Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lying in State: Official Deception In The Jubilee Era

The reactions to the International Criminal Court’s Appeal Chamber’s ruling last week is a good example of the doublespeak that has come to characterize our politics. The Leader of the Majority in the National Assembly, Hon Aden Duale, who for the last two years has been advocating a Kenyan and African withdrawal from the Rome Statute, declared on Twitter that “civil societies and their financiers have been ashamed and the rule of law prevailed”. He even went further to say that “the 14th assembly of state parties resolution on #Rule68 has been upheld” and that the verdict had redeemed “the creditbility (sic) of ICC and respect of the Rome Statue.”

Now, it will come as no surprise to anyone that our political class lies. In its daily sermons, it swears fealty to the rule of law even as its members continue violate both the spirit and letter of it. Few will have forgotten the words of Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, at a weighbridge station in Gilgil: “We are the ones making laws; when we want, we break them.”

But the Jubilee coalition has transformed public insincerity into an art form. And little showcases this better than its shifting stand with regard to the cases against the President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, at the Hague. Their deceptions have been behind the cases mutating from a “personal challenge” as candidate Kenyatta once called them, to a challenge to national sovereignty, which it isn’t, to an example of “race-hunting” on a continental scale, a bare-faced lie.

On local and international fora, the President and his minions have regaled us with tales of “a global standard” on Head of State immunity, conveniently ignoring the standard that our own constitution sets in Article 143 which unambiguously says in subsection 4: “The immunity of the President under this Article shall not extend to a crime for which the President may be prosecuted under any treaty to which Kenya is party and which prohibits such immunity.” The Rome Statute is just such a treaty.

The pattern of deception has inevitably filtered down to discourse on other local issues. “It begins with you” has become the catch-all phrase that absolves the government of any responsibility when it fails to do its job. When corruption flourishes and infects all arms of government, the proffered solutions are not to fix the systems that incentivize and reward such behaviour, and to punish the corrupt. Rather, we are treated to the fiction of a society-wide malaise which will be solved by teaching ethics classes to primary schoolkids.

Similarly, when the government fails in its duty to provide the public good of security, it attempts to socialize this failure and to blame everyone in society. The problem we are told, is that we don’t share information with the state. In reality, the fact that security forces had prior intelligence on local terror attacks does not seem to have made them any more effective in stopping them. Further, a senior police officer pointed to the real problem when he told the Nation: “There was never a review meeting on how we handled incidents”. As a result, the paper goes on to say, “the police service has basically learnt nothing from Westgate, Garissa, Mpeketoni and others.” Many will remember that the President’s promise of an inquiry into security failures surrounding the Westgate atrocity a has similarly failed to materialize, as has his vow to punish those responsible for the them.

A final example of the government’s mendacity is the paucity of public information on the El Adde attack. A month after the Al Shabaab terror group overran an African Union base manned by Kenyan troops in southern Somalia, we are yet to get definitive figures for how many soldiers we lost and how many were captured. Despite promises by CS Raychelle Omamo and the Chief of Defence Forces General Samson Mwathethe to provide a full account, we still only have rumours and unconfirmed reports that put the death toll at above 100, with some sources suggesting up to 130.

Meanwhile, at the funerals going on around the country, the government continues to “honor our fallen heroes” with bugles and gun salutes and flag-draped coffins. Yet the one thing that would truly honour their memory continues to stay hidden: a proper telling of how and why they died, and a learning of lessons have been learnt to ensure the same never happens to their comrades. The reason the authorities remain vague about the details is not to protect national security but rather the backsides of senior officers and officials.

While it may, in a limited number of extreme instances, be in the national interest to temporarily withhold information from the public, across the world it is clear that officials lie mostly to escape censure for mistakes and shortcomings. Just as has been the case with terror attacks on civilians inside Kenya, the silence over El Adde, for example, is intended to keep the Kenyan public, not the Al Shabaab (who already know the scale of the damage they inflicted) in the dark.

Politics is often described as a dirty game. “One must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver” wrote Machiavelli of the successful ruler, adding that "men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived."  In a Machiavellian world, where public officials are only concerned with the acquisition and perpetuation of their power, it may be permissible to routinely mislead the citizenry. However, the sovereign is also urged to “not deviate from the good, if that is possible”. Ethics and moral behaviour are thus not entirely outside the purview of politics, even in a dictatorship. And they take on an even more important role when it comes to democracies, where citizens require accurate and sufficient information in order to hold public officials to account.

However, nowadays politicians and public officials also routinely lie, and the public has come to expect that they will do so. This expectation, in turn leads to a debilitating cynicism about the political process and a resignation to the inevitability of deception. When the lies are not just expected but acceptable, when they no longer arouse outrage and when national policies can be built around them, then societies are treading on very dangerous ground. The disastrous 2003 US invasion of Iraq, one of whose consequences is the rise of ISIS, is but one recent example of the havoc deception can wreak.

So when we permit Interior Cabinet Secretary, Gen Joseph Nkaissery, to get away with declaring public scrutiny of his ministry’s questionable spending a threat to national security; or the President to escape censure for inciting mobs into destroying private property via an illegal directive against alcohol; when patently unconstitutional laws are used to punish legal conduct and expression that those in power do not like; then we are putting our liberties, our democracy, our very lives and prosperity in great peril.

The words and sentiments streaming out of the mouths of our public officials should mean something. And the people behind them should be held to account.  We do not pay them to lie and mislead us or to treat us like children who can’t handle the truth. Or worse, to subvert the constitution, the very thing that limits the power they can wield over our lives.

So as we snigger and make fun of the antics of Hon Duale and his friends over the ICC, we should be very careful lest we wake up and find that the joke is on us.