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.