Friday, March 20, 2015

It's Not Too Late For Kenya To Look Back

Grand corruption is back in the headlines. Newspapers and broadcasts today are full of unsavoury details about accusations of bribery bedevilling the committees of Parliament, questions on the Nairobi Governor’s past as CEO of the troubled Mumias Sugar Company and the infighting at the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Authority over the alleged tampering with files relating to the Anglo-Leasing scam. However, my question is: Why did the issue ever leave the front pages?

The fact is, graft, the single issue which has been the scourge of regimes since independence, never went away. We simply stopped paying attention. Sure there have been indicators of its ubiquitous presence all along but we have been encouraged to see these as isolated signs. President Uhuru Kenyatta has urged us to focus on “development” and declared the existence of the mythical “War on Corruption.” And most have seemed content to take him at his word.

No longer.  It is increasingly clear that the vice has infected almost every aspect of public life. Even the institutions meant to fight it have themselves not been immune. This is proof positive that the problem is not one of a few bad apples but is systemic. Corruption is not just deeply ingrained in our modes of governance. The misappropriation and theft of public resources for private gain is part of the entire ethos underlying the system we inherited from the British. 

That failure to fundamentally reform that system is at the heart of our current woes. However, we have steadfastly refused to consider our past as a nation, the choices that were made and the consequences they have borne. We keep demanding investigations and prosecutions but are constantly at a loss to explain why these, even in the rare occasions they actually happen, never lead to satisfactory outcomes. Or why they only seem to serve as smokescreens behind which records are sanitized. 

The Bible tells the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the salvation of the righteous. As they flee from the destruction being wreaked on the wicked, they are warned not to look back. One, however, is unable to resist one last glance at the burning hell that she once called home and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt.

Kenya, too, is in flight. We are running from our past and from the iniquity of the last half century. And just like the Lots, the tribal gods who have afforded us escape have warned us not to look back. And so, most are focused on getting as far away as possible, not wishing to disobey, to look back lest the flames consume them. Few harken to the voice described in Anna Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife, still rings in their ears: "It's not too late, you can still look back.” 

The fate of the unnamed spouse has come down in history as a cautionary tale. She has been dismissed as a vain and materialistic woman who, because of her character, deserved her punishment. Similarly today, those insisting on an examination of the past are branded as self-indulgent narcissists who insist on dragging us back into the mire. 

Despite all the justifications offered for the righteousness of her demise, it is not inconceivable that Lot’s wife was punished for expressing her outrage at the injustice occurring behind her, for daring to question the judgment of Heaven. “And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” said the late American novelist, satirist and graphic artist, Kurt Vonnegut.

Many of those looking back in modern day Kenya are also doing so out of outrage. For me, it is inconceivable the system we so like to defend is anything but flawed, that our terror of the past is anything other than indicator of the superficiality of our nationhood, of the hollowness of our democracy. I am outraged that despite the talk of reconciliation, we were still frightened of truth and that the systems we today employ to ensure the transparency and accountability in our governance arrangements do little to enhance either. I am outraged when the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which represents country’s best hope for beginning to confront the reasons for that fear, is systematically perverted to protect the interests of a powerful elite and to cover up their crimes. But most of all, I am outraged at the lack of outrage, that we can so easily give up, that we are so quick to forget, to “accept and move on,” so afraid to demand an accounting.

For those who do turn back, there is a swift rooting to the ground, an inability, even unwillingness, to look away, to ignore what has been seen, to keep silent. Yet most of Kenya ignores their voices and keeps running. But what we are running from –and where we are running to- we cannot say. We can only mouth some vague ideas about “development”. Is it a better place? How can we know? Are we “moving on” to a place of incestuous tribal worship, where we bear new generations only for them to be again attacked further displaced by the very monsters we refused to confront? 

There is a need for us to discard the narratives that keep us from recognizing and dealing with the truth. Our inability and refusal to deal with roots of the economic and human rights violations of the past half century and beyond is the context within which the current orgy of looting and corruption must be seen and addressed.

Friday, March 06, 2015

There's More To Protecting Elephants Than PR

It is a ritual we have been treated to by every administration since the Nyayo days. The government rolls out part of its stockpile of ivory and the President lights a bonfire for the cameras. The flames are meant to illuminate the state’s commitment to the preservation of our wildlife, to ending the international trade in ivory and other wildlife products and to the fight against poaching.

Uhuru Kenyatta got in on the act on Tuesday when he lit up 15 tonnes of ivory tusks in the Nairobi National Park. It is the largest haul to receive the presidential baptism of fire. By comparison, Daniel arap Moi torched 12 tonnes in 1989 while Mwai Kibaki only managed a relatively measly 5 tonnes. Further, “to underline Kenya’s determination to eradicate poaching,” according to the President’s website, the Government will burn the rest of its contraband ivory stockpile within the year.”

Last year, African elephant populations passed what was described as a crucial “tipping point”. Essentially, more jumbos are being killed than are born. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, according to one study, the continent lost about a fifth of its elephant population -an estimated 100,000 elephants- between 2010 and 2012. And the share of elephant deaths attributed to poaching has shot up from 25% a decade ago to 65% today.

The Kenya Wildlife Service claims the country has lost 466 elephants in the last two years. But in an opinion piece for the Guardian last year, conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu said nobody in Kenya believed the KWS numbers. Her own estimate of the number killed in just the first five months of last year was ten times the official figure. A 2014 census of elephants and other large mammals in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, which straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border, showed that the population had declined by 12.5 percent or over 1,500 animals.

Any way you cut it, our elephants (and rhinos) are in crisis. And it is true that this is largely driven by Far-Eastern, and especially Chinese, demand for wildlife products –a fact any conservationist or Kenyan government lackey will gladly point out. However, they are less candid when it comes to the liability of the Kenyan state itself.

In March last year, an investigation by KTN reporter, Dennis Onsarigo, revealed that the Uhuru administration was not only aware of the identities of the top 11 poaching kingpins, but was actively protecting them.  A year later, this fact appears to have only succeeded in eliciting a stunning silence from the media and the normally vocal conservation community. There have been neither public demands for the allegations to be further investigated nor for action to be taken against either these specific individuals or their protectors.

It mirrors the silence that greeted revelations in late 2013 that “decorative” pieces of ivory stolen from the offices of the President and First Lady in State House, Mombasa. According to one report, these included pieces that weighed up to 100 kilograms. And all this during a period when Margaret Kenyatta was busy launching the “Hands Off Our Elephants” campaign. Few since have sought to know what ivory was doing in her and her husband’s official residence and offices. Few appear keen to point out the hypocrisy of the President’s office being decorated with ivory at the same time we are seeking shaming others for doing the same. Is it still there? If so, will it be part of the “contraband” the President has promised to destroy? Predictably, the government has not seen fit to volunteer this information.

Since the Kenyatta administration took office, and despite the historical baggage one would expect the name to carry (his mother was widely believed to be implicated in poaching during her husband’s tenure), there has been a marked reluctance to challenge the conduct of the government and its officials in executing their duty to protect our natural heritage. Apart from a brief bust up when the administration refused to declare poaching a national disaster, conservationists and the media have largely pursued a strategy of non-confrontation. But this now seems to be a case of scoring some brownie points but losing the game. It is all fine to rant and rave against the (mostly illegal) international ivory trade. However, ignoring the fact that the government aids and abets the slaughter at home undermines any international effort to stamp it out.

In fact the silence only allows the state to present a false face to the world and to hide its murderous mischief behind a pile of smoking tusks. Regardless of the questionable efficacy of burning ivory as a means of destroying it, the administration can always rely on dramatic pictures to obscure any critical interrogation of its record. It is an effective and dependable public relations ploy. Unfortunately for our elephants, it is no substitute for serious policy and action to protect them.

A version of this article was published by Aljazeera.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Our Silent Heroes

The months of February and March mark the anniversaries of several significant massacres and assassinations that have haunted post-independence Kenya. This year the period marks 25 years since the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko, 31 years since the Wagalla massacre, 40 years since the killing of JM Kariuki and half a century since post-independent Kenya’s first political assassination –that of Pio Gama Pinto. Going a little further back, it also marks 58 years since the hanging of the Field Marshal of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Dedan Kimathi.

It is perhaps not surprising that, at least within official circles, these anniversaries passed without much fanfare, given the fact that both the government and Kenya’s murderous political elite would like to keep their involvement in them quiet. Those in powerful positions today owe much of their wealth not just to the termination of these men and but also to the brutal suppression of their ideas.

Following in the footsteps of the colonial administration, the Kenyan elite have sought to build their empires on a foundation of forgetting. The colonial powers had already discovered that erasing a people’s memory of its history was the easiest way to enslave them. As the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville said, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness”.

Thus, until recently, Kenya’s official history largely glossed over the misdeeds of government. Even today, the alternative ideas of what independence and development meant other than the substitution of black oppression and thievery for white oppression and thievery, are hard to come by. Alternative visions of Kenya seem to have been interred along with bones of the victims who imagined them. 

Today, people like Pinto, JM, Tom Mboya and Ouko are, if at all, remembered as a series of dates, and as stains upon an otherwise glowing governmental reputation. Their critiques of, and challenge to, the governance arrangements of their day, which arrangements inevitably gave birth to the asymmetrical and stunted Kenya of today, are either largely forgotten or reduced to a few pithy statements, the import of which seems forever lost.

For example, while many will vaguely remember Pinto as a youthful hero cut down in his prime, few can say exactly why. Few would recognize the Dorian Gray like image of the Kenyatta regime painted by Pinto’s brother, Rosario, in a tribute uncovered by former Daily Nation Chief Reporter, Cyprian Fernandes. “Pio was murdered to silence him and put an end to his dream to implement socialism, the ideals for which the people of Kenya had formed government. Now that Independence had been gained, and the armed forces’ loyalty had been bought, those in power considered it a convenient time to assassinate Pinto as a warning to other dedicated nationalists.”

What were these ideals? What were Pinto’s and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s alternatives to Tom Mboya’s Sessional Paper No. 10, which put the country on an unequivocally capitalist economic footing and which the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission described as “a facilitator of economic marginalisation rather than a mitigator of inequality”? What were JM’s ideas about how to ensure a more equitable model of development in which delivered for more than a few Kenyan families? How about Dr Ouko’s? How did the people of Wajir historically resolve the inter-clan disputes that formed the pretext for government massacres?

Similarly, memorials to Dedan Kimathi come complete with the obligatory bemoaning of the fact that we have been unable to locate his grave and give his remains the national interment they deserve. Yet all we seem to remember is that he died. What he actually fought for, the society he envisaged beyond the wooly notion of independence, is deemed less important. His establishment of a Parliament in the forest and his election as Prime Minister, his 1953 Charter, the letters he wrote from his Nyandarua headquarters, such as one in 1955 in which he declared that “only the revolutionary justice of the struggles of the poor can end poverty for Kenyans” are mostly unknown to Kenyans.
The famed author Ngugi wa Thiongo wrote: “The dominating try to control the sources, agents and contents of information. They want the dominated to view the world through the filters of the dominating.”

We should be wary of eulogies that replace memory with hagiography. Where we are encouraged to view our heroes “through the filters of the dominating” and the where the circumstances of their deaths are more notable than the ideas and visions that that animated them and their compatriots. 
We must understand that far from being fixed, the past is constantly contested and that reclaiming our history as well as our memory of it was, and continues to be, essential in asserting the dignity, humanity, and freedom of our people.

This is an abridged version of an article to be published in the next issue of The Platform magazine