Friday, July 29, 2016

KOT Won The Battle Against Koffi Olomide But Is Losing The War. Here's Why.

Last week’s deportation of famed 60-year-old Congolese rumba star, Koffi Olomide, after he was filmed apparently kicking a female member of his band at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has once again highlighted both the power and limitations of social media in Kenya.

A video of the incident went viral on the internet precipitating a furious reaction from the ever vocal Kenyans On Twitter (KOT) demanding action be taken against the singer. His arrest and deportation the next day was hailed as an example of how the collective voices of citizens can be harnesses through the internet to prompt governing authorities to move.

This is, of course, not unique to Kenya. Across the globe, activists have become adept at utilizing the internet and social media to power movements for political and social change. The so-called “Twitter revolutions” that swept through countries as diverse as Moldova, Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia and Iran demonstrated that the ability of ordinary citizens to communicate and share ideas can have real consequences. In fact, authoritarian governments have sought to restrict the availability of such technologies fearing that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight. A good example was the shutting down of social media by the Uganda government during the elections in March.

However, it is instructive to note that most social media revolutionaries have ultimately failed in delivering sustained political change. Across the Middle East, the dreams fostered by the Arab Spring have given way to the nightmare of civil war and state disintegration. In Turkey and in Egypt, authoritarian leaders were able to reassert their power.

The fact is much social media activism tends to focus on the visible and easily apprehended symbols of oppression rather than its hidden and deeply ingrained roots. This is partly because of the nature of the internet and social media. There is only so much insight you can stuff in to 140 characters. And the glut of information and causes demanding our attention mean that most can afford little more than a cursory acquaintance with the issues. Stripped of nuance and context, much social media activism attempts to reduce complex issues to pithy hashtags and to reproduce the world in superficial dualities of black and white, good and evil. It is thus not surprising that these utopian visions would disintegrated when exposed to the full spectrum of reality. As Ivan Kratsev noted in the New York Times last year, “you can tweet a revolution but you cannot tweet a government”.

The true value of social media lies neither in its undoubted ability to mobilize large numbers of people around a particular issue nor in its undeniable power to instrumentalize their voices to achieve specific short term goals. The real power is in creating a public sphere where conversations can happen. Just as the printing press helped democratize Europe by providing space for discussion and agreement among politically engaged citizens, so social media and the internet can foster change in the long term by building online communities that articulate, echo, challenge, shape and transform political ideas. As noted by Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University, wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation”.

The impact of social media in the case of Koffi Olomide should thus not be judged solely by his deportation, the cancellation of his concerts in Kenya and Zambia and his jailing in Congo, but by how conversations and attitudes towards gender-based violence, and in particular violence against women, are shaped in the coming days, weeks and months.

In 2013, online outrage at the rape and attempted murder of a teenage girl in Busia by six men whom police “punished” by ordering them to cut grass, led to the hunt, re-arrest, trial and subsequent jailing of three of the perpetrators. Yet, beyond this “quick win” the system that allowed the atrocity to happen remains unreformed and none of the officers involved appear to have suffered any consequences. More to the point, KOT discussions of this have vanished. 

Such must not be the legacy of social media.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Quitting On Integrity

It came as no big surprise. “I will not resign”, declared the new chair of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, Philip Kinisu, regurgitating what has become a stock phrase in the vocabulary of all Kenyan public officials. Barely six months after he was appointed to head the country’s premier public ethics agency, Kinisu has been accused of ethical violations of his own, after his family-owned firm was found to be transacting business with entities he was meant to be investigating.

There is nothing new in his claim that “resigning would be setting a terrible precedent because any person can fabricate a claim against a public official”.  It is the same excuse we have heard before most notably from the embattled commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The defiant language is reminiscent of similar statements from cabinet ministers such as Anne Waiguru and Amos Kimunya, who memorably declared that he would rather die than resign. In fact, there is a long and unsavory history of refusal to resign, or to step aside, whenever the integrity of public officials is questioned.

Professor J. Patrick Dobel, of the University of Washington in his article entitled The Ethics of Resigning published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, states that “resigning from office is a critical ethical decision for individuals. Resignation also remains one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity. The option to resign reinforces integrity, buttresses responsibility and supports accountability.”

The impetus for resignation flows from the understanding that public office is held on trust, the belief that what matters more is safeguarding the faith that the public has in the mechanisms and systems of democratic governance rather than the individual culpability of office holders. In fact, a principled resignation is paradoxically a reflection of the abundance, not of the lack, of personal ethics among such officials.

Kenyans yearn for such displays of integrity from the folks they pay to manage their affairs. But sadly for a country where the abuse of public office for private gain has been elevated to an art form, personal interest has always seemed to trump public interest. Whether it is as a result of principled policy disagreement or because of allegations of wrongdoing, politicians and bureaucrats alike have been loath to let go of their jobs, many time preferring to be pushed rather than to jump.

One can take lessons from the resignation of the immediate former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, over the loss of the Brexit referendum. It did not require the hullaballoo of street protests or parliamentary committee decisions to force him out. The decision was personal, the stinging rebuke delivered by the electorate sufficient. Contrast this with the actions of then President Mwai Kibaki, who after losing a referendum on a new constitution in 2005, chose to fire those whom the public had sided with. It is clear that he did not think his mandate to govern was in any way affected by the fact that the people in whose name he claimed to do so, had disagreed with him on such a fundamental issue.

On the other hand, one could also question the actions of the “rebels” in Kibaki’s cabinet, led by Raila Odinga, who, despite their disagreement with the official government position on this most basic of all issues, would themselves not contemplate principled resignation, but rather, opted to hang on till they were fired.

The fact that resignations from office are so rare in Kenyan history is thus a telling indictment of the logic that permeates our pretend democracy where government is divorced from the consent and will of the governed. As Kinisu’s explanation demonstrates, it is a system that privileges the position of officials above the credibility of the institutions they lead; one that is less concerned with what the public thinks than with the private tribulations of the elite that lords it over them. This is the real and far more terrible precedent that Kinisu seeks to preserve by his refusal to jump.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Netanyahu, Uhuru And The 30 Pieces Of Silver

Kenya media’s coverage of the visit by Benjamin Netanyahu, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister in 30 years, has predictably focused on the “goodies” that he was supposedly bringing. There has been lots of discussion of what the country stands to gain from cooperation with Israel in areas ranging from security to agriculture but relatively little about the price Israel would extract for such cooperation.

It is undeniable that the Israelis have much to offer. As we have been constantly reminded over the course of the last few days, the visit comes on the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt, the spectacularly daring Israeli commando raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda which freed over a hundred hostages from a hijacked Air France plane. The rescue cemented Israel’s fearsome reputation in dealing with terrorist threats and such expertise will undoubtedly come in handy as Kenya faces up to terror threats of its own emanating primarily from the Somalia-based extremist group, Al Shabaab.

Beyond security, Israel is famed for its agricultural and water management innovations which have made the desert bloom as well as for its booming hi-tech industry whose goods and services account for half its industrial exports. Its disaster response capabilities have many times been on display whenever Israeli crews have lent a hand to their Kenya counterparts to extract people trapped in collapsed buildings. In these, and in many other areas, Kenya can derive substantial benefits from a closer relationship with the Jewish state. As the late Tom Mboya once remarked, “any African who turs Israel cannot fail to be impressed by the achievement made in such a short time from poor soil and with so few natural resources”.

There is, though, another side to this coin.  Netanyahu’s visit is also a charm offensive. “Israel is coming back to Africa. Africa is coming back to Israel,” he has declared. Israel’s overriding objective in its relations with the continent has always been to break out of its political and diplomatic isolation. But it is important that we do not lose sight of the reasons why that isolation exists in the first place.

Past ruptures in Africa’s relationship with Israel have been attributed to pressure by Arab states, particularly in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and the Yom Kippur War (“The Arabs have the numbers, the space and the oil. In the third would they outweigh Israel” as Senegal’s first President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, put it) and Tel Aviv’s relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa.  However, these issues have for the most part been resolved and, by her own count, Israel today maintains full diplomatic relations with 39 of 47 of the countries south of the Sahara and has nine resident embassies on the continent.

The major sticking point has been the Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The African Union has repeatedly stressed its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and condemned the “illegal and illegitimate” Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as well as her settlement policies which “contravenes International Law and undermines the two-state solution and prospects for peace”. African countries have also repeatedly blocked Israeli attempts to regain observer status at the African Union precisely because of this.

It is not surprising that nations on the continent, which have themselves experienced the horrors of racist colonial domination, would feel a sense of solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinians. In 2014, South African icon, Desmond Tutu said the "the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces … is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government."

Breaking this African consensus is Netanyahu’s declared aim. And he seems to have at least partially succeeded in winning over President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has now called for a “re-evaluation” of Africa’s relationship with Israel. In doing so, Uhuru has traded in our values – and sold out the Palestinians for thirty pieces of silver.

But perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, in the recent past, the Kenyatta administration has stood with North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan at the UN to oppose protections for human rights defenders and voted with China and Russia to remove references to freedom of expression in a resolution on online freedom. Let’s face it. Values are not his strong suit.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Lessons From Our Burning Schools

The wave of unrest afflicting secondary schools in Kenya has understandably elicited much public concern. Many have chimed in with their take on what is causing it, with most blaming panic over exams, drug abuse, an oppressive school environment, wayward parenting and incompetent government officials. Some have even suggested that the abolition of corporal punishment is to blame.

Given that this problem is not new, it is rather curious that there seems to be such confusion over its causes. According to a 1996 PhD thesis by Margaret Wangeci Gatimu of Portland University, disruptive unrest in the form of class boycotts and riots in secondary schools had by then been steadily increasing in Kenya since the mid-1970s. The study highlighted many of the same issues that are cited today.

So perhaps it is better to ask not just why unrest happens, but also why the problems said to cause it have been allowed to fester across generations of students. In a media interview earlier this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Education bemoaned the fact that recommendations from at least two task forces appointed by his predecessors as well as from many independent researchers, remain unimplemented.

This failure to effectively address the issue, despite the existence of such reports, is a manifestation of a wider systemic reluctance to employ evidence-based measures to solve problems. And this goes beyond schools. In tackling security and terrorism, Kenya has seemed to prefer knee-jerk solutions to what are complex and historical challenges. The desire has seemed to be to address the immediate crisis and move on rather than to proactively tackle the underlying and fundamental causes.

An example of this is the reaction to last week’s bombing of Elram village in Mandera by Kenya Defence Forces planes which killed at least 4 children. There have been few calls for the incident to be exhaustively investigated, for people to be held to account and, more importantly, for lessons to be learnt to ensure this never happens again. Similarly, the circumstances surrounding the January overrunning of a KDF base by the Al Shabaab group at El Adde in Somalia and consequent massacre of at least 141 soldiers are similarly shrouded in mystery. 

To these we could add the many terrorist incidents that have killed hundreds of citizens since 2012, including the attacks on the Westgate shopping mall and on Garissa University College. The many failures that allowed the atrocities to happen and that hindered effective response, appear to have been swept under the carpet. On the contrary, a Presidential promise to set up a public inquiry into Westgate failed to materialize and, as a senior police officer told The Nation last July, “there was never a review meeting on how we handled incidents”.

Earlier this week, in reaction to a terrorist attack on the Ataturk airport in the Turkish capital, Istanbul, which reportedly killed 41 people and injured more than 230, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet ordered the beefing up of security at all Kenyan airports. But there have been few queries about what this actually means and even fewer indications that Kenyan security agencies are learning from and adapting to previous incidents. We rarely hear of our security agencies sending teams abroad to study how such attacks happened and how they are investigated. Meanwhile, domestic incidents are similarly studiously ignored. For example, reports on the August 2013 fire which razed the arrivals terminal at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and on the improvised explosive device that went off at the same airport 5 months later, have yet to be made public. It is unclear whether they have led to any changes.

A similar dynamic is at work when it comes to addressing the root causes of post-election violence. Three years after it was handed over to the President, the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission continues to gather dust in Parliament. The report exposed many of the deep-seated maladies that have fuelled blood-letting at election time but even as we approach another polarizing poll, there is little mention of it, let alone of implementing its recommendations.  The focus of the political class is on the urgent and important but largely superficial task of reconstituting the electoral commission.

This, more than anything, highlights the fact that as a country, we are obsessed with the problems of politicians, and not those of the people. In the end, this obsession is the real reason why the problems at our schools and the state of insecurity across the country will continue to fester once the immediate crisis has passed.