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.