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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Kenyan Supreme Court Judges Should Avoid Sausages

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” is a quip regularly and mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismarck, the famous Prussian statesman and architect of German unification. However, the Iron Chancellor, who died in 1898, was not associated with the quote until the 1930s. In fact it was the American lawyer-poet, John Godfrey Saxe, otherwise famous for publicizing the ancient Indian parable about Blind Men of Hindustan and The Elephant, who more inelegantly said: "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."

As I write this, oral judgements have been completed at the Supreme Court hearing of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka’s petition against the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. It has been 4 days of riveting presentation, argument and often, comedy, as one side prosecuted its case and the other tried to rubbish it. The main bone of contention appears to be about means and ends: whether the way the election was carried out matters or we should only concern ourselves with whether the results declared matched how the electors had voted.

In a sense, it could be said that President Kenyatta and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) appear to prefer the Bismarckian formulation that it is better to focus on the final product and not peer too closely at the inner workings of the electoral system. After all, they argue, the whole point of an election is to express the sovereign will of the voters. So, a simple check of the forms prepared at the polling stations (where all the voting and counting happened) should suffice.

The petitioners on the other hand, are more in line with Saxe. They say that the more we actually learn about how the election was run, the less reason we will have to respect the result. They point out numerous irregularities and outright illegalities in the conduct of the poll which they hold undermine any confidence, not only in the veracity of the announced result, but also in the authenticity of whatever documents the IEBC might produce to support it.

I have been somewhat mystified by the way in which these arguments were framed. Throughout, voters have been portrayed as passive actors upon whom elections are visited. The lawyers in the room, including the Attorney-General, behaved very like the blind men of Hindustan trying to define the elephant that is the people’s sovereignty. There seemed little recognition that sovereignty does not start and end with the casting of ballots and determining of who becomes President. Citizens do not become sovereign when they transmogrify into voters. They are always sovereign in a democracy.

Further, as I have written before, voting in an election is not – as one of the lawyers unfortunately declared – the foundation of democracy. How much ordinary citizens can contribute to everyday political decision-making and their ability to hold public officials to account are the true measures of democracy. Thus, if elections are about the sovereignty of the voter, as another averred, then constitutions are about the citizen. And the entire corpus of law, the foundation of which should be the constitution and citizen participation in governance, is an exercise in sovereignty.

Protecting the expression of sovereignty therefore entails more than singularly ensuring the correct result was announced. It also means ensuring that the process prescribed by the law was adhered to. It is not a choice between respecting one or the other.

Now, after dominating TV screens for nearly a week, the process of adjudicating the petition moves into the shadows as the judges retire to consider their verdict. Four years ago, after a similar week of TV drama, they reappeared with a sausage of a judgement, with only a short summary of the decisions delivered in open court but eventually revealed to consist of a messy and unhealthy cocktail of poorly-reasoned arguments.

It is proper that the judges should concern themselves with burdens and standards of proof and with the attendant requirements of who should prove what to which degree of satisfaction. In exercising its delegated sovereignty, the court is subject to the constraints of evidence. What is true and what can be proven not necessarily being the same thing, courts only concern themselves with the latter.

The upshot of this is that the court cannot tell us whether the election was stolen, just whether Raila and Kalonzo can prove it. That means, regardless of what the courts rule, it will still be up to each citizen to decide for himself or herself whether they believe the election was credible and whether the IEBC and other arms of government have properly carried out the mandates given to them.


Still, this does not mean the Supreme Court’s judgement is irrelevant or unimportant. It will decide the legal validity, if not exactly the legitimacy, of the poll and the government it births. It is hoped that the judges will each prepare individual judgements, clearly detailing the reasons for the conclusions they have come to and that each will get to read his or her judgement in open court. The truth is, elections and court judgments should be nothing like sausages. The more one knows how they were made, the more they should command respect and be savored.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Marital State: Why Divorce Won't Solve Kenya's Problems

David Ndii is at it again. In the aftermath of the election, he has revived talk of his incendiary proposal for divorce. Basically, he postulates that Kenyan ethnic communities are in “an abusive marriage” and if they cannot come to an accommodation, they need to consider going their separate ways. Despite being one of Kenya’s foremost public intellectuals, he is demonized by many in the ruling establishment and among their rabid supporters.
Although the proposal far preceded the elections, Ndii’s most recent comments were made and will be understood in the context of the election and especially the contested presidential poll, which is now the subject of a Supreme Court petition. The root of his argument is the perceived domination of Kenyan political life, and the opportunity to “eat” the national cake, by a few large tribes.
The current focus of the griping is the Kikuyu-Kalenjin axis inaugurated by the alliance of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. But the narratives of domination, by either a single community or an alliance of a few of them, and resistance to it are as old as the country itself.
The logic of oppression and extraction was built into the state by our founding fathers, the British colonialists. They created a structure of government that was meant to entrench their lordship over all they surveyed and to facilitate extraction from natives.
Local communities didn’t take too kindly to this and eventually ganged up to demand their independence. However, their inheritance from the departing and receding British was the colonial state, which they failed to fundamentally reform and instead fell into squabbling over who would control it. And always, behind this, was fear of domination, which is really fear of the state.
In the run up to Independence, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party was created, almost overnight, as the vehicle for what was largely seen as a Kikuyu-Luo alliance to take over the state. It was immediately opposed by the rest of the “small” tribes who majorly ganged up under the auspices of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).
The deck was shuffled again after KADU was swallowed up by KANU and the Luo jettisoned soon after. Though Daniel arap Moi, with his Kalenjin bloc, was nominally the number two in the party and in government, it was clear that for all intents and purposes the state now belonged to the Kikuyu elite. This was to continue until shortly after the death of Jomo Kenyatta. Now it was the turn for the Kikuyu elite to be tossed out into the cold where they joined their Luo counterparts to oppose the Kalenjin (Moi’s) state.
This alliance eventually forced Moi’s retirement and the re-enactment of history as the Luo were once again double-crossed – this time by President Mwai Kibaki – and kicked out of what again became the Kikuyu state. The violence that followed the 2007 election gave rise to the first all-inclusive government where elites from all communities got in on the feeding frenzy. The 2013 elections again saw the Luo shut out by the current Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance. A partnership that is perhaps slightly more equitable than the version between the current President’s father and Moi.
What I’ve detailed above is a very simplified and simplistic model of Kenya’s history. However, it has the distinct advantage of helping us appreciate a fundamentally important fact that explains why Kenya is where it is today and why we go round in circles. The problem that we have been skirting for all these years is the state itself as a tool for domination rather than an expression of the people’s aspirations. We are fighting over who becomes the next oppressor, rather than trying to uproot oppression.
Which brings me back to Ndii’s argument. Last year, in response to his abusive marriage thesis, I wrote that Kenyans are actually in an abusive relationship with their elites, rather than with other tribes. The extraction that the state facilitates, and that is the real prize the elites are battling over, is from all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity – we all pay whoever gets to be the piper, some more than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to call the tune or avoid the rats.
In fact, the whole talk of ethnic domination is a device to hide state domination by the elite of all tribes, which has led to a situation where 8,000 individuals own 62% of everything. Dismembering the country will not fix this.
Clearly, as Ndii holds, there is in principle no reason why a discussion on secession or mutual separation cannot or should not happen. We should not fetishize Kenya since, as we have seen, it was not created for our benefit but rather as a tool for robbery. Think of that next time you feel compelled to sing its songs, salute its flag or declare its eternity. For most of the country’s existence, it has been little more than a mostly illegitimate political and administrative arrangement that we have been struggling to master. The 2010 constitution gave us a chance to begin to get to grips with that challenge and provides an agreed upon vision of how it can be made to work for us.
Part of that vision is decentralization as a cure to the overbearing central state. Since before independence, majimboism or its current iteration -devolution- has been at the crux of the struggle between those who were seen as domineering and the rest. It was one of the major issues that divided KADU and KANU. Although a pillar of the Independence constitution, which created 7 regional governments and assemblies, it was undone by KANU in the 60s which, among other things, simply starved the regional governments of revenue.
Today, devolution remains at risk. The fact that the vast bulk of the tax money is controlled and retained in Nairobi, where the elite congregates, rather than disbursed in the counties where the people are dispersed is in itself telling. There is a deep need to ponder the continuing centrality of the national Presidency in our politics (it was, after all, largely modelled on the colonial Governor-General) and the fact that it remains a potent symbol, not of unity as envisaged in the constitution, but of domination.
Simply put, the work of implementing the constitution is not done. It has only begun but the night is here and it is full of terrors. Only by doing the hard work of facing up to our history and rebuilding the state from the bottom up, not as a tool of oppression, but as a means to enable popular aspirations, can we hope to extricate ourselves of the vicious cycle.
We therefore must, as Ndii says, not shy away from scary discussions about the means we use to compel those in power to abide by the constitution, or even the possibility of separation if that fails. But we also must not be seduced by the easy, tribe-based formulations he offers, that only serve to mask the real nature of our state. However, the only way to truly appreciate what Ndii gets wrong, is to seriously engage with what he gets right.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Betrayal in the Kenyan Media

In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, Betrayal in the City, the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don jailed for speaking his mind: "We have killed our past and are busy killing our future".
As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.
Many had already fled their homes in expectation of violence and in the capital city, Nairobi, many have not gone back to work since voting on Tuesday, leaving its normally bustling and noisy Central Business District feeling like a ghost town.
Small protests had been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centres, throughout the week, which had led to clashes with police and, regrettably, at least 5 deaths so far. Given the ongoing unrest, that figure is set to rise even further.
However, you wouldn’t know this watching most of Kenyan media -considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. TV screens are full of pictures of celebrating Kenyatta supporters and political pundits analyzing the election outcome. Kenyans are having to turn to international media and to friends and family to get a sense of what is happening.
Throughout the week, while dutifully covering the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media was in the main determined to avoid any mention of trouble. Instead, it has opted to regale the country with colorful stories of the Githeri Man, Kenya's new internet sensation.
On social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. As they have been doing the whole week, gangs of twitterbots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage and even threatening to shoot them.
Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hang on tenterhooks as politicians bickered over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.
Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of pre-empting violent protests in the event the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism”. But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.
By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop the Kenyan media houses pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for broadcasting blatantly illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election).
In return, it seems the media has sold its soul. The first sign came very soon after the closing of the polls when one TV channel, KTN NEWS, gave the results of what it called an exit poll. The curious thing about that poll was it does not seem to have asked the voters how they voted, which one would assume is the point of an exit poll.
But worse was to come. Going to bed with government seems to have led to a wholesale abandonment of their journalistic duty to independently verify the results of the election announced by the IEBC. A Court of Appeal decision in June had made it clear that results of the presidential election declared at polling stations and constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered by IEBC mandarins at the national tallying center in Nairobi. That opened the door for the media to run independent tallies and, despite largely empty government threats of having their licenses cancelled, even call the election. And indeed, many already had this capacity. In January, Samuel Macharia, the owner of Kenya’s largest TV and radio network, Royal Media Services, told the Senate that his network had independently tracked records at every presidential election since 1992.
Yet, it appears that this did not happen. Today, all the press is crowded at the national tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, hanging on every word that issues from the IEBC. They have been content to run its unofficial tallies rather than get the official counts and tallies from the lower levels. And worst of all, as the politicians and IEBC officials haggle in Nairobi over which numbers are correct, the media is happy to play along rather than spare us the drama by simply heading down to the 40,000 polling stations where, even now, the official and final results are posted outside for all to see.
Rather than preaching peace, the Kenyan media has been earning its 30 pieces of silver by ignoring and editing out citizen frustrations in order to maintain a fa├žade of normality. But there’s nothing normal about this silencing, the delegitimization of those, however many or few they may be, who feel the need to express their discontent through peaceful marches, or by ignoring of those who have died at the hands of the police.
Imbuga’s play has an ignominious character who uses his closeness to the supreme leader to secure corrupt advantages and to sell out his countrymates. At the end of the play, Mulili’s duplicity is laid bare and he is executed, signifying the passing of the oppressive order and the birth of new hope. Similarly, Kenya’s media needs to get out of Kenyans’ way so they can get down to the business of saving their future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Deathly Afraid Of Presidential Elections

Another election. Another failure of systems. Another dispute, another anxiety laden wait. Another bout of violence. The routine has become depressingly familiar. Over the past week, Kenya has been at a standstill, holding her breath as votes were counted, announcements made and politicians bickered over the results, praying these would not summon the spectre of 2008.
Kenyan presidential elections have always been contentious - a legacy of our history dictatorship. Within a decade of independence from Britain in 1963, the country had been transformed into a de facto one party and as long as the centre was not challenged, other aspects of a competitive, democratic system were allowed to function.
This meant that for the first 30 years, while parliamentary races were fiercely competitive -with more than half of incumbent Members of Parliament regularly thrown out- at the presidential level, they remained a placid affair. Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, as heads of the party were “re-elected” unopposed at every turn.
A year to the 1992 elections, however, everything changed. Following a sustained two-year campaign of protests and international pressure, Moi was forced to reverse a decade-old change to the constitution which had formally banned political parties other than his own. This led to the first ever competitive race for President, which set the tone for all presidential contests to come -it was marred by large-scale, ethnic-based, violence, irregularity and outright theft.
The 1992 polls were preceded by government-instigated “tribal clashes”, in which 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the expansive Rift Valley. Just months before the 1997 elections, politically instigated violence killed over 100 people and displaced an estimated 100,000. While both 2002 and 2013 election campaigns were marked by several incidents of violence, with no incumbents running, the violence was somewhat limited.
At first glance, the violence of 2007/8 seems to sit pretty well within this picture. But, on closer inspection, there are fundamental differences. All previous large scale electoral violence was instigated controlled and perpetrated either by the government or with its acquiescence. The 2008 violence was the first time Kenyans confronted the prospect of a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, with the opposition also able to mount significant violence.
Kenya’s electoral violence had previously been controlled and limited in geography and scope. Though the 2007/8 was not the worst the country had suffered, it provided a glimpse of a possible and very scary future, where the threat of violence did not stem primarily from the state, but from one’s neighbours and friends.
Kenya has always been a violent country, one silently at war with itself. The colonial state is at the center of that conflict. The various communities and fractions of communities that make up the nation are constantly fighting to control the state which ironically was created to facilitate others preying on them. At independence, rather than reform it, the clique that inherited it, which includes both Uhuru’s and Raila’s fathers used it to enrich themselves and their friends and relatives at the expense of the rest of society.
Throughout it all, as Matt Carotenuto writes, the state has learned to weaponize the language of “peace” to avoid scrutiny of its actions and a discussion of the past. “From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.”
As Kenyans settle down to the daily grind, there is a danger that they will once again be urged to as Kenyatta put it in 2002 “forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions”. But that would be a mistake because, if there are any lessons to be learnt from Kenya’s history, it is that a true “common front” will not be forged through “forgetting he past” but by facing and dealing with it.
Kenya is thus has a choice. The country can either try to recreate the brutality that its colonial state wielded previously and attempt to force the genie back into the bottle, or it could actually attempt to confront and deal with its traumatic past and to begin to create a state that works for all.  Kenyatta appears to have settled for the former, judging by the viciousness with which post-election riots have been put down – at least 24 people have been shot dead and many more, including a six-month old baby, badly beaten.
What prevails in Kenya now, what has always prevailed, is not peace but rather, an uneasy calm -a ceasefire of sorts. But it won’t last, nor be translated into a deeper peace unless the country has the courage to fix its frayed national fabric.