No Longer At Ease

In Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel, No Longer at Ease, Obi Okonkwo returns to Nigeria after three years of university education in the UK to find the public service rotting under the weight of corruption. Educated Africans have begun taking up posts that were previously the preserve of European expatriates. They expect – and are expected – to live like Europeans. This presents huge financial pressures. Many succumb to temptations to become corrupt. The outcomes are not so pleasant.

The theme of power and corruption is recurrent in pioneering African writing. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has abundantly addressed it in Devil on the Cross as in Petals of Blood and very powerfully in the short story “The Mubenzi Tribesman.” Ayi Kwi Armah deals with it in Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born as does Wole Soyinka in Kongi’s Harvest. And there are many others. Why did this question trouble African writers so early in the life of our new nations and states? Would it appear that the thunderstorm of corruption accosted us just before we got into the house of freedom? If it did, did it intensify after we got in?

While Achebe’s Obi has been critical of corruption in the public service, domestic financial challenges push him the same way. It is always a matter of the desire to satisfy impossible lifestyles in societies that adore grotesque wealth and lavish living. This is regardless of the means whereby the wealth has come. People may complain against corruption. However, they gloat and yearn for corruptly earned things. It should not surprise us that a recent survey in Kenya has revealed that half of the youth think that wealth is good, regardless of the source.

When I was a boy, I used to hear my President say on radio that he had killed an elephant. He invited everybody to bring out their knife. He went on to say that even independence had not come on a silver platter. We had grabbed it. Do we seem to have taken this literally? If we grabbed independence, we were now talking about eating the fruits of independence. And the fruits were to be grabbed. Hence our youth who have closely watched older generations now say that stealing is good. Their dream is to become blatant thieves. But do we judge them harshly? We could say, what kind of youth are we raising? Yet is it the youth or is it the role model?

Eight years ago we frequented the same sports club with Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. We would spend the intervals in our training reflecting about our country. “I have given up on my generation,” Mutunga told me one day, “Maybe your generation could save us. Continue writing.”

Mutunga later left his job at the Ford Foundation for his present job. It was an opportunity to have another fighting chance. For, Mutunga had been one of our teachers at the University of Nairobi in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the absence of legal opposition, the university community found itself filling up the void. The government pushed the academic community into submission by detaining people like Mutunga. He would later work quietly with civil society to address issues of probity and accountability in government and governance. Today he stands on the verge of retirement from the topmost office in the Judiciary. It has been a tour of duty that he will want to reflect about long after his retirement.

The CJ prepares to retire when the Judiciary is at a most critical crossroads. Efforts to reform this institution have not always been well received. Indeed, there are those who have been outright cynical and full of intimidating mockery. When the issue of Justice Tunoi came up a couple of days ago, the political class in the National Assembly fell over itself with mirth. Taking the cue from the Leader of Majority, they went out of their way to scorn the CJ and the Judiciary.

While I have no rigorous knowledge of what goes on in the Judiciary on a day-to-day basis, my layman citizen’s perception is that we have by and large a profoundly reformed and reforming institution. Time and again, the Judiciary has stood its ground against the Executive and the Legislature alike. We have heard them accuse the Judiciary of “activism” and  “frustrating them” in their work. The two branches of government have traditionally done extra-legal things – perhaps even felonious things – and got away with them. They have found this difficult to do under a reformed and reforming Judiciary.

In 1962 Prof. Rene Dumont wrote the book False Start in Africa. He thought that Africa’s development was misdirected. Little did he know that a continental passion for stolen things was going to be the biggest challenge. The independence generation arrived with sharp craving for the good life at no matter whose expense. It plunged into things headlong, gathering everything on the way, regardless of whose they were. It planted the seed of grabbing every money available (GEMA). It has matured.

The next generation – Willy Mutunga’s – followed suit. It arrived with tailor-made omnivorous habits. Yet it also came with hope. People like Willy Mutunga are an aberration, a stumbling block to the raiders’ class. Together with kindred academics, they opened our eyes to the malaise. But whenever they got the chance, they joined the eating ranks and went silent. Some became apologists for decadent systems.

My generation has not done any better. We loot unashamedly. My children’s generation has been watching. To paraphrase Franz Fanon, it is up to them now to discover their true mission. Having done so, they can choose to fulfill it or betray it – the way the rest of us have done. If they choose betrayal, we can only pray there will still be a Mutunga – a remnant seed with the still small voice in a rotten generation. The Mutungas keep our hope alive, regardless that they are ridiculed.

It’s Name Is Public Opinion

“Its name is public opinion.
It is held in reverence.
It settles everything.
Some think it is the voice of God.”

These were the words of Mark Twain (1835 – 1920). His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The American humorist and satirist is best remembered for the two novels Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you have not read them, you are to be envied.

As you continue to be envied, someone should tell you about public opinion as perceived here. Yes, we think it is the voice of God. And it thrives best where the ruling class allows vacuums to flourish. In Kenya, we need a Mark Twain in these days of political quarrels over mysterious Eurobonds and in unending tragedies from acts of terror.

Mark Twain was an enigma who spoke the truth to power and yet remained their friend. He was not bothered about the discomfiture of what he told those in power. He shot straight at them. Yet he remained friends with presidents and fellow artists alike. He was beloved of industrialists and the European royalty. Do the professionals who sit around our big guys in power tell them the truth, or do they just pander to their whims?

While he had political friends, Mark Twain would say things like, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” Or he might say, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.” And I sometimes wonder this way, too.

I stand with the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the wake of the El Adde, tragedy. The scarce information available speaks of a spectacle from hell. Our gallant soldiers were virtually pummeled and pulverized under the overwhelming enemy fire. What went wrong?

In the absence of official communications alternative narratives have emerged. They are mind-boggling narratives. They invariably begin with, “Do you know why they are afraid of saying what happened?” After this it does not matter what else official sources will say. They will be taken as lies. The State ought to know how to release sensitive information to the public. Denials and telling people to stop speculating or sharing horrendous images on social media is like pounding water in a mortar. The more you deny, the more the public believes the alternative narrative. Yes, they believe it is from God.

As Kenya mourns our valiant soldiers, therefore, the government will want to change its approach and attitude to public communications. Leaders like the Minister for Interior, Major (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery, will need to know how to address civilians. The cabinet secretary imagines that you can cover fire with palm of your heavy hand. He imagines further that stern military faces and brusque voices will intimidate people into line. The bad news is that it will not. He must learn the art of persuasion. The weapon of fear will always fail.

More significantly, Mark Twain would tell President Uhuru Kenyatta that he got his priorities upside down. Mark Twain would of course understand why the President has camped at the coast. But he would not accept. Mark Twain would have expected the President to pause in his charm offensive at the coast when he heard about El Adde. But then a by election is in the offing in Malindi. Does the Commander in Chief consider capturing that seat his most important task? Why have we seen photos of a hilarious President enjoying a good laugh with political cronies in these tragic times? Where is sense of occasion?  We have previously seen images of the President in full jungle fatigues at odd times. If there was ever time for that regalia, it is now.

Going forward, government needs to wake up to public perceptions and expectations. It needs to act in a manner that shows that it is not pursuing limited political goals but broad national good. We have previously witnessed State sponsored political prayer meetings for people before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet we are yet to see any such prayers for our soldiers all this time they have operated in enemy space. We know about the diplomatic efforts to mobilize the world against the ICC. But we have not seen similar gusto in building global support against terrorists.

Government needs to get serious about the business of government and public accountability. We saw waste of space and funds when the National Treasury talked about the Eurobond. What they need to say is very simple. Did the Eurobond come in? Where did it go – to do what, exactly? Name the projects by name. If not, then allow us to believe that money has been stolen.

Conversely, the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga disappointed me. After months of saying he would drop a bombshell on the Eurobond he only came out with generalized innuendos and name-dropping. Then he self-importantly refused to appear before Parliament. Now this is how to lose credibility. Does he hold Parliament in contempt? What of the names he dropped?

Dragging people’s names through the sewage without anything to show of it will be counterproductive. Holding Parliament in contempt is equally in bad taste. Central Bank Chair Mohamed Nyaoga has raised fundamental questions about being dragged into the Eurobond. I have seen a copy of lawyer Paul Mwangi’s limping reply. I wait to see how this will pan out.

Meanwhile the challenge of government remains. Honestly, where is President Uhuru Kenyatta? Where is my President? I am not seeing you, I don’t feel you, Mister President.  I only see your alter ego, a politician who is focused on the wrong things.

The Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has this week rolled out its roadmap to next year’s general election. The programme gives the steps that Kenyans will walk through in what is expected to be a democratic process – from recruitment of registration officials all the way to voting and announcement of winners.

However, the commission has not addressed the most important question troubling many minds. How will they restore lost public trust? The credibility of the IEBC has occupied the public mind since before the last election. Kenyans will recall the public spat between the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the IEBC’s Chairman Mr. Ahmed Isaack Hassan. A leaked audiovisual clip showed an angry Mr. Hassan complaining that Mr. Odinga “had threatened IEBC officials.” While the matter was smothered over, suspicion and bad blood between the elections body and a significant constituency has remained. There are those who believe, perhaps wrongly, that the IEBC knew the presidential election result even before the voting. The IEBC must remove this perception.

For three years now, the political Opposition has consistently expressed mistrust for the IEBC. It keeps calling for its reconstitution. The government’s attack dogs respond barking in defence of the electoral body. This gives the IEBC a bad partisan image. Meanwhile, it has also emerged that IEBC officials took bribes from a British firm, Smith and Ouzman, to influence supplies of electoral materials. Some former employees of this firm have since been jailed. The firm has also been blacklisted and fined in the UK. However, back in Kenya, it is business as usual. This matter is hush hushed. The electoral commission goes on with the business of rolling out a fifteen-point programme as if this matter of Chickengate does not exist or bother their conscience.

When the Opposition brings up the issue of Chickengate, voter registration and overall credibility of the IEBC, they are dismissed as “a bunch of noisemakers.” The Jubilee Government is not bothered that at least half of the country considers the IEBC to be a “dangerous tool in their hands.” Nor are the institutions charged with criminal investigation, or with integrity in the public service showing that they are bothered about the reputation of IEBC. Kenya therefore sustains a critical institution whose integrity is in doubt.

For their part, the IEBC officials who have been implicated in the Chickengate Scandal have developed a thick skin. They don’t really care what anyone thinks about them. You can go jump in the sea, for all they care. Now this is a perfect recipe for disaster. Common decency dictates that these persons should step aside, just by the fact itself that those said to have bribed them have been jailed in the UK. Their reputation is fatally injured, unless they resurrect it. They cannot be trusted; at least I don’t trust them anymore. If they can be bribed in the UK they can be bought in Kenya. If they can be paid to compromise procurement of electoral materials, they can be bought to compromise election results. This is the concern of many. It is concern which – if things remain the way they are – will return to haunt Kenya in August next year. This concern should not be taken lightly.

Before IEBC begins rolling out its roadmap in earnest, it must be reconstituted. There is need to restore lost faith in this very important national institution. You cannot go into a game with a huge swathe of stakeholders not trusting the referee. And there are many things, which – rightly or wrongly – entrench lack faith in the IEBC as constituted. I have mentioned Chickengate. Consider also that IEBC has been quietly registering voters in parts of the country for the past three years. They have been working only in easy-to-access parts of the country. This not only disenfranchises citizens in other places, it skews the election outcome even before the elections! Then there is the matter of public communications. Their roadmap talks of planning for “crisis communications.” In this profession, this is called “firefighting.” It comes in when you need to talk your way out of a coffin. Is this the brand of public engagement that the IEBC is planning for? Why?

Consider also that the IEBC has now embarked on recruitment of officials to register voters. The joke of it is that there will be only two officials per ward. This needs to be corrected. The IEBC should get more funds and register voters in a manner that looks credible.

The primary role of the IEBC is to nurture democracy. Its conduct should at all times be beyond suspicion. Officials implicated in scams like Chickengate should be urgently separated from the commission. They should be replaced with men and women of unquestionable integrity.

When you put the question of the reputation of the IEBC together with ongoing arguments about how the Chief Justice should be appointed, you begin seeing preparation for a repeat of 2008. If citizens do not trust the IEBC or the Judiciary – the latter because of the manner in which the CJ was appointed – then you have another electoral tragedy in waiting – only slightly worse than you saw in 2008.

The disastrous dress rehearsal is reinforced by assertions by some people that next year’s elections are about to be stolen. Likewise, there are those – like the Deputy President – who have been saying, “If we defeated you when we were not in Government, how do you expect that we could possibly lose now that we are in Government?” They only make the suspicions worse.

Of course the IEBC deserves praise for announcing its programme. However, institutional credibility is sitting badly. It is in a dangerous place. There is only one way to restore trust – reconstitute the electoral and boundaries commission.

Debacle of The Much

The failure of Burundi peace talks to take off this week should worry Africa. President Pierre Nkurunziza has distinguished himself as the reigning bad boy of Eastern Africa. This has not been without the abetment of his continental peers.

Africa’s ruling class looked on tight-lipped as Burundi’s pot began boiling over, about this time last year. Nkurunziza, to the dismay of many, announced that he would be in the presidential race later in 2015. That was contrary to wide expectation. It was understood that he was coming to the end of a statutory second and final term, in accord with the peace agreement that had rescued his country from the brink in 2005.

Nkurunziza, however, had other ideas and plans. He argued that his first term had been achieved not by popular vote, but through election by Parliament. He was therefore entitled to a second term by popular vote, making it three terms. Clearly, there was a loophole in the peace accord. Nkurunziza has exploited it to his advantage and to the detriment of his country.

Did Nkurunziza always know that he would someday exploit this loophole? Those crafting the peace accord failed to make it watertight. They did not state categorically that the two terms would include what became Nkurunziza’s first term. Regardless, Africa slumbered when ominous clouds began to gather over Burundi.

A power hungry class, Africa’s leaders remained studiously silent.  Some must have hoped that they could in the future find their own strategies to rule forever. In Rwanda, they have recently changed the law and President Paul Kagame has already announced his candidature for next year’s elections. At the very minimum, Rwanda is stuck with Kagame for the next eight years. Across the border, Ugandans are stuck with President Yoweri Museveni for life.

Concern about limited presidential tenure in Africa is a factor of the flawed electoral processes on the continent. With very few exceptions, elections in Africa are exercises in democratic fiction and futility. In one situation, the incumbent pre rigs the exercise by making it impossible for the polls to be free and fair. They interfere with the voter registration exercise. Constituencies perceived to favour the opposition are denied the opportunity to register.

The incumbent beefs up the numbers in his core constituencies by registering even persons who are under age. Even the dead register and rise up from their graves to vote and go back thereafter. Elsewhere, pre-election violence and campaign season violence kicks in. Voter intimidation is rife and rampant. So, too, is vote buying and bribery.

Government and opposition alike shoo up ethnic hostility. They arm their tribesmen with machetes and other crude tools of war.  Sophisticated weapons may also be used against “enemy tribes.” Kenya in 2008 and Rwanda in 1994 have demonstrated that “enemy tribes” can even be killed in houses of prayer. Nothing is sacred.

Electoral bodies are constituted in biased fashion and often take instructions from State House and from the military and security instruments. In the worst-case scenario, the voters’ statement remains silent inside the ballot box while the electoral body is made to announce completely different results. Stuffing of ballot boxes is normal, as are shortages of voting materials or delayed kicking off of voting in opposition areas. The Judiciary may be weaved into the conspiracy where its intervention is sought. The incumbent ensures that he controls the Judiciary.

The foregoing malpractices, and many more, render our so-called democratic elections in Africa completely useless. Without term limits, an African incumbent could rule forever. In the circumstances, presidential term limits are safety valves for our troubled nations. Without them, we will fight.

The least that institutions like the African Union and the East African Community can do is to protect term limits. But why should we expect them to do this? Don’t we hope in vain? For, African leaders have demonstrated that their unions are exclusive membership clubs for conspirators. They only talk when a member is in trouble, either at home or with the international community. The effort to mount peace talks in Burundi is not, therefore, about restoring normalcy in this troubled nation. It is about rescuing Nkurunziza.

Nkurunziza has meanwhile told his friends in the AU that he will accost their troops, should there dare set foot in Burundi as peace keepers. His government should be left alone to slay as it may. When he gets indicted before the International Criminal Court sometime to come, the same club will go allover the place chanting about “African solutions to African problems.”

Back in Kenya, the drums of war have begun beating. They ring with the unmistakable sound of 2006 – 2007, ahead of the disaster that would follow. The opposition says that the incumbents have begun rigging next year’s election. They say in law that res ipso dictum – which is to say that things speak for themselves. But even when things don’t speak for themselves, politicians engage in reckless talk that could sink society. Deputy President William Ruto goes to Kakamega to tell the people, “We beat these useless people when we were not in government. How do they imagine that they are going to beat us now that we are in government? That is impossible.”

You are still pondering over the wider significance of the Deputy President’s words when a Cord defector turned Jubilee zealot blurts, “We are going to win this election. No matter what, we will win. We will rig. And if we cannot rig, we will steal.” Consider that he says this in the presence of the Deputy President.

Put this together with hostile early campaigns. Disaster is not too far. If the political class cannot speak cautiously and sensitively, it should keep quiet. Religious leaders, NGOs, the media and the academic fraternity must protect the public from the injurious messaging of the political class.