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Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Tribute To Kenya's Forgotten People

Last week, the country lost a great patriot, one, however, whom most Kenyans had probably never heard of. My grandmother, Eunice Nyawira, passed away in her hospital bed after a long illness. Born at the dawn of the colonial era, she lived to see Kenya gain her independence and the subsequent betrayal of their hopes. She is part of a generation that is dying out and with them goes a great deal of history, not just of our family, but also of the nation they leave behind.

These are the ordinary people whose passing goes unlamented for the most part in a country that reserves its adulation for its politicians. I did know a great deal about my cucu and I took her presence for granted, assuming she would always be there to tell her story. It is something I will regret for the rest of my life.

The current hagiographic memorialization of Kenneth Matiba and the angst over the fate of electoral commissioners just makes this loss seem even more severe. History has always been presented as the tale of a few powerful men and Kenyan history in particular revolves around the fates of Big Men like Matiba. In this telling, the experiences and acts of a humble peasant woman in a nondescript corner of what is now Nyeri county hardly seem to merit more than a few lines in the obituary pages. 

However, it is on the backs of people such as Cucu Nyawira that this country was built. It is their numerous small acts of resistance – such as when she confronted colonial officials in Nyeri to get my late mum admitted into Ngandu Girls, or when she organized food for Mau Mau fighters, for which she was briefly arrested and detained - that provided the podium on which the Big Men stood. An illiterate woman who bore and educated 10 kids, who organized her community to build schools, to create better housing as well as water storage is exactly the sort of everyday Kenyan we should honor and celebrate daily.

There are millions of unsung heroes and heroines like her across our land. Ordinary Kenyans who did and continue to do extraordinary things. They are the rocks upon which families, communities and nations are founded. Their stories deserve to be collected and shared, their lives celebrated. They are a valuable store of history and with each loss of one of their number, that store is irredeemably diminished. While they are still with us, we should have a nationwide project to collect and document their stories and their lives. And not just the elderly generation, but all of Kenya’s generations. Rather than Kenyan history being the story of its Big Men, we should make it the story of all its people.

I imagine this being a collective and collaborate effort. No one person or even one organisation could do it. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission took years to interview 40,000 Kenyans. To build a database of the stories of millions would simply be overwhelming. However, we do have the internet and the unlimited resources that it provides. If we could get Kenyans to contribute their own stories and those of their relatives and friends, then we could begin to assemble a massive popular archive. 

And the stories needn’t be solely about superhuman exploits.  In fact, the most important contributions would be the tales of everyday living and survival that would shine a light on who the Kenyans are and how they experienced history.  I, for example, remember Cucu Nyawira's delight upon learning that Egypt, where, according to the Bible, Jesus' family had fled to to escape persecution, was actually in Africa. Also her patient skepticism when informed that people had walked on the moon. She also told me of granaries Kikuyus used to set aside aside after the harvest specifically for the poor and the disabled, challenging the idea that charity is a thing we learnt from the West.

It would undoubtedly be an extremely ambitious undertaking but one that I believe would be worth every effort. “In my culture, when the elderly die natural deaths we throw a big party and sing and dance and trade stories about the life they lived and the lives they touched,” tweeted political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, recently. Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to Eunice Nyawira and the unseen millions like her to whom Kenya owes everything.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Lies That Bind


The recent revelations about the role played by British spin doctors, Cambridge Analytica, in Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns during the last two elections in Kenya have caused a bit of an uproar. Though long rumored -and hotly denied by Jubilee Party mandarins – the confirmation delivered via hidden camera was jarring not only for the extent of their involvement, but also for their underhand methods.
However, the fuss around Cambridge Analytica has tended to obscure the fact that, even without their involvement, spin and deception have been made into a way of conducting the nation’s business.

Take, for example, the recent online proclamations by the ever publicity-seeking Kenya Film Classification Board that it had bagged a global award, the grandly named Arch of Europe. According to the citation, the award was in recognition of the KFCB’s “immeasurable contribution to the business world” and its “high outstanding professionalism demonstrated by prestigious performance”. Sounds good, eh?

However, a little digging turns up some unsavory facts that the Board’s CEO, Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, would rather you didn’t notice. The organization issuing the award, the Madrid-based Business Initiatives Directions, along with six other organizations, had been investigated in 2014 by the Center for Investigative Reporting of Serbia (CINS) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and their awards found to be, in many cases “bogus, sold by unscrupulous organizations that prey on human vanity”.

The investigation found that “giving” awards had become a lucrative enterprise. “The organizations that provide these awards are nearly always based in European Union countries and mostly market their awards to developing countries”. And the clue is in the word “market”. As the report states, while the organisations claim to do their research to find the best awardees “in reality in most cases they send out hundreds of email invitations and some even allow applicants to nominate themselves on organization websites. Anyone who replies, shows interest and agrees to pay gets an award.”

Basically, KFCB may have simply bought itself an award and then taken to Twitter to parade it as a marker of excellence. And in case you were wondering, the CINS/OCCRP report found that such awards do not come cheap. “In Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, around 50 public institutions received these awards. Some paid for multiple awards at prices that ranged from € 2,000 to more than € 7,000 (US$ 2,500-9,300) per prize.” That means close to a million of your tax shillings may have been expended in assuaging the egos of the folks at KFCB.

Lest one thinks that this is a unique case, a public statement has just been released by the Hamburg Media School, makers of the Oscar-nominated Kenyan film, Watu Wote, which apparently gives the lie to the KFCB’s and Dr. Mutua’s assertions that the latter attended the 90th Oscars Academy Awards ceremony in the US earlier this month. “Dr. Mutua was not in attendance at the ceremony and did not participate in the Oscars with us. He never received an invitation,” says the statement, which was posted on the film’s Twitter account. It also says that a KFCB-sponsored screening of the movie in Las Vegas, again trumpeted by the Board as highlighting “opportunities available for investments in the film industry in Kenya”, was actually done in violation of the school’s copyright and without their permission.

Perhaps Dr. Mutua has picked up this habit from his boss. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head. Many will recall the "Mandela Prize" that President Kenyatta was awarded last December for apparently demonstrating a true spirit of democracy when he accepted the Supreme Court to annul the August 8 election. “To put it simply, ‘the Mandela Prize’ is bogus,” concluded a 2016 investigation by the Moroccan news website, Le Desk, after Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, “won” it that year. It is not to be confused with the legit UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize, which awarded once every five years as a tribute to the outstanding achievements and contributions of two individuals from each gender.

Kenyatta’s “Prize” also came from a fishy outfit, the Paris-based Mandela Institute, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with the late Nelson Mandela other than the claim that its Honorary President, Olivier Stirn, was his friend. Stirn himself has a chequered past, having been forced to resign in disgrace from the French cabinet in 1990 after he was caught hiring unemployed actors, students and day laborers to pose as an audience for senior Socialist Party speakers at a sparsely attended conference.

More recently, during the President’s state visit to Cuba, his spin doctors announced that the Cuban government had honoured his late father, Jomo Kenyatta, “as a towering figure in African and Caribbean liberation movement” by placing his bust at the Park of African Heroes in Havana. However, what they did not mention was that, as Dr Wandia Njoya has pointed out on Twitter, the plaque on the bust doesn't mention fighting for freedom and, perhaps more importantly, that the busts there are sometimes donated by African governments themselves. Crucially, there was no mention of who was paying for this particular bust.

So as we express our outrage at Cambridge Analytica’s corruption of our democracy, we must not deceive ourselves that what they were doing is somehow different from the everyday actions of our public officials. From fake wars against corruption, to our invented ethnicities to the farcical Head of State commendations, Kenya is a state that was built on, and that is largely sustained by, lies and deceptions.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Innocent Victim? Not Exactly

The last few weeks have been rather trying for Kenyan media. The government’s criminal overreaction to the mock swearing in of Raila Odinga did not end with the shut down of the three leading television stations for over a week. Even after they were allowed back on air, the Uhuru Kenyatta administration has continued to throw a tantrum, with the President chasing journalists out of one of his official engagements and the state singling out three from the Nation Media Group, Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu, for special attention, forcing them to seek protection from the courts.

Faced with this onslaught, the media has been quick to don the costume of public interest and proceeded to play the part of innocent victim. In a piece published on the CNN website, Madowo condemns the “shutting down [of] networks that have such a massive following [and] public trust … by a rogue government.”

“Our job as reporters is to record history, whether the government of the day approves of it or not,” he continues, declaring Kenya “one of Africa's beacons for vibrant media [which] should not be dimmed out by an administration intent on censorship of independent voices, reducing the country to just another African dictatorship where critical journalism is outlawed and reporters constantly fear for their lives.”

Madowo deserves an Oscar for that performance. For while the government’s actions have been completely illegal and anti-democratic, outrageous in the extreme and deserving of full condemnation, Kenyan media has not behaved much better. The fact that he was forced to hawk his piece to CNN is telling. “This week, the @dailynation refused to print my column for the first time in nearly 4 years,” he had tweeted in explanation. In fact, a few days later, his column was to be cancelled entirely. And he wasn’t the only one targeted by the supposedly “vibrant media” which now seemed eager to do the government’s dirty work.
                     
On the eve of Odinga’s “inauguration”, a leaked internal memo from Nation Media Group (NMG) Editor-in-Chief, Tom Mshindi, suggested that he and Kaikai, NTV’s General Manager, were “aligned” on not providing live coverage for the event. That was before Kaikai that evening, in his capacity as Chairman of Kenya Editors Guild, blew the lid off a secret meeting at State House between of “a section of media managers and select editors from the main media houses” and President Kenyatta, his deputy, William Ruto, the Attorney-General as well as Cabinet Secretaries for Interior and ICT. It was at this meeting that the media was ordered not to cover the Odinga event live.

Ultimately, NTV did cover the event precipitating its being illegally switched off by the Communications Authority along with KTN and Citizen all of whom continued to stream their coverage on the internet. Kaikai would pay the price for his defiance as a quick reorganization at NTV has reportedly seen him sidelined on decisions regarding what content is broadcast and now even seems set to leave the group along with Madowo. At the moment, the two along with Ken Mijungu, the very people police were seeking to arrest, have been effectively banned from going on air and Madowo’s political talk show, Sidebar, appears to have been cancelled.

All this is part of a trend. Kenyan media houses have become adept at sacrificing top journalists to appease the government. Just as. in the current crisis, media owners and top management have been happy to throw journalists under the bus, so in 2014, The Standard fired 3 of its journalists after top editors were similarly summoned to State House over a story the government disputed.

In 2015, NMG fired world-famous cartoonist, Godfrey GADO Mwampembwa, after his cartoons drew the wrath of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. In 2016, Denis Galava was fired from his post as the Daily Nation’s Managing Editor for Special Projects, after he penned a New Year’s Day editorial that was, according to The Star, “deemed critical of President Uhuru Kenyatta's administration”.

Madowo’s notion that Kenya’s “vibrant” media conducts “critical journalism” is also quite misleading. We are talking here of establishments that are content to unquestioningly run press releases from State House as news, a habit which left the media badly exposed a few weeks ago after a claim by the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit that Kenyatta had been appointed a UNICEF global champion for youth empowerment turned out to be false. Further, many will not have forgotten that this same media houses were happy to pocket millions of public shillings for running illegal government advertisements during the campaign period. Or the role it played in allowing, and even encouraging, the delegitimization of civil society.

All this explains why many Kenyans have been ambivalent about supporting the media during the present onslaught. Poetic justice, some have called it, wondering why they should stand up for a media that does not stand up for them. There is a lesson for the media in all this. Protection does not come from courting the government, but rather from courting the people. In the end, as the Daily Nation’s own public editor wrote, it is the public that is “the best protector of press freedom”.

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Friday, February 02, 2018

Kenya's Future Increasingly Looks Like Its Past

In early 1965, after just a year of independence, Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta suspected Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was planning a coup against his government. Deep divisions within the ruling Kenya African National Union - between those wanting radical and populist change to the inherited colonial system and those who were intent on consolidating it and seeking more gradual change – had been exacerbated by the murder of radical Nominated MP, Pio Gama Pinto in late February.

Determined to eliminate the threat, Kenyatta sent the paramilitary General Service Unit of the Kenya Police Force into Luo Nyanza to look for weapons and to intimidate Odinga’s Luo base. As related by Charles Hornsby in his opus, Kenya: A History Since Independence, “there was a press blackout on their activities, which included house searches, beatings and rapes, which were only made public at the end of the month, when angry Luo MPs raised the issue in Parliament”.

Within a year, Odinga had been forced out of KANU and had set up his own political party in opposition, the Kenya Peoples Union. As Hornsby states, Odinga was betting “that Kenyatta and KANU would play by the rules and that the West would ensure they did so.” However, Kenyatta’s patrons were silent during the next three years which witnessed “more serious abuses than were conducted against a political party at any time before or since in Kenya’s history”. These included changes to the electoral system on the eve of, and rigging during, the Little General Election; branding Odinga as a threat to “national stability”; the mangling of the 7 year-old independence constitution to concentrate power in the President and eliminate all checks on it; the reintroduction of colonial-style detention without trial; and intimidation of both the judiciary and the press. The period ended with the murder of Tom Mboya, Kikuyu oathing, a massacre of Odinga supporters in Kisumu, the banning of the KPU and detention of Odinga and his allies.

Fast forward half a century and Jomo’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is President and Jaramogi’s son, Raila Odinga, stands accused of attempting to stage a coup. Once again, the latter has been demonized by the ruling party and dozens have been killed beaten and raped by the GSU in Luo Nyanza. The media is silenced, the courts ignored, the state accused of electoral malpractice including engineering last minute changes to electoral laws and a round up of Odinga’s allies is under way. A new constitution enacted just 7 years ago which imposed serious limitations on Presidential power is roundly ignored and institutions meant to be a check on it, including the parliament, are completely servile. All the while, Western powers are silent. Just as in the 60s, they have opted to side with the Kenyattas whom they consider the best bet for preserving the colonial system that safeguards their interests above those of ordinary Kenyans.

So how will this end? Is it likely that Kenyatta will have Odinga arrested for treason? After all, his allies have been charged with abetting treason and the courts may have a hard time convicting them if the person accused of actually committing treason is allowed to wander freely. But perhaps the intention is not to seek convictions but rather to send a message. Still, history suggests some action may be taken though it might not be as drastic or as harsh as a treason charge. The senior Odinga was subjected to two years in detention by the senior Kenyatta and then house arrest by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi. The latter has already been bandied about as a possibility by Jubilee hardliners.

Any arrest of Odinga would undoubtedly spark massive unrest in Nyanza but, just as in the 60s, the Kenyatta government has shown that it is not averse to killing large numbers of citizens in order to cling to power. Further, the likelihood of the international community interfering to stop such is miniscule. Rather than an ideological battleground of the Cold War of yesteryear, Kenya is today on the frontline of other wars against terrorists and Chinese domination. These concerns outweigh Kenyan lives.

Kenya has basically regressed 50 years in the last 7 months and the 2010 constitution’s promise of a democratic renewal is fast fading. If extinguished, history suggests Kenyans may be in for decades of brutal and kleptocratic rule. It will be a steep price for the country to pay for not learning from its past.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Why Trump's "Shithole" Comments Are Nothing New


Eric Kiraithe, must really be well paid. Being the official spokesman of the Kenyan Government, is, in the words of Jerry Maguire, “an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” that I’m sure he will never fully tell us about. We got a glimpse of what the job entails when the government sent him out this week to defend the indefensible: US President Donald Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” and his declared preference for immigrants from Northern Europe.

The mental gymnastics Kiraithe had to engage in were a spectacle to behold. No doubt trying to curry favor with the famously petty and vengeful Trump, he declared that Kenya had no problems with African countries being called “shitholes” but nonetheless supported the African Union in condemning the comments whose context, he claimed, the government was still studying “to see whether it is worth the attention”, even though it had already determined that they were not directed at Kenya.

Still, there perhaps was an easier, and perhaps less humiliating, way for Kiraithe and his minders to extricate themselves from the bind. Trump may be an ignorant, racist, pathetic excuse for a human being but if we are honest, his sentiments are not dissimilar to attitudes held by many of the “respectable” people lining up to condemn him in the West and even here in Africa.

As any African applying for visa will tell you, the indignities visited upon us in the process make it plain that we are not exactly welcome. It is humiliating to have to demonstrate to strangers that one is not about to abandon one’s family and nation to live on the streets of Europe or America, to have them stand in judgment over your acceptability as human being. And that is just how the system treats those seeking a legal route for a temporary visit.

The reaction to the so-called European migrant crisis which saw more than a million unwanted migrants and refugees from the middle east and Africa cross into Europe in 2015, shows the extremes that will be considered in order to turn them back. “Europe has decided to cooperate with Libyan authorities, knowing the kind of torture, abuses, detention that migrants and refugees are exposed to in Libya,” Amnesty International’s Maria Serrano told Voice of America last month.
Of course, the idea of a crisis is not extended to the nearly 12.5 million Europeans who are resident in a country not their own within the European Union, even when 95 percent of these are hosted in just six countries. It is only a crisis when they come from “shithole countries”.

And it is not just Europeans. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Kenya in November declaring how he loves Africans, seems to only love them when they stay at home. Back in Israel, he has taken to branding African asylum seekers “infiltrators” is deporting thousands of them. In Libya, slave markets have re-opened with many of the same Africans Europe is turning away being treated as commodities.

But African citizens do not even need to try to leave the continent in order to experience the dehumanization associated with immigration. Kenya’s abysmal treatment of refugees from Somalia -who are crammed into crowded camps, forbidden from seeking work, regularly demonized as terrorists and even illegally forced back into the war zone across the border – is no less humiliating. Neither are the hoops Kenyans themselves – as well as other Africans - are forced to jump through when attempting to visit South Africa, formerly the continent’s largest economy, are no less humiliating.

In fact, Africans don’t even need to try to go outside their countries’ borders to be insulted or have heir humanity questioned. Hollywood as well as Western aid agencies and media regularly does it right in the comfort of our homes with their portrayal of Africa as a troubled, exotic paradise peopled by childishly simple, na├»ve beings unable to deal with the challenges of life and who need white saviors to rescue them from other white devils or from themselves.

Rounding out the parade of insulters are African elites, especially in the media and in politics, who have become our very own Uncle Toms, loyally regurgitating and fleshing out the worst stereotypes that the West has of us. Having opted not to reform the racist, extractive colonial states they inherited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these elites have trouble seeing the humanity of the masses of citizens they prey on. So, like the Europeans before them, rather than fix dehumanizing political and economic systems, they try to beat and shame the natives into compliance with them, into accepting the space that the world has allocated to them at the back of the bus - which is the reason so many try to leave in the first place.

This brings us back to Trump and his comments. So should Kenyans be offended by them? You bet they should. But no more so than by the treatment and representations Africans have to endure every day from a world that has decided that they come from “shithole countries” and so must be shitty people.

And the supreme irony of it is, up till less than a century ago, Africans were quite content to stay on the continent. It was shitty people from other places who came here and forced them out.  It was shitty people who took them to places like Haiti, where, after they fought for and won their freedom, more shitty people blockaded and invaded them and created the very conditions today that a shitty American President, blissfully unaware of this, today disparages.

However, it is an irony that is completely lost on Kiraithe and the folks he speaks for.

Friday, January 12, 2018

SportPesa: Kenya Should Stop Betting On Devils

In his piece in the Daily Nation, Roy Gachuhi speaks of how the failure to build strong institutions in Kenyan sport has left even the most successful teams vulnerable to the financial shocks caused by the withdrawal of a major sponsor. He is referencing the troubles caused by sports betting firm SportPesa’s pulling all its sponsorship of local and national teams following the failure of its legal challenge against the government’s move to raise taxes on betting profits.  It is a move that may ground a large number of the country’s favorite sports brands.

“Fifty years down the line, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia should be evaluating the suitability of the many organizations lining up to associate their brand with them,” Gachuhi says. He also reminds us that “Kenya’s sports politics closely mirror our national politics”. One obvious similarity is the dependence on the dirty money that is generated by selling false dreams to poor people.

According to Moses Kemibaro, a digital marketing professional based in Nairobi, SportPesa, the largest of them all, rakes in over Sh300 million a month. A GeoPoll survey of youth between the ages of 17-35 in sub-Saharan Africa found Kenya had the highest number of youth who were frequently gambling and that they spent Sh5000 a month on the habit, the highest on the continent. This in a country where, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, three-quarters of those in formal employment earn under Sh50,000 a month.

So the sponsorships whose loss many are bemoaning are a small fraction of the billions being taken from millions of poor people who are fed the illusion that sports betting is, as SportPesa’s slogan goes, “Made of Winners”. Only the betting companies make money when bets are lost, not when they are won.

But what they make is a pittance, and the suffering they cause is negligible, when compared to the outrageous fortunes and misery generated by the, to borrow Hilary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables” to whom we’ve mortgaged our national political life.  They have taken to a whole new level the art of throwing around a relatively tiny bit of cash in exchange for the chance to make gazillions. Presidential election campaigns spend an estimated Sh5 billion which, including all the other races down the order, could add up to Sh36 billion. This is undoubtedly a lot of money. But considering that the country is estimated to lose Sh600 billion from corruption each year and that a large chunk of that is pocketed by the politicians in power, you can see how it works out to be a good deal.

Why must we feed the baser natures within society in order to be allowed a few crumbs for its better sides? Why is it necessary to procure resources for our sport from industries that sacrifice millions of youthful futures? Or to offer up our sovereignty, wealth and even lives to scoundrels in return for patronage posing as “development”?

I think it is actually a good thing that SportPesa has pulled the sponsorship. A deal with the Devil is not how we should seek to support our sportspeople. And maybe once the band aid is removed, we can we will be able to see and deal with the real, festering source of our public woes. The money that companies like SportPesa pump into sport tends to paper over the state’s under-investment in sport as well as its preying on athletes as was graphically illustrated during the 2016 Olympics.

But there again, our deals with devils, this time within government, stand in the way. Sadly, we won’t be exorcising the demons in Parliament or in State House anytime soon. And even if we did, there are others pretending to be angels of light waiting to take their place. Like with SportPesa, we need to change the terms of the deal and radically raise the bar for what is acceptable in terms of governance. 

No more false promises. We must demand tangible action, whether it is to improve the lot of the sports fraternity of to reform the electoral system or to implement the report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Report. To do this, we must be willing to risk the political class withdrawing the few parochial benefits it offers just as SportPesa has done. But if we are firm and refuse to succumb to the blackmail, the rewards would be much greater than what we have become accustomed to settling for.

Now that’s a gamble worth taking.


Friday, January 05, 2018

Kenya's Road Deaths: It's The System, Stupid.

Kenyans can be amazing in their self-contradictions. Take matters death, for example. When our politicians pass on, they are immediately raptured, in the popular imagination, into a heavenly pantheon and cleansed of all earthly sin. Not so regular folk.

Following the spike in road crashes in December which have claimed over 200 lives, many have not been shy about placing the blame on those who have perished, either labeling drivers drunk, undisciplined or careless, or branding passengers as silent lambs willingly going to the slaughter.

I have often wondered about this seeming compulsion to blame ourselves for the misfortunes we endure, even when it is manifest that their fundamental causes lie elsewhere. When the politicians in government steal from us, we blame ourselves for electing them in the first place, as if the act of voting then justifies stealing. When the same politicians use the police or militia for violence to secure their positions on the bargaining table, we blame ourselves for our tribalism and bloodthirst.

Similarly, when the state designs and maintains a murderous road transport system, we blame ourselves for its very predictable consequences. It is our failure to obey its dictates that is to blame, we are told, even though we know that following the rules still gets you killed.

TV presenter and columnist, Larry Madowo, ably demonstrates this confusion in his latest offering on the dangers of using public transport for long-distance travel at night. After acknowledging that he is one of a privileged minority that does not need to do this he adds that “for millions of Kenyans for whom that is not an option, they are unknowingly putting themselves in danger every time they board a bus or a matatu and hope they get to their destination in one piece.”

Sounds reasonable, no? Then a few lines later, he hits us with this: “Taking any public transport in Kenya is to knowingly put yourself in danger.” Huh?

He proceeds to reel off a list the usual suspects, from tired, drunk and unqualified drivers trying to meet impossible targets to matatu crews colluding with gangsters to rob passengers, to mechanically defective vehicles and their owners - the very cops turning a blind eye. He notes that there are no regularly enforced “minimum standards for crew discipline, vehicle maintenance and roadworthiness” and few consequences for anyone failing to play their part. It is as close a description of a shattered system as you are likely to get.

Yet despite this, Larry still seems to believe that the system is fundamentally sound. “All this carnage can be eliminated without introducing a single new law but simply enforcing the existing ones and shutting down all the avenues for bribery.” Once again, the problem, as he sees it, is the failure to beat the native out of the Kenyan, to force him to comply with a broken system.

This kind of thinking has very colonial roots. The British proclaimed that they came on a civilizing mission and used extreme brutality to try to beat the natives into shape. For example, in his book Kenya: A History Since Independence, Charles Hornsby describes the European settler view of roots of the Mau Mau war as “unrelated to economic or political oppression … they lay in the Kikuyu’s inability to adapt to the demands of modernization”.

Lawyer Pheroze Norwojee says "tyranny is very unoriginal". Those who inherited the colonial state after them, retained the same view of the sanctity of even oppressive rules and of Africans as the problem. As Jomo Kenyatta asked Kenyans in the lead up to independence, “if you cannot obey the present [colonial] laws, how will you be able to obey our own laws when we have them?” Thus, instead of reforming the oppressive regime, they tried to force the people to comply with it. As quoted by Hornsby, the late Masinde Muliro described it thus in 1967: "Today we have a black man's Government, and the black man's Government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do." 

It is this approach that has created the predictable consequences and contradictions evident in our political system today, for our humanity will not simply fade away quietly. Similarly, the attempt to force road users to comply with a horrendous road system will continue to generate seemingly chaotic and suicidal, but always very rational, behavior. In the end blaming Kenyans, rather than the system, will always lead to oppressive responses that try to fix Kenyans rather than policy fixes to the system.

Yet the fact is we need comprehensive change, both in the institutional design of how we manage road transport as well as in the rules those institutions are tasked with implementing and enforcing. That will require new thinking, new systems, and yes, Larry, new laws.

New laws on who can own matatus, for example. New laws on how we respond to road crashes, perhaps a requirement that they all be investigated and lessons learnt. New laws to prevent the National Transport and Safety Authority understating the extent of the carnage on our roads, which they do by nearly 80 percent. Most importantly, new laws on whom we hold accountable for the failures on our roads. Simply blaming the dead and dying victims on our roads will not do.