to the existing social organisation of power.

However, with colonialism, the regulations took on a distinctly racist and classist character.  Mututho himself acknowledged as much last year in a presentation last year at the 68th World Congress of the International Organisation of Good Templars held in Thailand. In it he traces the problem of alcohol abuse in Kenya to 1902. Serious alcoholism problems were experienced in present day Murang’a County which led to the British appointing the (in)famous Wangu Wa Makeri to assist in eradicating it. While in 1908 colonial settlers successfully resisted passage and later, implementation, of laws meant to domesticate British restrictions on their consumption and trade in booze, they had no trouble enacting the Chang’aa (local spirit) Prohibition Act to control alcohol production and consumption among the natives. These regulations and attitudes were to be the basis of alcohol control efforts in Kenya for over a century.

Colonialism seriously undermined the power of elders both through the appointment of low level bureaucrats as chiefs and the introduction of wage labour, which gave the youth independent means of procuring or producing their own hooch. This very independence however worried the new powers. In the essay Drunks, Brewers and Chiefs: Alcohol Regulation in Colonial Kenya, 1900-1939 Prof Charles Ambler, Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso, dates British efforts to control native alcohol consumption to the earliest days of the colonial enterprise. Enforcement of the 1890 Act of Brussels, which banned the export of spirits to East Africa, while “consistently and forcefully keeping such liquor out of the hands of Africans” did little to restrict consumption among white settlers.

The following decades saw enactment of laws criminalizing drinking by Kenyans under 30, public drunkenness and restricting access to raw materials, especially refined sugar, used in the manufacture of booze. This was despite the paucity of evidence for an “epidemic of drunkenness” and probably having more to do with colonial insecurities. “Drinking made Africans both unpredictable and dangerous in the process eroding the veneer of obeisance that made control possible … and permitted one or two British officials to rule vast districts with apparent ease.” Significantly, as Ambler goes on to note, periods of rigorous alcohol regulation coincided with heightened political and social unrest.

Another motive for controlling alcohol use among the natives was the colonial economy’s requirement for local labour and the perception that Africans could not hold their liquor. "Greater attention was focused on the role of drinking in discouraging young men from engaging in wage labour." From early on, restrictions on African drinking hours sought to impose an industrial regime on previously agricultural societies. In the article, Alcohol Licensing hours: Time and Temperance in Kenya, Justin Willis writes: “Regulation began with the prohibition of all-night drinking, then moved to the imposition of more detailed daily and calendric rhythms, driven by the perceived need to regulate the leisure time of waged labour.”

At independence, these laws and attitudes were adopted, and in some cases enhance, by the ruling African elite who kept for themselves the privileges formerly reserved for the whites. Jomo Kenyatta, who once traded in Nubian gin –a euphemism for Nubian chang’aa- in Dagoretti, had no qualms about further restricting drinking hours though, as in the colonial era, enforcement was and continues to be, sporadic.  

However, combined with the enduring colonial distinction between the approved settler booze and illegal native liquor continued, the laws have produced not just divergent drinking cultures among the urban workers –with the former consumed mainly by the middle-class in legitimate enterprises after working hours and on weekends and the latter by the poor pretty much throughout the day in illegal dens. Like the colonial settlers whose drinking was not adjudged to interfere with public order and thus required little regulation, the elite can drink to their hearts’ content at any time of the day in private clubs without courting opprobrium.

In the 90s, as donors turned off the taps and the economy went south, the government turned to excise taxes on beer in a bid to plug the hole in its finances. Following the 1992 elections, taxation on bottled beer rose to 153 percent per unit. With per capita incomes shrinking throughout the decade, this had the effect of driving legitimate booze out of reach of ever increasing numbers of people, including in the middle-class.

Into this void stepped a new kind of alcoholic beverage. According to Willis, in a 2003 article titled New Generation Drinking: The Uncertain Boundaries of Criminal Enterprise in Modern Kenya, what came to be known as second generation drinks “disturbed an established boundary between the formal and informal sectors, and between legitimate enterprise and criminal endeavour”.  Although packaged as ‘modern’ drinks, they were classed as ‘traditional’, and attracted excise tax of just 10 percent. In terms of alcohol content, ‘power drinks’ were four to five times cheaper than the fare from the market monopoly, EABL, and successfully competed for the lower end of the market.

Despite periodic bans, the drinks have continued to be sold. As evidenced by the current “crackdown”, government agencies continue to issue confused and conflicting statements about the legality and safety of the drinks. As noted above, many are licensed and produced on an industrial scale in premises whose locations are well known.

Beginning 2004 the Kibaki government begun to reduce duty on non-malted beer, eliminating it all together in 2006. The aim was to offer people on the lower end of the market a clean and affordable alcoholic drink. Prices for EABL’s sorghum beer, Senator keg, did indeed fall and compare favourably with most “illicit” brews and, EABL claimed, capture half their market. But this was no silver bullet. Among the poorer customers, the higher alcohol content of illicit brews still made them more attractive. In the end, the government was forced to legalize chang’aa in the Mututho Laws of 2010. This gave the poor even more choice of legal and safe alcohol.

But, as Muriithi Mutiga noted, in a typically self-defeating move following the 2013 elections, the Uhuru administration restored the excise tax on sorghum beer, more than doubling it price overnight. According to EABL, the price increase cut sales of Senator keg by 80 percent as Its poorer customers trooped back to the shadowy worlds of chang’aa and second generation drinks.

The current hoopla about boozing is merely a continuation of a centuries-old experiment in social and political control couched in the language of a patronizing concern. The echoes of the official terror of drinking as an obstacle to control can also be heard if the oft-repeated description of youthful protesters as drunk or drug-addled. In fact, as Willis further explains in his piece titled Protecting Young People: Alcohol, Advertising and Youth in Kenya which explored the failed 2004 attempt to ban alcohol advertising, much of the angst over alcohol rehashes the arguments of traditional elders afraid of losing their authority over a newly liberated youth at the dawn of colonialism. Far from reflecting the realities of alcohol consumption, control efforts have instead been held hostage to inter-generational struggles over the cultural and traditional foundations that privilege the power of elders and the foreign influences said to undermine it. In other words, as was feared by the colonials, inebriation prevents those in the lower ranks from accepting their proper place in the pecking order.

Today, the de facto criminalization of drinking by the youth and the poor is producing effects that are diametrically opposed to Mututho’s declared aims. Alcohol control policies have mostly not been informed by accurate assessments of the prevailing situation or informed predictions about their effects on actual drinking habits. Ill-advised bans and taxes have driven the approved booze out of reach of the poor while at the same time driving most of the trade in cheap liquor underground and making it much more dangerous. If Mututho is really interested in stopping killer brews, he should stop dispensing the Kool-Aid and instead take a long hard look in the mirror.

This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the August issue of The Platform magazine

Monday, August 03, 2015

Preaching Wine, Drinking Water: Kenya's Drunken Myths

Does Kenya have an alcoholism problem? Going by media reports, one would be forgiven for believing that the country is caught in the throes of drinking crisis fuelled by the availability of cheap, illicit alcohol. Almost daily we are treated to dire warnings of an entire generation being lost to booze. The situation, particularly in the former Central Province is said to be so bad that President Uhuru Kenyatta issued directives to Members of Parliament and the citizenry “to move from door to door closing all outlets selling the illicit drinks.”

The result has been widespread destruction and looting of business premises by rampaging mobs under the guise of implementing the directive. And though the President has attempted to walk back his fierce talk by urging that property is respected, the damage has already been done. And impunity for those involved is the order of the day, with at least one MP -the infamous Moses Kuria, who else?- saying on national television that Mr Kenyatta’s directive had provided “the leeway to go out there and use our own formula,” adding  he had no regrets to make for the razing down of at least two factories in his constituency.

The dubious legality of the President’s actions aside, Kenyans appear to be preaching wine and drinking water. There is little publicly accessible data to support the idea of a widespread crisis of intoxication among the country's young men. According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 which cites data from 2010, nearly 8 in 10 Kenyans aged 15 and above had not had a drink in the previous 12 months. This figure includes the half of all similarly aged males who were lifetime abstainers and another sixth who appear to have given it up. In all, nearly seven in ten males and nine in ten females over 15 were teetotal.

In fact, Kenya would be the East Africa Community’s designated driver, given that between 40% and 45% of Tanzanians, Rwandans, Burundians and Ugandans are boozers.

Among those Kenyans who partook, only 7.4 percent had taken more than 60 grams or more of pure alcohol (roughly the equivalent of three bottles of Tusker) on at least one occasion in the previous 30 days. These figures do not show young Kenyans drinking themselves into an early grave. If anything, since the 70s, per capita alcohol consumption has actually halved.

Also in 2010, the country’s National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse conducted a study of alcohol consumption in the central region. It found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed were lifetime abstainers. The prevalence rate measured by use in the past 30 days, was higher than the national average, but not by much (about 5 percent). However, compared to 2007, the prevalence rate among men aged 15-64 had shot up by 11.5 percent. Clearly, more men had taken to drinking. However, when broken down into the several districts, the data revealed that consumption in some was much higher than in others, indicating localized problems, especially in Muranga.

Sure there are localized pockets of crapulence in the country and the folks there require help. However, it does not seem accurate to assert a generalized or nationwide epidemic of alcoholism. Neithwr is it illegal to be an alcoholic. We should not treat such people, and the legitimate enterprises that are licensed to sell booze, as if they were criminals.

Illicit brew presents an entirely different problem. It is important that we define what is illicit. It certainly does not appear that the trade in the much maligned second-generation alcohol is actually illegal. When the Kenya Bureau of Standards suspended 385 brands, it also acknowledged that they were legal, with its Managing Director saying the concern was with counterfeiters.

Undoubtedly, adulterated and bootleg hooch has caused many deaths over the years. But even here, things are not as straightforward as they seem. Chang’aa, a major target of the current crackdown. But across the country, it takes many forms and is not always illegal or dangerous. In a recent article in the Star, John Githongo avers that chang’aa brewed in a western Kenya pot is much safer and of much better quality than its central Kenya counterpart. It is also consumed much more widely consumed with little of the ill-effects. It also bears reminding that though most chang’aa is made illegally, its production and sale can be a legitimate enterprise. The 2010 Alcoholic Drinks Control Act repealed the Chang’aa Prohibition Act, which made it illegal to produce or consume traditional liquors.

The fact that all chang’a, along with the nebulous category of second generation booze, appears to be treated as if it were dangerous and illicit bespeaks both of the confusion at the heart of the current clampdown, which is compounding, not solving, the problem. 

Simply put, the government must recognize that Kenya does not have a drinking problem. It has a policy and regulation problem. It is the policy regime that creates perverse incentives for the adulteration of drinks, that is killing many. This will only be cured by an enlightened, rational, evidence-based approach that prioritizes, not prohibition, but affordable, legal and safe booze for the poor. In short, the best way to deal with Kenya’s alcohol problem is for the government to sober up.
This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the August issue of The Platform magazine

Friday, July 31, 2015

Political Cartoonists Are Our Canaries

In his column for the Daily Nation, Peter Mwaura, the paper’s public editor, has on more than one occasion taken issue with my cartoons. In his latest offering, he accuses me of being unethical, of contravening both the law and the editorial policy of the Nation Media Group, as well as malice for the above cartoon that situates a defiant Moses Kuria in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pocket shortly after he was caught on camera telling armed youth to attack critics of the National Youth Service. Mr Mwaura believes that including the President’s name in the image is the equivalent of “dragging the name of an innocent friend or acquaintance in an act or charge of crime”.

Mr Mwaura appears to premise his piece on the complaint of one reader. It is important, at the outset, to note that I welcome criticism of my work. It is always humbling when someone takes the time to critique and offer feedback. Not for me the “positivity” crap that seems to be all the rage in the press and on social media, urging us to always wear our rose-coloured glasses. However, the issues Mr Mwaura raises need to be addressed as they go to the very heart of editorial cartooning and, more broadly, to the freedom of expression.

Let’s dispense with the obvious. The cartoon was examined and accepted for publication by my editors at the Daily Nation, and, as far as I know, the Media Council of Kenya, the body charged with enforcing the code of conduct, has not raised any issue with it. So I think I am probably safe on the counts of violating the Media Council of Kenya Act and NMG policy.

But beyond that, it is important to distinguish editorial cartooning from reportage which seeks to render factually information to the reader and is constrained by the requirement of accuracy. The former belongs to the twin genres of media commentary and political satire. Cartoons are about opinion and caricature. In their paper, Censorship and the Political Cartoonist, Dr Haydon Manning and Dr Robert Phiddian, both of Flinders University, write that “cartoons are a part of opinion-formation in liberal democracies that enjoy … a special licence to make exaggerated and comic criticisms of public figures and policies. Cartoonists are employed by newspapers principally to entertain readers and to provoke thought; often they are the part of the paper least disciplined to an adherence to any editorial line.”

Thus Mwaura is partly right when he says editorial cartoons are no laughing matter. In seeking to make their point, cartoonists employ biting satire and abandon fairness and objectivity.  In 1988, the US Supreme Court, noted that “the appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events - an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal. The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.”

And make no mistake about it. Political cartoons will offend. No one likes to be skewered or to see their favorite politician or deeply held belief caricatured. Yet this is exactly what cartoonists should seek to do. Not just reflect society’s beefs but challenge society itself and its most cherished institutions. A good cartoonist, like a good journalist, does not pander to his audience. “No political cartoonist is worth his salt who misuses his valuable space by drawing inoffensive, pretty pictures about the news,” wrote Scott Long, an American cartoonist, in 1963. “A political cartoon is a weapon of attack to be used against the evils and the follies of society. It is potentially the strongest weapon in modern journalism.”

So when Mwaura demands that a cartoon “[not] convey inaccurate information or offend good taste” he is asking to neuter a medium which does not report the news, but comments on, distorts and lampoons it. Such a prescription would destroy the soul of political cartooning, reducing it to a series of anodyne, tasteless, valueless “pretty pictures about the news”. However, a bigger issue is at stake. And it revolves around the ability of the public to hold the powerful to account.

To do this, unfettered debate and expression on matters touching on them must be encouraged. In a democracy, political statements like “the government has failed” or “Jubilee is corrupt” must be protected. If we were to require everyone saying such to provide proof beyond reasonable doubt, public opinion, one of democracy’s most potent weapons, would be eviscerated. Public figures have inordinate influence over our common affairs and the cost of that is they will be exposed to greater public scrutiny. They thus can expect to relinquish, though not entirely, some of the protections enjoyed by ordinary folks, hopefully compensating for that by growing extra layers of dermis.

One could therefore rephrase the issue thus: Is it wrong or unethical to express the opinion that Uhuru Kenyatta (or his government) is protecting Moses Kuria? When expressed that way, it becomes clear that the challenge is not just to cartoonists, but to all within society. As Manning and Phiddian say, political cartoonists are the "canaries sent down the mine shaft of public debate to discover how fresh the air is there, how safe for freedom of speech." 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Obama Did Not Find The Courage To Say

The much awaited visit of US President Barack Obama to Kenya is done and dusted. By nearly all accounts, it was a massive success, showcasing the country as an investment destination and providing Kenyans an opportunity to claim the Kenyan-American leader of the free world as one of their own. However, in the fading afterglow of the trip, we can now begin to evaluate the events of the weekend. Perhaps a good place to start is with his previous visit here.

A leaked confidential US diplomatic cable reporting on a meeting between then opposition leader, Uhuru Kenyatta and the then freshman Senator for Illinois during the latter’s 2006 tour of Kenya, contains this interesting exchange:

“Senator Obama commented that when he returns to Kenya in 10, or five years, he hopes he will not hear the same comments about KANU and its failure to reform.  Kenyatta then challenged the Senator to publicly identify him as dishonest if he failed to remain on the reform track, stating that it is Kenya's true friends who will tell them when they are naked.”

9 years later, Obama did return as President of the United States and again met with Kenyatta, now President of Kenya. Did Obama take up the challenge? Did he show himself to be one of “Kenya's true friends who will tell them when they are naked”?

Well, the verdict would appear to be mixed at best. Certainly, he spoke eloquently about the need to confront corruption but with nowhere near the forcefulness of his 2006 speech, when he had averred that “the message that many Kenyans seemed to be sending was one of dissatisfaction with the pace of reform, and real frustration with continued tolerance of corruption at high levels”.

This time round, while acknowledging that the government needed to enforce anti-corruption laws and prosecute offenders, he chided opposition politicians for demanding that he put pressure on the Uhuru administration over, according to them, corruption, insecurity and repressive laws restricting the media and civil society. "Everybody wants the United States to be involved when they're not in power but when they are in power, they don't want USA to be involved," Obama told representatives of Civil Society, adding that he had made it clear to the opposition chiefs that there is a legitimate government in Kenya, which the US would work with.

(Interestingly, according to another leaked US diplomatic cable, Kenyatta, whose administration has spent much of its first two years in office vilifying the West for its supposed impositions, had in 2006 made the same request, even going so far as to suggest that the Americans could use donor-funded programs as an effective pressure point.)

In his speech to the Kenyan people, very much a rehash of his 2006 effort but with important edits, he also declared that corruption was tolerated because it had become a way of life, a habit and culture that needed to change. This contrasts with his previous stance when he had painted corruption as a problem of governance and praised those who “reject[ed] the insulting idea that corruption is somehow a part of Kenyan culture”.

Earlier, during a joint press conference with Kenyatta, Obama had noted that the corruption culture can change “over time” when “people of integrity at the highest levels” are willing to punish, not just petty corruption but also hold the elite to account. ”Breaking habits and saying no comes from the top,” he noted. However, while praising his counterpart’s “announced commitment to rooting out corruption”, Obama did not mention that the fight against sleaze was already coming off the rails just four months after being trumpeted. Nor that many in the country were sceptical about the government’s commitment to prosecuting its own. Talk, it seems, is now progress enough.

This is again a marked change from 2006 when Obama demanded that wealth declarations by public officials be accessible to the public (hasn’t happened), called for accountable, transparent government and an anti-corruption commission with real authority.

By attributing corruption to the people and ignoring the meagre anti-corruption achievements, Obama appeared determined to spare his hosts shame, perhaps mindful of the reaction his 2006 speech had elicited from the Mwai Kibaki administration which described him as an unintelligent and immature opposition puppet.

The reluctance to directly criticize the Kenyatta government was most obvious when he addressed the issues of terrorism and the illegal wildlife trade. On the former, he praised the “extensive and effective counter-terrorism cooperation” and offered “practical advice” on avoiding stigmatization of communities and restrictions on legitimate civil society organizations.  

However, he chose not to highlight the fact that the Kenyan government had done little to convince ordinary Kenyans that it was taking the security problem seriously or learning lessons from the many attacks the country has suffered.

Similarly, even as he announced new restrictions on ivory in the US in a bid to help stem the slaughter of the country’s elephants, he failed to take to task the Kenyan government for protecting the poachers doing the killing.

Throughout the visit, Obama seemed determined to paint a picture of progress and amid continuing challenges, to re-cast Kenya as “a good news story” with Kenyatta at the helm “taking important steps in the right direction”. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.  But disappointing for those who had hoped Obama’s tour would include a candid examination of whether his hosts had stayed true to the reform agenda. In the end, for all his flowery talk, Obama could not find the courage to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


As Kenya prepares to welcome President Barack Obama, it's famously noisy social media collective has been thrown into a tizzy by a CNN anchor alleging the country is "a terror hotbed" and "one of the most dangerous countries in the world". This is not the first time the network has run afoul of Kenyans On Twitter or "KOT" as we like to refer to ourselves. The hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN has been employed several times over the last few years to punish the network for perceived misreporting on the country.

The latest kerfuffle comes hot on the heels of last week's humiliation when the Italian Prime Minister wore body armor under his suit when he went to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. Now, while Nairobi is not Mogadishu, the Italian and CNN theatrics notwithstanding, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that there is good reason for the world to worry about our commitment to staying that way.

Just last week, we celebrated the re-opening of the Westgate Mall, scene of a massacre of at least 67 people by at least four militants from the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terror group. The reconstructed building was hailed as a monument to resilience and the triumph of the Kenyan spirit.

Any mention of the many failure on the part of the government and its security agencies or the deliberate disinformation, scapegoating and cover up that followed, was conveniently edited out of the narrative. It is all very reminiscent of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s error-strewn statement in the aftermath of the attack declaring we had “ashamed and defeated” the attackers, even as evidence of the incompetence that led to the deaths of so many was beginning to emerge.

In fact, what little local discussion there has been of Westgate over the last two years has tended to echo such sentiments. The official version of events has received little examination, despite the gaping holes that resist both spin and a tidy denouement. Even official statements that should give some pause for thought don’t appear to elicit as much as a batted eyelid. Like when senior police officers admit the learnt nothing from the attack; or the Red Cross suggests more than 67 may have died and that it still cannot account for 18 people; or when DNA tests fail to identify bodies recovered from the mall as those of the terrorists.

The relentless tendency to downplay failures has continued to be a feature of the government response to terrorist attacks since Westgate. What is puzzling is why other players and institutions, including the media and the opposition are seemingly loathe to demand answers. Security failure, even when acknowledged, is discussed in vague and bombastic terms. Solutions, when they are proposed, tend to have little to do with actual security problems.

Thus Kenyans must endure, on the one hand, an administration that keeps committing the same errors over and over again, that appears incapable of learning and adapting, and that addresses the problem primarily as a public relations, not security challenge. On the other, a feckless and witless opposition and media, unable or unwilling to articulate security issues in anything other than political terms. Only sporadically, within the largely silenced civil society, does the issue come up. 

Given an atmosphere where important questions do not get asked and when they are, never get answered, it is perhaps not surprising that the premium is placed on moving on. And this, more than anything else is what the reopening of Westgate represents. A defiant, fatalistic and stoic acceptance of the reality of terrorism and of the inevitability of government and institutional failure.

This is perhaps why there is little interrogation of what resilience is supposed to mean. It is much more PC to praise Kenyans for venturing back into Westgate than to discuss their fear of confronting their own government and of demanding an accounting from those whose job it is to protect them. Few want to expose what is being called resilience for what is really is: resignation. A negation of the idea that Kenya could do better. Today, few Kenyans believe safety from terrorists is to be found in the assurances of government or its security agencies. Long ago, many turned to prayer or, for those who can afford it, to Israeli security consultants.

As the stores reopen and life goes on pretty much as it has before, with perhaps a few more cameras and security screens. But there can be no relief from the realization that the many who died at Westgate died in vain. Their passing, while tragic and much lamented, has resulted in little change. And because of that, many more who could’ve been saved, in places like Mpeketoni, Mandera, and Garissa, have instead perished.

So as we pile into CNN, we might also want to take a minute to do some much needed introspection. And beyond hunting for compliments at the gleaming Westgate storefronts, we should peer into the dark basement and ask the uncomfortable questions. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Obama's Second Coming

From a Kenyan perspective, the last decade has pretty much been a wasted opportunity for the country’s relationship with the US. The election of Barrack Obama had raised hopes of a deeper and more meaningful engagement given his Kenyan roots. However it coincided with two seminal events of Kenyan presidential ballot history. This was the violence that followed the disputed vote in 2008 and five years later, the election of a crimes against humanity indictee to the highest office in the land.

Like Mwai Kibaki before him, President Uhuru Kenyatta came to office with a serious legitimacy deficit. His administration too is hobbled by corruption and has been accused of clamping down on civic freedoms. Coupled with Obama’s own troubles at home, as a loony fringe loudly questioned whether he was sufficiently American, these, inevitably created a regrettable distance between the two countries. The situation was perhaps best summed up in then Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson’s statement on the eve of the 2013 election: “choices have consequences”.

The UK also issued similar warnings of minimal contacts should Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, both of whom had been indicted by the International Criminal Court over the 2008 post-election violence, win the polls. Though these eventually turned out to be hollow, the perceptions of Western interference supercharged the duo’s campaign and helped get them elected.

Once in office, a part of their push to get their cases dropped, UhuRuto (as they became known) fanned anti-Western sentiment both at home and across the continent, painting the ICC, in the words of Uhuru’s address to the African Union, as a “toy of declining imperial powers”, and playing up the new engagement with China as a counterweight to the West.

Obama too was keen to keep his distance. Following the example of his immediate predecessors, he made a point of skipping Kenya on the two African tours of his first term. If anything, it appeared that Tanzania, which is getting rather used to US presidential visits having hosted Bill Clinton, George Bush and Obama, seemed to be the US’s new BFF in the region.

One would thus have imagined that relations with the US had settled into the back of the freezer for the foreseeable future. It was all so different from 2008 when Kenya had been the only country in the world to declare a public holiday in celebration of Obama’s election.

So what changed?

Terrorism for one. Kenya has been a target of attacks from the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terror group ever since it invaded its neighbour in October 2011. But under the Uhuru administration, the numbers and severity of attacks have skyrocketed. The government’s incompetent response has generated the possibility of a spreading Islamist-inspired insurgency across Kenya’s north-eastern border regions. The threat to the largest economy in East and Central Africa and a bulwark for regional stability simply could not be ignored. Perhaps Obama is betting that by re-engaging with Uhuru, he can gently nudge him to take the necessary measures to confront it.

Secondly, it is important to note that the anti-Western rhetoric was always little more than a charade. The aim was to discredit the ICC, not alienate the West. It was not about taking Obama on, but getting Uhuru off. Under the surface, admiration for Obama ran deep. The two modelled their campaign and atmospherics on him, and across the country, as reflected in a 2014 Pew survey, Obama remains popular.

 What are we to expect of the visit?

While the official reason Obama is coming is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit there is little doubt that behind the scenes, it will dominated by concerns over the worsening security and governance situation. Less than a week prior to his arrival, the reopening of the Westgate mall, scene of an Al Shabaab massacre of at least 67 people two years ago, will be presented as a sign of resilience in the face of terrorism. But it also stands as a monument to the refusal by the authorities to learn lessons from previous attacks and to make much needed improvements. Obama himself has said that counter-terrorism will be an important focus of the visit. And while he will probably be more restrained when criticising his hosts in public than he was during his visit as Senator in 2006, one would still expect some tough talking away from the cameras.

The Kenyan government will also probably be on its best behaviour. It is best to ignore the loopy-headed warnings of Obama being thrown out of Parliament if he mentions gay marriage - he is not even scheduled to address MPs. Ditto the mooted 5000-strong nude march to protest the issue.
Nairobi is being spruced up in anticipation of the visit but that will be cold comfort for its long suffering residents. The homeless are being rounded up and will be kept out of sight and with much of the city expected to be in virtual lockdown, the usually terrible traffic will be nightmarish. In fact there is talk of an “Obamigration” as those who can flee the city in advance of Obama’s arrival.

The visit will also be a boon to the country’s cops. A new directive of dubious legality requires that everyone in Nairobi carry ID or risk arrest. There is no law in Kenya that requires the carrying of documents on pain of detention and this will only create an avenue for rich pickings for 15000 members of the famously corrupt National Police Service as citizens try to avoid the prospect of a weekend behind bars.

 The real test of the visit will be what happens after he leaves. Will there be any lasting change? It will be particularly interesting to see whether Obama is able to persuade Kenyatta to take security seriously and to stop using it as an excuse to clamp down on civil rights. Movement on that front alone would make all the hassle worthwhile.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Is the problem with Kenya really that it is full of Kenyans?

Lately, many of the diagnoses that have been offered on the causes of Kenya’s problems, from corruption to terrorism, have sought to lay the blame collectively on its citizens. “It begins with you” is a common refrain heard whenever blocked drains and poor city planning cause flooded roads or whenever governmental malfeasance or incompetence permits terrorists to wreak havoc. Last year, a headline to Michela Wrong’s article in Foreign Policy declared, “Everyone Is Corrupt in Kenya, Even Grandmothers”.

Now, of course, we must be wary of national stereotypes which, more often than not, offer few insights and are reflections of the prejudice of those spouting them. After all, the Japanese and German societies were once thought to be lazy, dishonest and poor time-keepers, with cultures singularly unsuited to the requirements of development.

Still, the idea persists that the Kenyan government is reflective of the will, inclinations and culture of the population, and that the reasons for its failures are really to be found, not in the persons occupying high office, but in the society they spring from. So there is talk of corruption being a cultural problem and a bewailing of Kenyans’ laziness, their supposed propensity to litter and their inability to make intelligent choices at the ballot box as the primary causes of their misery.

This idea has several problems. The most obvious is what we mean by Kenyan culture. The country is itself a relatively recent colonial construct with at least 42 communities living within and several dissected by its artificial borders. Clearly, these communities which had varying cultures and traditions, did not voluntarily unite to give birth to the state. Rather it was imposed upon them.

The truth is, Kenyans did not create the state. The state created them. Kenyan culture is similarly a creature of the state, despite the aspiration to ground it in the ancient roots of the communities that reside in Kenya. If, for example, Kenyans are corrupt, it is because their government is corrupt, not the other way round.

But is it true that Kenyans are generally corrupt? In a sense, we are, in the words of Eric Wainaina, “nchi ya kitu kidogo". A 2001 survey by the Kenyan chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, estimated that the average urban Kenyan paid 16 bribes every month to both public and private sector institutions. However, a closer look at these findings reveals that the vast majority of bribes are paid to state functionaries, with the private sector, at least at that time, recording low levels of sleaze. Two-thirds of interactions with public institutions “involved bribes or costly negative consequences if one declines to bribe.”

According to the more recent 2014 East African Bribery Index, most Kenyans pay bribes to government officials either to access or expedite a service they are entitled to. Only about a quarter are paid to avoid problems with the authorities, access a service to which one was not entitled to or to avoid paying the full cost of the service.

Far from being a cultural problem, so-called “petty" corruption, and its bigger and much more destructive brother, "grand" corruption, are actually a form of extortion by public officials from the populations they are supposed to serve. It is telling that those least able to afford it, the poor, the unemployed, those with low income and low levels education, are the ones significantly more vulnerable to such extortion.

This is hardly surprising when one looks at the origins of the state itself. It was established by the colonial authorities to facilitate and support the extraction of wealth by a few from the many. As the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission showed, it was not fundamentally reformed following independence from Britain in 1963. Instead, one bunch of thieves was replaced by another which retained and even entrenched the system of illegitimate acquisition. Government has thus served as the quickest and most sure route to wealth accumulation, a means of benefitting from, not solving, problems afflicting ordinary Kenyans.

The idea of Kenyans as generally corrupt or of Kenyan society as rotten does not gel with the facts and simply serves to obscure the real nature and source of corruption. As Ms Wrong put it, “although the problem is in fact one of elites writ large, Kenyan corruption is traditionally viewed in terms of economic rivalry among the country’s main ethnic groups.” Blaming Kenyans, or Kenyan culture is in reality blaming the victims for their own immiseration, and must be seen for what it truly is: a cover for impunity.

Similarly, blaming Kenyans for the spike in terror acts or for the flooding in our cities, is meant to shift culpability for failures to act on the intelligence, to enforce the rule of law, to protect the public and prevent the plunder of public resources, from the government to the people who suffer the consequences.

The small and exclusive club of elites who control the state is primarily responsible for the many ills afflicting the nation, not the people they prey on. Corruption is woven into the very fabric of the state they inherited and refuse to reform. It is not just its raison d’etre but also the primary means for rewarding loyalty. In return for their support, politicians, bureaucrats and even police officers get opportunities to line their pockets at the public’s expense.

The most important attempt to reform the relationship between the people and the state was the adoption of a new constitution in 2010. But even that has borne mixed results. While devolution of services has undoubtedly resulted in more services delivered to previously under-served populations, the logic of public office as a means of accumulating wealth and dispensing patronage remains.

Our elites have proven particularly resistant to  constitutional restraint and, in the end, it will be up to Kenyans in general to force them submit to it. It is we who must uphold the constitution's primacy. But we do not achieve this by accepting common responsibility for individual crimes. Instead, we should hold public officials to account, and resist the effort to socialize blame for their sins.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Why Obama's Second Coming May (Temporarily) Save Kenyans

Two weeks ago, a team of Kenyan security officers was ambushed while responding to reports of armed militants from the Al Shabaab terror group being sighted in the eastern Kenya village of Yumbis. The security officers apparently escaped without sustaining any casualties, leaving the militants free rein to terrorise residents, hoisting their black flags and forcing them to listen to their sermons, for up to 7 hours. Later that night, the Kenyan government issued a terse statement claiming security forces had “repulsed” the attack on Yumbis after “engaging the militants in gun battle”. The statement urged “Kenyans to continue collaborating with security agents to ensure that members of this group who might have taken refuge among innocent locals are flushed out”.

Four days later, Kenyans woke up to reports that another Al Shabaab ambush in the same area may have killed up to two dozen police officers. The officers were responding to an earlier incident in which a police vehicle had encountered a landmine, slightly wounding the officers on board, all but one of whom had been discharged from hospital. This time the government, after initially telling journalists that up to 30 officers were missing and condoling with relatives of slain officers, reversed itself and declared that no one had been killed then declared one death. 

Even allowing for the inevitable fog that accompanies reports on events in such remote areas, the confused and confusing accounts are depressingly familiar. The media comes in for a bit of stick for rushing for the sensational headline without clarifying either sources or what information they had been able to independently verify. The government has already expressed its displeasure with Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government, Joseph ole Nkaissery, telling journalists he was disappointed in their performance.

However, the Kenyan government would do well to first attend to the log in its own eye. For as we seen, a major reason for the confused reporting is a lack of reliable, accurate and timely official information. The communication efforts of the self-described “digital” administration have not exactly inspired faith in official narratives. On the contrary, many Kenyans have learnt to take its official pronouncements with a heap of salt. Its tales regarding terrorist attacks have invariably involved scapegoating and diversion, understating of casualties and problems, obfuscation of detail and exaggeration of the effectiveness of its responses.

This was as true during the four-day siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi 20 months ago as it was in Yumbis. The most obvious and startling example came on the eve of the attack on the Garissa University College when the President Uhuru Kenyatta pooh-poohed warnings of an imminent attack. This was in itself reminiscent of his shallow and poorly reasoned speech on the causes of insecurity last November which was delivered just hours before 24 police officers were murdered by bandits in the north-western town of Kapedo.

Further, as the attack in Yumbis was unfolding, his Director of Digital Communications was busy on Twitter berating Norway’s government for allegedly “supporting terror” by continuing to fund a Muslim human rights group which the Kenya government has blacklisted. 

Whoever one choses to believe, it is increasingly clear that Al Shabaab is able to operate within the former North Eastern Province with relative impunity despite government assurances to the contrary. It is clear that without a significant overhaul, the security apparatus is unlikely to significantly disrupt and deter similar attacks. One only has to remember that following the Garissa University College attack the then newly appointed Nkaissery, admitted to Parliament that the Kenya Defence Forces could not contain four Al Shabaab gunmen.

In fact, as I write this, there are reports that a group of Al Shabaab militants have been camped near Warankara village in Mandera County unchallenged for a week, causing residents to flee their homes. They have apparently been forcing those who remain to listen to their sermons. 

Yet in his Madaraka Day speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta could only promise “a major anti-radicalization strategy” had been prepared and would be rolled out “very shortly”. Of course, details on the strategy were conspicuously absent as was discussion on whether counter-radicalization is the same as counter-terrorism. 

It is unclear how the strategy has been developed and who has been involved. At least one prominent journalist has found that his contacts within the Interior Ministry appear to be in the dark about it. Also telling is that the strategy has been developed, and may be implemented, ahead of a planned regional conference on extremism during which, according to the Principal Secretary for the Interior Ministry, Dr Monica Juma, the government hopes to “understand the local architecture of terror networks as well as the narratives that promote ideologies of violence extremism”. It begs the question whether the government’s right hand knows what the left is doing.

This is not new. The Kenyatta administration has dealt with the rampant insecurity afflicting the country primarily as a public relations challenge, and sought to address it using token measures as opposed to fundamental reform of the security services. Many academics and security experts have echoed the maxim that Kenya lacks both the policy and security posture to successfully address the challenges posed by Al Shabaab. More importantly, a ravenous political elite, more interested in protecting its opportunities to “eat” lacks the will to address the systemic problems its greed has caused. 

It is into this maelstrom of incompetence, confusion and wilful negligence that US President, Barrack Obama, is due to fly in mid-July for his first visit as Leader of The Free World to the land of his father. The last time he was here, the then junior Senator described corruption in Kenya as a "crisis" which facilitates terrorism and breeds the "collective exhaustion and outrage" that makes our youngsters vulnerable to extremists.

On that score too, little has changed. Theft of public resources continues to be the touchstone of our politics. Corruption means students are abandoned to murderous thugs and their would-be rescuers stranded as police choppers are used for private joyrides. It means that army units sent into a city mall to rescue civilians instead loot it and when deployed to Somalia to fight the Al Shabaab, instead engage in illicit trade that fills up the militants' coffers. Corruption also means that no one is held to account for any of this and it will be interesting to hear what the US President has to say about it this time around.

However, there is a possible silver lining around his visit. It is not lost to many that pulling off a major attack in Kenya on or around that time would be a massive propaganda coup for the Al Shabaab. And while Kenya is vulnerable at precisely the time when it should be most ready, for an administration obsessed with image, such an attack would be a complete, and completely unacceptable, humiliation. There is therefore reason to imagine that the government will do everything it can to forestall such an eventuality. And in the process, its self-indulgence may afford its long-suffering people a fleeting reprieve from the depredations of the Al Shabaab. Fingers crossed.