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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why Kenyans Must Learn How To Talk About Elections And Violence

Last week, I wrote about our propensity as Kenyans to bury our heads in the sand when confronted with ugly realities. Many have thus continued to either defend or condemn David Ndii for his prediction that Kenya would burn if President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in a sham election but there has, sadly, been relatively little discussion of how the “burning” can be avoided.

If we were to lift up our heads, we would see that the situation may be dire, but, regardless of the election, violence, though entirely predictable, is nonetheless not inevitable.  We still have choices we can make.

Part of the dilemma is that we seem to have painted ourselves into a lexical corner. Today, the public discourse appears to conflate calls for non-violence with acquiescing to electoral disenfranchisement by the Uhuru regime on the one hand; and to see demands for a free and fair election as coded calls for Raila Odinga be installed as President, on the other. Simply put, we do not know how to talk about credible elections and non-violence.

For much of our independent history, we were described as "an island of peace in the sea of chaos" and that "peace" was undergirded by our silence over the ruling elites malfeasance including the manipulation of elections and especially, presidential elections. In 2008, the rallying call, as the country burned, was "no peace without justice".  By 2013, the pendulum had swung back to "peace"as we were asked to "accept and move on" and not ask too many difficult questions about the obvious failures that permeated the entire electoral system.

The pendulum is once again in motion. This was evident in the online reaction to the sentiments of yet another public figure, this time from the Jubilee neck of the woods. The melodramatics of her video and tenuous grasp of South African history aside, Julie Gichuru had made some valid points on Twitter about the merits of committing to non-violence and got pummeled for it. Partly, I suppose, this was a reaction to her as opposed to her message. She, after all, was one of the stalwarts of the 2013 “accept and move on” brigade and perhaps this was seen as a continuation of that campaign.

Yet, as she correctly says in one tweet, “This is not Justice v Peace. Seek justice through non violent means.” And in another, “It is key to reject the normalisation of violence to achieve ends. NonViolentAction is harder but protects the most vulnerable. It is just.”

And, it seems, it is not only Kenyans who are struggling with this. A report in the Daily Nation quotes former US Ambassador to Kenya, saying that though the Donald Trump administration wants to help prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 election violence, it is not clear if they are “willing to do that at the expense of sanctifying what could be a seriously fraudulent election.”

However, it is possible to stop the pendulum, to preach non-violence while at the same time refusing to legitimize an illegitimate election. Despite the abandon with which some talk of the country burning, I doubt many Kenyans on either side of the political divide who lived through the violence of 2008, are anxious for a repeat. Even those, like me, who believed (and still believe) that Mwai Kibaki stole the election, did not consider that a justification for the violence that followed. In fact, up till the unfortunate politicizing of the cases at the International Criminal Court, there was massive support among ordinary Kenyans on the need to bring those responsible to book.

Ironically, we all seemingly want to avoid a 2008-style conflagration but appear to think we do that by avoiding a discussion about it. Yet it is crucial that we engage in a serious discussion about how we respond to the actions of the political class and of the government they control, especially in the case of a disputed poll. I propose three NOs: NO acceptance, NO violence, NO forgetting.

First, I am encouraged that many are explicitly rejecting the “accept and move on” message that permeated the 2013 election, which encouraged people to silence their doubts about the election for the sake of “peace”. A non-credible poll is what threatens the peace, not the querying of it. So there must be no acceptance of a fraudulent election. The insistence must be on the IEBC delivering the free, fair and credible election it is required to by the constitution. Kenyans must not be scared off making such demands by the fearmongering of those who assert that the August 8 date is set in stone. The country still has the options it did in the last election (remember, the election was held in March, not August) and better to delay the election if necessary, than to conduct a sham one on time.

Secondly, in the not unlikely case of a disputed poll, there must also be also commitment, by those who feel aggrieved, to exclusively non-violent means of resistance and to avoiding a repeat of the scenes of 2008. Concurrently, the government must also undertake to respect the rights of all Kenyans to peacefully express any dissatisfaction they may have with the conduct of the election, as it is required to do by the constitution. We must not forget that the government has historically demonstrated little tolerance for peaceful citizen action. There must be no blanket bans on public demonstrations or their violent disruption as has happened after nearly every election. There must be no resort to tear gas, water cannon, truncheons and bullets to meet peaceful protests.

Finally, there must be commitment to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Regardless of the outcome of the election and whether that outcome is disputed, there is to be no return to business-as-usual. Kenyans must collectively demand that the TJRC report is implemented and that we finally have the long overdue and uncomfortable conversations with the past that we have been avoiding for the last half century.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Kenya: There Is No Peace. There Will Be No Peace.

Let's get one thing straight. Whatever happens on or after August 8, Kenya will not have peace.

Regardless of whether either it is Uhuru Kenyatta or his main rival, Raila Odinga, who is declared the winner of the presidential election; whether the election is stolen or is free, fair and credible; whether people stay in the streets or go out to protest the result; the country will not know peace. We will not have peace because we have not earned it, because we do not deserve it.

"Peace is not simply about the absence of violence. It is defined by the presence of fundamental liberties and the prevalence of economic opportunities. We will not settle for a perfunctory peace that is disrupted every five years by an election cycle." So declared President Kenyatta in his inaugural address four years ago following yet another divisive election. Yet, as the all-pervasive fear shrouding us today reveals, we did settle for "a perfunctory peace" which is no peace at all.

We have done none of the hard work required for peace. We have not secured the fundamental liberties or economic opportunities that he spoke of. We have rather been only too willing to trade those freedoms in for an elusive safety from terrorists. We have been only too content to celebrate economic growth that does not produce jobs or create wealth except for a very few at the very top. We have refused to demand accountability for the many times our military and civilian security bosses have failed Kenyans in places like Westgate, Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera, El Adde, Kulbiyow and most recently, Pandanguo.

More importantly, we have failed to that which the President was careful not to mention: deal with the ghosts of our past. Over the last four years, we have been content to let the sleeping ogres lie. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission has been allowed to gather dust in Parliament, the interrogation of the last hundred years of Kenyan history it was meant to spark, smothered. We have been afraid to clean our wounds, to take the bitter medicine, instead allowing them to fester and the infection to spread.

So today we will pray for peace but peace will no come. We will feverishly pray for healing for our diseased body politic, but healing will not come. The best we can hope for is "the absence of violence" and the extension of the fragile ceasefire.

Therefore, the current debate over whether we should prefer peace to the injustice of a sham election is somewhat misplaced -peace is not on the table. This is not to say the election is inconsequential. For many ordinary Kenyans, disputed elections imperil and already imperiled existence. Kenya is an incredibly violent place at the best of times. Wananchi have to endure the violence of poverty; of hunger; of state incompetence and oppression and murder and disappearing; of terrorism. The added violence elections bring exponentially increases their hardships and suffering while only slightly inconveniencing those in whose names the fighting is done. So, yes let' demand a credible election. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that this will preserve peace.

There is no peace to preserve. There is not even "absence of violence" for most. Let's not talk about peace unless we really mean it. Not unless we are serious about addressing, not just the potential injustice of a rigged poll, but all the injustices of the past whose bitter and painful consequences Kenyans are forced to live with every day. Let's not talk about peace unless we are ready to confront the injustice of inequality, of poverty, of hunger, of dependence on handouts, of the deprivation of rights, of the institutionalizing of ignorance through the public education system.

No, my friends. Let's not talk of peace. Let's say what we really mean. We want calm. We want life to go on pretty much as it has over the last four years and over the half-century before that. And that is not peace. This election cannot bring peace. Only our commitment to working hard every day, election or no, to confront and undo injustice, and to demand accountability, can. And there is precious little evidence of that.

So don't tell me about peace. There is no peace. There will be no peace.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Evil That Kenyans Will Not Name

Dr David Ndii is once again at the center of a public storm. On Sunday, the renowned and outspoken economist  tweeted a quote from his controversial March 2016 article titled Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talk divorce. In the piece, he correctly observes that every election in the multiparty era in which an incumbent President is defending his seat has been violent. He then warns that “if Uhuru Kenyatta is declared winner in another sham election, this country will burn”.
It this quote that has caused an uproar this week, just as it did 16 months ago. Many appear to have taken it as evidence of Dr Ndii, and by extension the National Super Alliance (NASA) -one of the political outfits contesting in the coming elections and where he has a policy advisory role-, calling for violence in the event of a disputed election.

However, as even a cursory reading of the full article would show, Dr Ndii was just articulating the likely consequence of a sham poll, one which most Kenyans, were they to be honest, would admit was more than a distinct possibility. Further, a multi-agency government security team in Nairobi has already identified most informal settlements as potential violence “hot spots”, and both the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and an observer team from the European Union have similarly warned of the possibility of violence. In fact, the visceral reaction to Dr Ndii’s quote says more about Kenyan’s propensity to bury our heads when confronted with uncomfortable realities.

Four years ago, in the aftermath of the 2013 election, I wrote about the “peace lobotomy”, the fear that had engulfed the country leading to a reluctance to question the shortcomings of that poll. At the time, just five years after the traumatic post-election violence of 2008, the possibility of violence seemed so very real and we had been inundated with calls to keep the peace and accept the results in order to avoid it. Yet, as I observed then, “the terror and the frantic attempts to mask it were a terrible indictment… [I]f we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified of the monsters under the house.”

Well, 2017 is here and once again many are afraid. Across the nation, as Dauti Kahura reports in The Elephant, people are quietly moving their families out of what they perceive risky areas and into ethnic enclaves where they feel safer. Others plan to vote then retreat to “ancestral homelands” and flights out of the country around election time are reportedly fully booked. Yet publicly, we carry on as if all is normal and no one expects any violence.

Today, just as in 2013, talk of violence is itself taboo. But, strangely enough, so is talk of peace. Most media houses have disavowed the “peace journalism” they practiced and were widely condemned for four years ago. “This time I will not preach peace”, veteran journalist and political commentator, Macharia Gaitho, declared on NTV’s Press Pass show. He writes in his column that “peace does not come from songs and processions and media campaigns. Peace does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from consciously addressing the violent environment.”

But therein lies the problem. How can we “consciously address a violent environment” that we are unwilling and afraid to consciously acknowledge?

“Fear can make people do strange things,” I wrote in 2013. And we are still doing strange things. Instead of dealing with the root cause of our terror -the divisions sown by the humiliation, dispossession, violence and trauma of the last 100 years- we have sought to bury it and to build our nation on top of it. But the ghosts of the past cannot be so easily ignored.

We are due for another haunting. And our terror is showing. The fervent hope that the spectres will not rise if only we do not speak their name is as desperate as it is forlorn. And they will not rest until we summon up the courage to face them and to dialogue with them.