Friday, September 30, 2016

Ezekiel Mutua And Kenya's Language Of Silence

Ezekiel Mutua is at it again. The head of the Kenya Film Classification Board has developed a fondness for showing off the perks that come with his job. In April, he took to social media to boast about using an airport’s VIP lounge and flying business class.

This week, he posted pictures of his diplomatic passport (which, to the schadenfreudic glee of many tweeps, an embarrassed government has since ordered to him to surrender) on his Facebook account to brag that he had received a visa to visit the United States despite his bigoted and illegal crusade against “content promoting LGBT and Atheists culture in Kenya”. "I didn't even have to go to the Embassy for biometrics or pay the visa application fee. It was delivered to my office free of charge," he averred.

Mutua’s immaturity predictably drew a large number of mocking responses which only spurred him on to new lows, petulantly sending insulting direct message calling one “an idiot” and a “bloody fool”. But however disgraceful we might think his antics to be, we should be careful not to be distracted by them. 

It would be a deadly mistake to focus on the theatrics and ignore the real danger. For that lies, not in his braggadocio, but in the silence that has greeted his distorting the law and the constitution in an attempt to impose his views and beliefs on the rest of Kenya. 

Mutua has used the KFCB, which was set up to regulate “the making and exhibition of cinematograph films, for the licensing of stage plays, theatres and cinemas” in ways not contemplated in legislation. He has attempted to police parties, the internet, TV ads and even claimed the power to regulate the content of political shows. Though there is no law criminalizing homosexuality, he purports to declare it illegal and to ban internet videos that celebrate love between same sex couples. He has claimed that atheism is similarly unconstitutional despite the clear constitutional prohibition on establishing a state religion.

Yet few of these outrages have elicited much discussion outside social media. Much of Kenyan media seems to be blissfully unaware or even worse, dismissive, of the threat he poses especially as we head into the election season. If nothing else, one would expect that the idea of a government official prescribing the limits of political speech would have both journalists and opposition politicians up in arms. But it has elicited little more than whimpers and an empty threat to sue from media owners, which Mutua has laughed off.

This silence mirrors a wider quiet, a tendency to focus less on the substantial and more on the superficial. Last week, as the country marked the third anniversary of the horrific attack on the Westgate mall, I noted that official accounts of terror incidents were mostly designed to cover up the incompetence and culpability of senior officials and officers rather than reveal the truth. But the really alarming fact is that the government’s obviously flawed tales do not elicit much commentary or questioning from either the press, civil society or the opposition.

But just as the silence over the mistakes and criminality at Westgate allowed them to be repeated at Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera and El Adde, so the silence over Mutua's overreaching only serves to embolden him and spur him on to further violations. Like the proverbial frog slowly boiled alive, we are all imperiled by the failure to raise the alarm over his menacing of citizens and the government attempt to control the lives and opinions of citizens. 

Kenyan novelist, Yvonne Owuor, has described silence as one of our languages, which "plays out in the hasty attempt of the powerful to shut down independent voices that cannot be controlled." From the harassment of bloggers, to the firing of free-minded journalists, editors and cartoonists, this "shutting down" has been particularly evident in Kenya media. But it is not only happening there. Today Mutua is illegally transforming the KFCB into a tool to bludgeon vulnerable minorities -and political dissidents- into silence.

It is a truism worth repeating that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Whether it is about security and terrorism or the diminution of citizens’ rights to free speech and conscience, this silence leaves us all vulnerable. Freedom from predation by terrorists or even by a narcissistic and insecure public official, will only come when we loudly and consistently demand it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why Kenyans Must Not Take The Government At Its Word On Terror Attacks

It was a strange incident by any description. According to the police, on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, three women entered the Mombasa Central police station pretending to  report a stolen mobile phone. The police say one jumped over the counter and assaulted officers with a knife before dousing herself in petrol and setting herself alight. The others, one of whom was said to have a suicide vest, threw petrol bombs. All three were shot at killed at the scene and within a few hours, three other women, all refugees from Somalia apparently staying at the house of one of the terrorists, had been arrested for links to the attack.

Nine days later, a human rights group accused the police of manufacturing the incident and murdering three innocent women. Coming on the eve of the anniversary of the attack on an upmarket mall in Nairobi in which at least 67 people died, the accusation struck a chord.

Like with the Mombasa incident, much of what exactly happened inside the Westgate Mall three years ago continues to be shrouded in mystery. An award-winning reconstruction of events by Tristan McConnell,  a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, concluded that “far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building.” Much of the information issued by the authorities both during and immediately after the attack turned out to be misleading and blatantly false.

From claims of 10 to 15 attackers led by the famed “White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite and armed with belt-fed machine guns that had been secretly placed in the mall a few days prior, to allegations of hostages being held and subsequently freed by heroic security agencies, to the much-ridiculed accusation of the terrorists setting mattresses on fire to distract the advancing forces, much of the government tale turned out to be untrue.

When shop owners returned to find their stores empty and vandalized, and pictures of rows of empty beer bottles in the mall’s bars as well as CCTV footage of Kenya Defence Forces soldiers carrying laden plastic bags out of the Nakumatt supermarket- where most victims perished- emerged, there was little doubt that the “siege” had been a cover for massive looting by the very teams supposedly deployed to save them. A promised public inquiry into the attack never materialized and a report prepared by a joint parliamentary committee, which purported to clear the KDF of involvement in the looting, was tossed out for being “incompetent”. The rub of it is that three years later, there is still no official account of what transpired.

A similar darkness envelopes the Al Shabaab attack in January this year on an AMISOM military base manned by KDF soldiers in which an estimated 200 troops were killed. As with the Westgate incident, again much of the information the government and the KDF put out was later revealed to be false. An Al Shabaab propaganda video of the attack showed no indication of the three truck bombs, “each [with] a force equivalent to the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998” as well as “truckloads of suicide bombers” as claimed by the Chief Of Defence Forces, Gen Samson Mwathethe. Further, his promise to answer lingering questions once a Board of Inquiry had carried out a full investigation remains unfulfilled eight months later.

There is thus good reason for scepticism about official accounts of alleged terror incidents, which mostly seem geared to cover up the incompetence and culpability of senior officials and officers. The fact that the police have been unable to produce the suicide vest supposedly worn by one of the alleged attackers in Mombasa as well as the emergence of a video apparently showing two of the women being shot outside the station, even as one of them appeared to have her hands raised in surrender, give credence to such doubts.

This is not to say that there was no attack. Rather it is incumbent upon all of us to be much more critical of the overnment's offerings on terror and to demand independent and public investigation of the attacks that have occurred in the past five years. We must insist that all officials and officers found either negligent or complicit in the commission and cover up of crimes are held to account. Only by doing so, can we ensure that government learns the lessons it needs to learn in order to do a better job of keeping us all safe.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Eating Season Is Here

I have a theory about why our political parties engage in obscene shows of wealth in the midst of the dire poverty that pervades Kenya. In a country where politics has been reduced to an eating competition, politicians must demonstrate to their supporters that they are capable of laying on the buffet.

From the reported 2 billion that the Jubilee Party spent on its coming out party to the fleet of swanky new buses that CORD has unveiled in Mombasa ahead of its ten-year anniversary, the political coalitions are attempting to outdo each other in parading their wealth. During the last campaign season, helicopters became an indispensable asset and as we approach the 2017 poll, it is clear that no politician worth his salt will be seen dead without one. Their importance to the political class can be seen in the oft-cited fact that they are exempted from VAT even when school books aren’t.

For the people, such displays of opulence are meant to signal that the season for feasting has begun. In return for a seat at the table of state where the country is gobbled up, the politicians will dispense their largesse. The choppers and Prados, the buildings and buses, are the promise of that.

The limits on campaign finance spending recently announced by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission will do little to diminish appetites. With Presidential candidates each officially allowed to spend up to Sh5.2 billion, candidates for 337 Parliamentary seats dishing out up to Sh30 million each; potential Governors and Senators for the 47 counties each allowed to serve up Sh443 million, and folks competing to be one of the country’s 2,258 MCAs offering up to Sh10 million each, it is clear that there will be plenty of money rolling around. And that’s only what they officially spend.

Unofficially, you can expect much more will be on offer. Given the ambiguity surrounding the IEBC regulations and lack of clarity about how they are to be enforced, it is unlikely that there’ll be much of a deterrent to exceeding the stated limits. For example, the period covered by the new regulations is the six months prior to August 8, 2017, the date of the next General Election. But five months ahead of the February 8 start date for the official campaign period, the country is already firmly on an election footing and money is already being spent without IEBC oversight.

Clearly, many, many billions will be poured over the next year or so.

The question is: What will these billions be buying? And sadly, for many, it will be silence and acquiescence. For most Kenyans, whose lives have been blighted by governmental neglect, theft and oppression, this is their one chance to get something back from the system which only seems to take. They know, from previous experience, there is little chance that all the promises that candidates and manifestos will make will amount to anything after the polls. They know that the system which their vote will legitimize is already rigged against them; once the politicians are in office, the opportunity to hold them accountable effectively disappears.

For example, although the constitution guarantees that the electorate has the right to recall an MP before the end of his term, it also effectively defeats its purpose by saying those very MPs will “enact legislation to provide for the grounds on which a member may be recalled and the procedure to be followed.” Predictably, the MPs made sure it would take nothing short of a miracle for them to so lose their seats. The law is currently being challenged in court.

For many, the electoral period is their only chance to “eat”. And in return, they will be expected to stay silent as the politicians steal and kill in their name. “You took our money and voted for us therefore you are complicit in our robbing you”.

But it is all little more than a ruse; a false bargain since the people are essentially forced to negotiate with a gun held to their heads. The displays of opulence that inaugurate the start of the eating season serve to hide the violence of the dispossession under a veneer of civility and mutual consent. “Willing buyer, willing seller” as Uhuru Kenyatta famously described it in 2013.

Remember that as you take your place at the national buffet. Bon App├ętit.

Friday, September 09, 2016

To Eat Or Not To Eat: The Cost of Kenyan Politicians

Of all the revelations that have come out of the inquisitions into the fiasco that accompanied Kenyan authorities’ preparations for the Rio Olympics, perhaps none is as significant as the fact that nearly Sh2.2 million in tax payer money was used to book rooms aboard a cruise ship for use by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

A cruise ship. Sh2.2 million. Let that sink in.

The figure was part of a Sh5 million that was wasted on rooms for politicians and bureaucrats that were left unused while athletes and team officials were in some cases abandoned to fend for themselves. According to sprint coach John Anzrah, who was subsequently expelled from the Games after being caught using an athlete’s accreditation to access the dining area, he and fellow trainers “were taken to a residential three-bedroom house and dumped there by National Olympic Committee of Kenya officials without basic amenities including food.” All the while, cruise ship rooms for the President and five-star hotel accommodations for Parliamentary committee chairmen lay idle.

But enraging as this is, it should not be surprising. Not from a jet-setting President who prefers to watch a Formula One race while his citizens are massacred as happened in November 2014. Not from an administration which in its first month in office was already steeped in scandal over allegations that Deputy President William Ruto had spent Sh100 million in taxpayer money to hire a luxury jet. Not from a government that in 2006 started building a house for the Vice President initially budgeted at Sh179 million, whose cost had ballooned to Sh453 million by 2008 and which five years later apparently required a further Sh100 million in renovations before its first resident could move in. Especially not from a governing coalition that treats State House and its accoutrements as private property.

The flagrant abuse of public resources for the private comfort of politicians knows no limits. From the obscene wages we pay Members of Parliament to the even more obscene “retirement benefits” we are forced to fork out for politicians who may or may not have “retired”, Kenya has become a country where mali ya umma (public property) has been converted into mali ya kuuma (property for nibbling).

Even in death, politicians continue to take a chunk out of us. When visiting to condole with the family of the recently deceased former cabinet minister, William Ole Ntimama, President Kenyatta had no qualms about pledging public funds to offset funeral expenses for a multi-millionaire who had been implicated in corruption and in fanning ethnic violence which claimed the lives of thousands. In July 2008, he was even caught on camera in an unguarded moment apparently admitting responsibility for the killings of 600-1000 people and inviting then Chepalungu MP (now Bomet Governor) Isaac Ruto to "bring his people" for an all-out battle over the Mau Forest.

Similarly, the state funeral for former First Lady, Lucy Kibaki, illustrated just how cavalier the government is with our money. It came despite the fact that her husband, in his last year in office, had already awarded himself and his predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi, tens of millions of shillings in retirement benefits which, as of November last year, continued to be paid in violation of a court order declaring them unconstitutional.

As First Lady, a designation which appears nowhere in our laws, Mrs Kibaki was herself quietly paid an annual salary of Sh6 million a year, fuss only being kicked up when similar salaries were in 2008 proposed for the wives of then Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and then Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Till today, it has never been made clear whether Margaret Kenyatta, or indeed any of the wives of the 47 County Governors, draw public salaries.

Even Cabinet Secretaries, who by law are not meant to be politicians, have gotten in on the act. Sports CS Hassan Wario’s antics in Rio aside, they apparently continue to draw a public salary of over Sh1 million a month even after they have been relieved of duty. An unnamed government source reportedly told the Daily Nation that this was “to cushion them from falling prey to enemies of the State”. But former Labour CS, Kazungu Kambi, when asked about whether he was still being paid pointed to what may be the real reason: “I’m a politician remember.”

In May, the immediate former Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission chief, Philip Kinisu declared that over Sh600 billion in public funds was stolen every year. 600 BILLION. If you spent Sh16 million a day, it would take you over a century to spend what the government loses to corruption in one year. Yet as crazy as that figure is, it does not include the many millions we are legally and routinely forced to cough up to keep our politicians and their families in the manner to which they have now become accustomed. All this at the cost of much needed schools, teachers, hospitals, medical equipment, infrastructure and, yes, even accommodation for athletes and their coaches at the Olympics.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Whom Should Kenyans Blame For The Faltering War On Corruption?

The resignation of Philip Kinisu as head of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission caps off yet another week during which corruption and the faltering war waged against it have dominated newspaper headlines. In the aftermath of the Olympic games, ironically Kenya’s most successful ever judging by the number of medals our athletes gathered, revelations of theft and joyriding have demonstrated that Kenyan accomplishment comes in spite, rather than because, of their government.

Yet listening to Kinisu’s predecessor, the former head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, Dr PLO Lumumba, it is these very Kenyans who are to blame for the mess we are in. “Kenyans as a society have not demonstrated that they want corruption to be fought,” he claimed on Wednesday evening on the Jeff Koinange show. 

This was perhaps not a surprising sentiment, given how Dr Lumumba was himself hounded out of office for trying to do his job. But as understandable as it may be, it is nonetheless profoundly misguided. He confuses Kenyan society for the state and Kenyans for those who claim to represent them but actually are little more than parasites sucking the lifeblood out of them. It is the equivalent of claiming that the fiasco in Rio was evidence that Kenyan athletes are corrupt.

Sadly, there is a failure within official discussions of corruption to distinguish between perpetrators and victims of corruption; a tendency to fault the latter for their victimisation. In 2005, then Justice Minister, and now Senator, Kiraitu Murungi, outraged many when he compared criticism of the government's fight against corruption to "raping a woman who is already willing", a remark he was to apologize for a few days later. It is unclear why Dr Lumumba, and his fellow guest on the show, publisher and columnist Barrack Muluka, appear to think that it is less outrageous to suggest that Kenyans are willing participants in the plunder of their resources.

As I have previously discussed on this column, studies on the nature of corruption have established that the vast majority of bribes paid by Kenyans are extorted by government officials for access or expedition of services that citizens are already entitled to. Reversing this violation of public trust will not be accomplished by appealing to the victims to change, just as rape culture will not be vanquished by asking women to behave differently. Rather it is the perpetrators and their enablers and protectors within government that must bear the burden of punishment and change. In fact, later in the show, Dr Lumumba attributed the relative success of anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria, Botswana, Mauritius and Rwanda not to changes in societal attitudes towards graft, but to the willingness of their respective heads of government to “lead from the front”.

In Kenya, there is little sign that President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, are doing likewise. On the contrary, a survey of public perceptions of corruption recently released by the Africa Centre for Open Governance indicates a majority believe their offices to be the most corrupt. The fact is it is not the ordinary mwananchi who lacks the will to fight corruption but rather, the very people within government tasked with carrying out that fight. 

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The political class, which benefits greatly from the vice, has the most to lose from any serious attempt to stamp it out. It is they, not ordinary Kenyans, who would be the primary targets of any such enterprise and can thus be relied upon to pull out all the stops to ensure that the EACC remains little more than a paper tiger. Whoever elects to take on the job of fighting graft must expect that he or she will be an enemy of the governing elite and, unlike Kinisu, must not present them with easy avenues of attack. 

However, and more importantly, we must all realize that the war on corruption will not be won by scapegoating its victims but rather by harnessing their collective anger and outrage and directing it against the perpetrators. This means that the onus and pressure must be focused squarely on the person best placed to do this, the instrument of our collective force and he whom the constitution describes as the symbol of our national unity: President Uhuru Kenyatta.