Monday, January 26, 2015

Evolution of Jubilee

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Press Release: KGWA Commends Uhuru's Handling Of Land Issue

Nairobi 21 January, 2015 The Kenya Ghost Worker Alliance has applauded the Government of Kenya's handling of the land crisis affecting the country saying that this should serve as a model for dealing with the public wage crisis.

KGWA Secretary General, Casper Mwakazi, said he was encouraged by the fact that while President Uhuru Kenyatta had rightly condemned the practice of land grabbing, he had also elected not to victimize innocent land grabbers. "We commend the President for upholding this country's long tradition of tolerance for souls whose only crime is to be on the wrong side of the law," he said.

Across the country, the government has identified numerous cases of irregularly allocated land but is yet to prosecute, or even name, any culprits. Recent examples include 500,000 acres in Lamu given to 22 companies whose directors remain anonymous, as well as a 134-acre plot in Nairobi grabbed by equally nameless public officials reportedly including 40 Members of Parliament. Just this week, the government sent in riot police to protect a wall illegally constructed by unknown investors across a school playground.

"If the government carries on with this spirit, it will certainly bode well for the ... negotiations we hope to start over the fate of our public sector members," said Mr Mwakazi. Last year, the KGWA condemned what it described as the "demonization of ghost workers" after the Uhuru administration blamed them for the ballooning public wage bill and threatened to fire over 12,000 of their number. The Alliance has called for talks to deal with the grave issue.

Mr Mwakazi noted that the government had initially erred by seeking to exorcise the ghost workers from the payroll instead of protecting them, as it was land grabbers and poachers. "We are just asking to be treated the same as other citizens of this great republic," he said.

The Secretary General said the government had now demonstrated that it did not have agree with what some citizens did in order to defend to the death their right to do it. "There is reason to hope that the differences we have with the administration will not be allowed to stand in the way of achieving an agreement. We will soon be floating proposals to resurrect the good standing of our members." he said.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kenya's War On Its Kids

Today’s teargassing by police of pupils from the Langata Rd Primary School protesting the grabbing of their school playground, has drawn condemnation from across the political divide. At least it has on Twitter. If there is one thing around which Kenyans can be relied on to congregate, it is their kids. The welfare of the young ones is routinely trundled out as a justification of governmental action and societal outrage at everything from corruption to homosexuality. However, it is all a charade.

In truth, Kenya is a country at war with its own children. Children are the denizens of the future. And Kenya is busy destroying the future. Government policy, elite greed as well as citizen apathy and disempowerment have combined to rob our kids of more than playgrounds.

What the police did today was deplorable. But it is no more deplorable than the violence of poverty, ignorance and disease that many children are forced to live with on a daily basis. Or that the education system is a complete shambles.

It is no worse than the fact that kids in Baringo have to cross croc-and-hippo infested waters in skimpy rafts to get to school. Nor that when they do get to school, half the time, their undermotivated, underequipped and underpaid teachers don’t even bother to show up. 

If they cared, Kenyans would collectively hang their heads in shame over the fact that over 100,000 youngsters die annually before their fifthbirthday, most within the first year of life and most from easily preventable causes. Or that our current spending spree is robbing the future to pay for the present, saddling kids with debt even before they have had a chance to earn their first shilling. According to the opposition CORD coalition, when the Jubilee government came to power, every Kenyan owed Ksh.44,000. A year later, each owed Ksh.66,000 and by 2017 each would owe Ksh.140,000. It is disgraceful that their futures are being mortgaged away so a few can have opportunities to eat now.

Kenya lives in the present, and in the moment. Little thought is given to how we got here and where we are going.  We studiously refuse to learn lessons from the past. Our contempt for historical accuracy leads us to fete the villains and condemn the heroes of our past. Our ignorance makes us easy prey for ravenous politicians and cements their impunity. To date, for example, the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, our first real attempt to lay bare the bones within our common closet, continues to gather dust.

As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The constitution, meant to be the single greatest governance achievement of the past quarter century, is being systematically undermined in the same manner its predecessor was, its strong guarantee of freedoms effectively reduced to mere suggestions. Similarly, we are condemning our kids to a future that will be no better than our past.

Along with their history, we are also robbing them of their heritage. Wildlife poaching, which has now reached crisis proportions, continues unabated and with the acquiescence, if not active support, of the government. We have already pretty much lost the fight to save the legendary tuskers and, according to one study, across the continent, more elephants are being killed each year than are being born. At this rate, within a century children will only be able to see rhinos and elephants in books or a museum.

Values too seem to be going extinct, especially in the public sphere. Watching the adults practice politics, our children learn that honesty and integrity do not matter are words emptied of meaning. They learn that a good, well-reasoned argument is no match for demagoguery, bullying and violence; that your last name is the greatest political and economic asset (or liability) that you have.

Further, youth is constantly reproduced solely as a place of either innocence, ignorance or incitement. Youth cannot think for itself. Youth can have no agency or politics. That must wait till tomorrow. Thus children protesting the theft of their playground must be incited. Young adults who take to the streets to challenge power must be drug-addled. The cannot articulate legitimate grievance. They can have no ideas or solutions to offer. They cannot offer leadership today, only tomorrow.

All this is a form of violence. A betrayal of the inter-generational pact that parents provide for, support and protect their children. That we should leave for them a better world than the one we found.

So today we will shed tears over the treatment meted out to the kids of the Langata Road Primary School. Today, we will raise our voices in anger. And it is right that we do so. However, we must also protest the violence our kids are subjected to every day in our name and resolve to undo the world of hurt that we have been storing up for them. Otherwise, it would all be an exercise in hypocrisy.

We must realize the truth: that our children face far worse things than teargas canisters. And that the adults must stop fighting them and start fighting for them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

This Cartoonist's Take On Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Expression

A week, after the despicable attack on its office that killed 12 people, the Parisian satirical Charlie Hebdo, has declared its defiant new edition will feature a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover. Though the cartoon itself is innocuous, simply featuring the Prophet holding up a sign proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” with the words “All is Forgiven” above it, doubtless the cover will lend more fire to the raging debate over the limits of satire and the freedom of expression.

Many have seen the attack which killed some of France’s most prominent cartoonists, as primarily an attack on the principle of free expression. And it has drawn universal condemnation. However, there has been considerable angst regarding whether this should be translated or understood as an endorsement of the content that the magazine purveyed.

I am not a reader of the magazine, though English comedian, actor, writer, presenter, and activist, Stephen Fry has described their cartoons as bordering on racist and repulsive. However, Frenchman and self-described “radical left militant” Olivier Tonneau avers that Charlie Hebdo’s satire falls “well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic.”

Ours is a profession that thrives on humour at someone else’s expense. Cartoons can be funny but can also hurt. At their best, cartoons can help to confront and expose the hypocrisies within society and to chop down the arrogance of power. At their worst, they can vilify and stereotype entire communities and reduce complex realities into simplistic vistas.

My first, almost reflexive, reaction was to rush to the defence of Charlie Hebdo. To declare to all and sundry the obvious. That there can be no justification for the attack. That cartoonists should be free to satirize and ridicule whomever and whatever they please without having to fear for their lives. That religious hypocrisy should not be immune to caricature, especially when it is loosed from private sphere and presented as a public obligation. That no one wants to read anodyne satire.

No idea, no matter how cherished and sacred, should be deemed as sacrosanct. And, as Salman Rushdie, the British Indian novelist and essayist who was forced into hiding after his book, The Satanic Verses offended religious zealots, said, “Nobody has the right to not be offended.”

However, it is also undeniable that decent, well-meaning people from across the religious spectrum, Catholics as well as Muslims, have been offended by Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And though satirising a religion is not the same thing as belittling its adherents (any more than ridiculing a political party’s policies is saying its members are idiots), it is not always a distinction that everyone accepts.

Ugandan academic, author and political commentator, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, has spoken about “the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice.” In discussing the controversy that erupted after the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, Mamdani distinguished between between religion being critiqued from within and coming under attack from without.

Though Prof Mamdani is wrong when he implies that only believers can legitimately critique religious tradition and that all external lampooning of it is bigotry, some attacks are undeniably motivated by less than honourable intentions. And it when confronting this that we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As he says, compromises circumscribing free speech are sometimes necessary to keep the peace but these work best when internalized as civility, rather than when imposed by public power. It is more a question of how, not if religions can be criticized.

Cartoons do not exist in a vacuum. Our works will be seen and understood within the context of the historical as well as prevailing issues and attitudes and we always run the risk of promoting and reinforcing the very prejudices and oppressions we may be seeking to ridicule. This is because while the pictures and text are designed to elicit humor when placed in specific contexts, the meaning they carry is as much a function of the readers’ circumstance as it is the cartoonist’s intent. And it is in the social space that that meaning is negotiated and determined.

Kenya’s top cartoonist, GADO, fell afoul of this when one of his cartoons from two years ago, which made fun of Kenyan politicians’ propensity to turn funerals into political rallies, was widely circulated in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. Many were outraged by the cartoon which portrayed the elder Odinga giving a speech while poised atop a coffin. In being transferred from one context to another, the cartoon acquired a hugely offensive connotation that had never been intended.    

People are thus liable to read their experiences and contexts into our works. Members of the Muslim community may see the cartoons of the Prophet as a continuation of the racism, stigma and discrimination they have suffered. Others who place them within “the French tradition of satire” would cast them in a totally different light. Thus, when Charlie Hebdo fired a satirist for alleged anti-Semitic jokes, it was probably reflecting a general European horror at their historical treatment of Jews. The double standard illustrates how the competition of contexts and the privileging of one over another affects the way a cartoon is understood and whether it ends up offending or amusing.

This, then, places an extra burden on those of us who undertake the risky work of satire. As we skate at the very edge of what society considers tolerable, we must not be oblivious of the choices we are making, the contexts we are privileging and those we are perhaps ignoring. We must realize that we are accountable for those choices and that that, in the end, is the reason we do not really say everything we have the right to say.

One thing we can all agree on is that it is not those who threaten and carry out violence who should be the ones to set limits on what can and cannot be said in polite company. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, that is for its (now global) audience and French society, including its religious communities and perhaps the French courts where the magazine is regularly sued, to deliberate. It is a conversation about the relative place of different communities within the fabric of society and about the relative weight given to their stories. 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Je Suis Charlie!

Why Kenyan Presidents Always Have Bad Advisors

Kenyans are a peculiar lot. Even though we love to condemn and demonize the ruling class, we are forever reluctant to accept that any of the individuals that make up that class may themselves be individually bad or inept. Therefore we are constantly making up excuses for their failures.

For example, during the murderous and kleptocratic Nyayo regime, it was common to hear the dictator, Daniel arap Moi, described as a kindly and wise old man who had unfortunately been misled by his coterie of advisors. Mwai Kibaki similarly escaped much of the blame for the deadly rifts his administrative choices deepened within Kenyan society and which set the stage for the bloodletting that followed the disputed 2007 election.

The many fumbles that characterised Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure have also been laid at the feet of bad advisors. Even his political rivals and critics have tended to lay the blame for his controversial decisions, from making illegal appointments of parastatal heads, to authorising the paying of billions of shillings to briefcase Anglo-Leasing type companies, to ignoring court orders, at the feet of the members of his kitchen cabinet.

The assumption that our rulers only want what’s best for us and are constantly being subverted by the hand-picked groups of courtiers and groupies they bring into office is both curious and delusional. And it prevents us from seeing the real nature of the regimes that continue to oppress and impoverish and marginalize large sections of our citizenry.

Take the discussions over the conviction of one Alan Wadi Okengo on charges of hate speech and for undermining the President’s authority as a public officer. The university student’s obnoxious and virulent postings of Facebook undoubtedly offended many and broke the law. From that perspective at least, his speedy arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing for hate speech for calling for the deportation of Kikuyus to central Kenya is to be welcomed.

However, as many commentators have rightly noted, others who have spewed similar hate both online and offline have yet to meet a similar fate. Compare the treatment of Mr Okengo with that of Hon Moses Kuria, who has now twice been in court, charged with a similar offence. While the former was quickly sentenced to jail despite his offer of an apology and retraction, there has been a seeming reluctance to lock up the latter. On the Gatundu MP’s second visit to the courthouse, the prosecution, while declaring that he had broken his bail terms, did not appear interested in having him committed to jail. Further, the legislator has been offered a generous out-of-court deal where he avoids jail time by apologising for and recanting his remarks as well as convening a “stakeholders’ meeting”.

But the pundits seem reluctant to draw the obvious conclusion: that the government is not really interested in fighting hate speech. Rather, it is selectively applying legislation to target hate mongers who happen to be critical of it. So that the fault is not in its actions, but in its intent.

The second charge is even more worrisome. Mr Okengo was faulted for a posting that ridiculed the signing into law of the Security Amendment Act by “silly and bangi (sic) President” and which was then construed as undermining the authority of a public officer. By this ruling, the court has vastly expanded the scope of Section 132 of the Penal Code. It is instructive to remember that this section was enacted in 1952, the same year the colonial government declared and Emergency over the agitation for freedom and independence, and the same year President Kenyatta’s father was thrown in jail. That this law is still on our books more than half a century after independence is an indicator of how little the state has changed since then. The people, in whose name it governs, are still seen as the primary enemy and its laws still seek to protect the elite in power from the citizenry and to constrain any attempt by the latter to propagate unflattering opinions of the former.

The Security Laws Amendment Act, which was the trigger for Mr Okengo’s rants similarly betrays the nefarious intent of the government, criminalising as it does, independent reporting of terror incidents and amending the Public Benefit Organisations Act -which is yet to be gazetted nearly two years after its adoption- to allow for the classification of civil society groups (the criteria is to be determined later but given recent attempts to amend the same Act, one need not be a genius to guess what it will be).

Creating fear and compliance among citizens, media and civil society is the ultimate goal of this regime. This is to be achieved by rolling back the rights and freedoms gained over the last quarter century and reconstituting the untethered, oppressive surveillance state of the Nyayo era. Thus, when Uhuru Kenyatatta and his mandarins talk of improving security, what they really mean is securing themselves and their positions from the rest of us.

But the personal responsibility of the head of state for ineptitude, corruption and despotism is one of the great unmentionables of Kenyan politics. It is that which shall not be named, perhaps because in naming it, we fear that we would call it forth and deprive ourselves of the comforting delusion that he cares. The father of the nation must remain godlike, unblemished, peerless, all-knowing and all-seeing, a veritable repository of wisdom an altruism.

 As Kenyans, we must abandon the idea that those who take up the reins of power are necessarily doing so because they care for the rest of society. We must learn to be more critical and less accepting of the propaganda we are fed. As James Madison wrote, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is clear that we are not governed by angels and thus we must all oppose the attempts by President Kenyatta and his court to eliminate “the external and internal controls” on the government.