Tuesday, July 31, 2018

We are human

Most Kenyan adults are not infant-like. They are sensible women and a few men. They hold down, tenuously sometimes, gainful employment. They pay, if their incomes warrant it, their taxes. The found families. They are respected members of the community, for the most part. Few of them still have the child-like curious wonder that leads them to foolhardy stunts like attempting to pet lions or hand-feed buffaloes in the wild. They are, in other words, sensible people who keep a healthy distance from wildlife and don't allow child-like exuberance to lead them to ruination.

The Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife is not one of those sensible Kenyans. He allows fits of pique to guide his tongue. And when his tongue is lubricated by high dudgeon, he lets slip the mask that Kenyan nawabs wear to hide their incivility, their hubris, their boys'-club mta-do-ness. The CS, every now and and then, is a manifestation of the contempt he and his colleagues hold other Kenyans. You can almost hear them doing everything in their power to suppress their innate desires to use terms such as "serf" to describe their fellowman.

It must chomp his butt that Kenya, officially anyway, is a democratic republic in which citizens' rights are protected by the Constitution including the freedom to demand that senior civil servants, like CSs, should be held to account for their acts of omission, commission and stupidity. For decades now it has been impossible to get a word in edgewise whenever questions of public policy have been raised or when the aftermath of the implementation of policies has led to tragedy. Bwana CS came of age when the citizen-serf was to be seen, some of the time, but never to be heard at all. Any citizen-serf that piped up invited the mkono wa serikali to straighten him out post haste. He still can't appreciate that those days, though not completely gone, are being erased with the rough sandpaper of a citizen-driven political and constitutional awakening that, in the fullness of time, will see him and his colleagues accounting for their acts of omission, commission and stupidity in very public and very humiliating ways. It is only a matter of time.

But we must ask: how come Kenya has been cursed by so many petulant political leaders, incapable of keeping their rage on short leashes, allowing it to guide their tongues into the most revelatory explosions? Mr Go-To-Hell is not the first senior civil servant to explode with contempt at the people seeking to hold him to account. He is merely the latest, and saddest. (Sad because he has been forced to swallow his words in public even though he hedged, hemmed and hawed about how he is only human" as if the rest of us are stoic rocks against whom the frustrations of life merely chip and shatter.)
 
If we were to take out our frustrations on the people who have engineered those frustrations, Mr Nobody-Has-Appointed-Me and his colleagues, and the minions that do their bidding, would we be justified in saying that we are but humans when their palaces lie in ruins? Will they accept our excuses as their Prados are smoking husks in the car parks of their golf clubs? Will they hell!

Change the design

Every now and then, Nairobi's notorious public transport suffers a seizure that makes everything decidedly and determinedly worse. Yesterday was such a day. It rained, briefly, in the afternoon. Public transport was screwed up for the rest of the day and well into the evening. My commute back home always begins at the Ambassadeur Hotel stage, but the serpentine queues were to dispiriting to join. So I decided to walk the three and half kilometres to City Stadium stage to catch the Nº36 matatu. And everything that is dysfunctional with our public transport system was revealed.

My walk took me past Tusker stage on Ronald Ngala Stree, through the Central Bus Station, down Uyoma Street to Race Course Road, then left onto River Road past the OTC stage and onto Landhies Road next to Muthurwa Market and past the Kamukunji jua kali market and finally the City Stadium stage on Jogoo Road. The number of pedestrians is massive, but it is not a problem. Cities are the people and if you don't love people then cities are not for you. The "hawkers", in their hustle, with their wares spread out on the pavement and their small children swirling in and out of pedestrians' legs, weren't a problem either. You can't knock a human who has found a way to earn a living that requires patience, resilience, people skills, a thick skin and, surprisingly on many occasions, a sunny disposition. Hawkers are Nairobi and Nairobi is hawkers.

What really was wrong is the absolute lack of space and the incredible noise that public transport generates. It is astonishing, quite frankly. Successive City Fathers have prioritised motorised transport and real estate development at the expense of small-scale and itinerant traders, and pedestrians. Witness the incumbent tom-tomming his road-building and road-repairing initiatives in competition (or is it partnership?) with the national road-building agencies and Ministry of Roads. Whenever they talk about "hawkers", they do so with disdain and anger, promising to "relocate" them to "ultra-modern" and purpose-built markets, "out of the CBD". They don't see hawkers as a valuable component of our city, humans who contribute to its vibrancy, colour and inimitable sense of hope.

It is the same attitude they bring, that they have always brought, when dealing with matatus, the second most common form of transport (after walking) in Nairobi. Most matatu operators are honest and diligent, shifting millions of Nairobians daily from home to work and back. Most matatu operators are made criminals by a system that prioritises money over people.

The three kilometres between Ambassadeur and City Stadium is a study at missed opportunities and an obsession with construction at all costs. Pavements are small, poorly designed and frequently commandeered by motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists, mkokotenis and matatus, in addition to the pedestrians and hawkers who serve them all. Drains and sewers are broken or blocked. And when it rains, even paved pavements turn to muddy paths, forcing many onto the roads and oncoming traffic. It is no wonder that pedestrians (and hawkers) make up the vast majority of fatalities and injuries in road traffic accidents. Half the reason why pedestrians receive the short end of the stick is not just because the City isn't designing public spaces with pedestrians in mind, it is also because building owners have decided to maximise the space they occupy by building on all of it, and building walls on pavements to keep out the riffraff. As a result, more and more people are walking on lesser and lesser space and, consequently, a hierarchy of blame ensues: motorists blame boda bodas who in turn blame mkokotenis who in turn blame pedestrians and who in turn blame hawkers and who are frequently the violent target of the City itself.

We should design the city with the people in mind, re-engineer it to make lives more livable. If we persist in designing the city for private motorists and BRTs that we will rarely use, this sense of violence will never end. For sure, unless dukas spring up where pedestrians and hawkers do business, they will never truly go away. Our problem is not an infrastructure one. It is a design one. Our design problems all emanate from a refusal to see humans, in all their colourful variety, as the reason the city exists. Change the design.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Jicho pevu, blinded


On the evening of 27 April 1993, a DHC-5 Buffalo transport aircraft of the Zambian Air Force crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from Libreville, Gabon. The flight was  carrying most of the Zambian national football team to a FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Senegal in Dakar. Kenya's energy cabinet secretary, seemingly reeling in shock at the arrest and arraignment of senior officers of the Kenya Power company, compared the arrests to one of the most devastating air disasters in Zambian history. The waziri, oblivious to the incredible insensitivity of his words or sentiments, epitomises the ukubwa syndrome that afflicts senior public officers like nothing else ever will.

Every single day, indignities are visited on Kenyans by the Big People in Government, business, academia, religious ministries, and civil society. To be in command of vast sums of money and to employs large numbers of Kenyans s to give you power and to have power in Kenya is often to blind oneself to everything else except the retention and expansion of that power, even if it means forgetting a cardinal truth: even a cat may stare at a king.

It has been an incredible month of insensitivity, especially from our political masters. A governor surrendered himself to the anticorruption commission, was taken into custody, detained and had his bail application determined while he was in custody. The governors' association was unhappy with this and demanded the same executive immunity enjoyed by the president while in office. Meanwhile, a group of twenty parliamentarians were sponsored by Parliament to attend the World Cup finals in Russia. All their expenses were catered for by Parliament. When challenged on their seemingly valueless junket, Parliament's officials first attempted to justify it by saying that these parliamentarian were "benchmarking" so that Kenya could see how to host major tourneys like the World Cup in the future. But soon enough the parliamentarians set aside all pretense and one of them declared shamelessly that he was not about to spend his money to attend the World Cup when Government was there to do so for him.

We are used to Government functionaries being treated like royalty, with access to every kind of luxury an privilege while millions of Kenyans suffer poverty on a scale that has to be seen to be believed. We have never strongly questioned the iniquity and inequity of taxes being spent for the comfort of a political class that has consistently failed to ameliorate the suffering of the masses. And every time we are shocked that a hitherto champion of the downtrodden will enter the citadel and, while promising to bring it all crumbling down, joins in the acquisitive avarice of the rest of the class. What was once billed as the "grim eye", it turns out, was nothing more than the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head. It is a story that repeats itself over and over. And so whenever they find themselves on the wrong side of things, having gotten used to privilege in all things, they will demand further privileges to ameliorate their suffering. And their colleagues and friends will rend their clothes in the streets, pour ash over their hair and wear sackcloth until the unfairness ends. It is why Charles Keter does not see the offensive irony of equating the arrest of Ben Chumo and his colleagues to the death of twenty-five Zambians.

Sooner or later, we keep telling ourselves, the music will stop and we will build a more equitable society. I fear that our famed optimism blinds us to a harsh reality: so long as the society we dream off is to be erected on the foundation of the society we have today, with the structures of power that keep it in place, we will never succeed in that ambition. The power structure we have now is designed to exploit the majority. It is not built for national ambitions. It is the manifestation of elitist greed. In the end, it will consume us all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Why do they hate children?

The Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation wrote an open letter to the students of Kenya's boarding schools entitled "An open letter to students turned arsonists". He did not mince words nor hold back his views. The main thrust of his missive seems to be that regardless of the circumstances prevailing in boarding schools, schoolchildren should only react by "being able to express themselves without resorting to idiotic violent means". It seems that his argument is that schoolchildren should never, ever resort to violence, and if they do, they should face the full force of the law, including imprisonment where they will meet others like them who will teach them a lesson.

The Chairman of the Kenya Examinations Council was not to be left behind. He warned all children who were learning in schools whose facilities had been set aside that regardless of how many schools the students burned down, the examinations body would administer the exams, even if it meant doing so under trees. He warned the children that his council would not be intimidated by the ongoing unrest in schools. He and his council would not be moved by the demands of the children.

The Cabinet Secretary for Education, however, takes the cake. In a stemwinder of a press conference, she covered familiar ground regarding the reasons for the student unrest. National examinations, and the desire by children to cheat in them, featured prominently in her assessment of the basis of the recent unrest. She had similarly hard truths to impart on the children: not only would she encourage the prosecution of any child accused of participating in school unrest, she encouraged the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to refuse to grant them certificates of good conduct in future. In addition, she would make sure that their school leaving papers indicated that they were troublemakers and should be denied a university education and, with it, any opportunity to make something of themselves. She did not just want them to be punished; she wanted their lives to be destroyed.

Government in all its manifestations, and the men who agree with Government's current policies, seems to be in the throes of an anti-child programme of astonishing width and depth. It started with the ham-fisted manner in which the Free Maternity programme was implemented, and then sabotaged, by Ministry of Health officials and their boosters. Then came the multi-billion shilling disaster that was the School Laptops Programme and the fascist way in which the new competence-based curriculum is being rammed down our throats. And this is just the official Government position on things that fundamentally affect the lives of Kenyan children.

But with the recent tirade by the Cabinet Secretary regarding student unrest it is now patently clear that no one in that Ministry gives two shits about the welfare of children. I initially thought that the manner in which the twin disasters at Moi Girls Nairobi had been dealt with had something to do with the powerful parents in that school who intervened in force. But by declaring her support for setting policemen on children for violent protests without addressing the root causes of the violence, I know for damn sure that she does not care at all. What she, and the Government she serves, want is to be obeyed without question and we should be grateful for any small accommodation Government makes.

Children should not set dormitories and other school property on fire. However, when they are brutalised by their teachers, when they are housed like badly treated pets, when their nourishment is of a quality that will make a billy goat puke, when they are denied every single avenue to decompress in the name of high passmarks, and when they are isolated from their parents and other social structures so that the truth about their straitened circumstances remains a secret, the only avenue is violence and I cannot in good conscience hold it against them. That Government, in the haughty demeanour of the Cabinet Secretary and the hostile arrogance of the KNEC supremo, cannot imagine the legitimacy and urgency of the children's demands should be a stark warning about the future and a reminder of the past: disobey us and we will end you. What should scare the bejeesus out of you is that there are influential members of the business community who think that this attitude is the right one.

It is astonishing that a country can be held hostage to the fascist designs of a few men and women. It is astonishing that the debate about the turn of things is confined to social media. But it is utterly crazy that we seem on a rail track headed for Armageddon and it seems that there is nothing we can do about it. What I don't understand is why they hate children with such violent viscera? Do you know?

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Whither art thou, LSK?

We are concerned that Mr Omtatah is getting a lot of leeway in the courts. He relies on information provided by disgruntled elements in a corporation or in government using confidential and privilege information - LSK President Allen Gichuhi as quoted in the Daily Nation on the 2nd July, 2017 (Lawyers accuse Okiya Omtatah of 'taking their jobs')
Why is the Law Society of Kenya concerned with the leeway that the eponymous Okiya Omtatah enjoys in the hallowed halls of justice? What is it about Mr Omtatah's public interest litigation that drives its members up the wall? Could it be that the members of the Society resent being shown up for the empty suits that they are when it comes to the question of the protection of the rights and fundamental freedoms of Kenyans in a badly fractured country reeling from successive botched elections that have left dozens dead, thousands maimed and billions in public and private property looted or destroyed?

When you remember the Society's previous chairmen (before some idiot decided "president" was the title to have), the ones that stand out are the ones that refused to sup with the devil that is the carceral Kenyan State. Paul Muite, Gibson Kamau Kuria and Willy Mutunga stand out because they took one the Kanu Government when the "business community" had completely capitulated to the ruling party's dictates. They led the members of the Society in challenging the State whenever it exceeded its authority and many of its members paid a heavy price for standing up to the State and its agents. But since the heavy wattage campaign of Ahmednasir Abdullahi, the Society has slowly abandoned the central role it had played in the Second Liberation and, instead, it has taken up roles that have slowly compromised its principles. In fact, Kenneth Akide was the last LSK chairman who dared to challenge Government and only because it would have been unseemly of him not to in on election year.

But as a matter of course, today, the Society's interests almost always align with those of Government and very little with those of the people whose rights or fundamental freedoms are under siege today more than ever. And when its members run afoul of Government, or they end up dead at the hands of Government agents, lip service is all they will merit. Willy Kimani, an advocate who still espoused the principles that made the Society great, was murdered by policemen for simply doing his job, yet more than a year later, the Society's presidents are renown for mouthing the right words of grief without actually doing anything. Futile it might have been, but you can bet your last shilling that Paul Muite, Kamau Kuria and Willy Mutunga would have actively participated in the lawsuits that would have been brought against Government for the murder. In Miguna Miguna's words, "the Law Society of Kenya is a toothless dog".

Mr Gichuhi shouldn't be concerned that Mr Omtatah seems to enjoy great leeway in court or that he benefits from confidential information filched from the bowels of Government. No, he should be more concerned that he is the latest in a growing line of LSK chairmen and presidents who wish to form "string partnerships" with Government at a pivotal time in the history of Kenya. The LSK was not meant to be Government's partner beyond the place of its members as officers of the court. The LSK was meant to use the tools of the law available to it to hold the Government to account when every other public institution, including Parliament, had failed to do so. 
 
Mr Gichuhi's problem is that he thinks the LSK is an adjunct arm of the State and he hates Mr Omtatah for reminding him that it is not and never has been. Mr Omtatah has not "taken the mandate of the LSK" nor do Kenyans trust him more than the LSK because "he has made a name for himself". Mr Omtatah has filled the public interest vacuum that the LSK has created by its fecklessness and it is this fecklessness that has made more and more Kenyans to distrust it and repose their trust, instead, in Mr Omtatah. Soon enough, if Mr Gichuhi and his successors are not careful, the Society will not just be a pale shadow of its former self but it will be seen as having betrayed the confidence of the people and to be treated with the same contempt and suspicion that Kenyans treat much of their government. Attacking Mr Omtatah's work is not the solution to what ails the Society. It's time someone reminded the Socity's members of what made them respected and, in some cases, revered.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Succession politics are here to stay

politics n. the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.
It seems that Kenya's tabloid editors have conflated "politics" with the second Kenyatta succession. They pooh-pooh the "early 2022 campaigns" as if, in and of themselves, the campaigns are inherently bad. They also seem to have adopted the president's disapprobation of these campaigns, regardless of the merits of the disapprobation. No one seems to have asked the question though: why shouldn't politicians interested in the second Kenyatta succession not campaign for their preferred putative 2022 presidential candidate in 2018?

Kenya's politics are not unique in their obsessions with individuals, tribes or alliances. Kenya's politics are not unique in their failure to address public policies, the effects of poor governance or the outcomes of entrenched corruption. Kenya's politics has not been about policy, governance or anti-corruption for at least three decades and anyone that says otherwise simply has their head buried in the sand.

There are many things that are wrong in Kenya today. Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta either exacerbated them or studiously refused to do anything to ameliorate the suffering these things caused. What Kenya's presidents have done since Kenya became a republic is to cultivate cults of personality with a view to cementing their authority and clinging on to power at all costs. "Development" in all its iterations has not been a presidential priority if it did not assure presidents of absolute power at all costs.

Whether we like or not, and because of Kenya's poor recent history of presidential succession, the second Kenyatta succession is a ripe topic of political speculation and those intending to be on the winning side are going to exploit the inherent infirmities in the Jubilation to keep the subject alive regardless of presidential wishes. In pursuit of their agendas, they will use whatever political tools at their disposal, including exposing the corruption credentials of key members and the failures of the current regime to improve the economic prospects of many Kenyans. They will highlight the reasons why one person should not succeed the president and why another should. Regardless of how much it shifts focus from public policies and anti-corruption campaigns, the second Kenyatta succession will not fade into the background. It will be the organising principle of Kenya's politics till the matter is settled, one way or the other.

The fallout of the obsession with the second Kenyatta succession is not had to foresee. Elected politicians and senior members of the civil service will be compelled to pick sides, and with their choices, specific public policies will be pursued at the expense of others, which will in turn will affect the manner in which public funds are appropriated and spent. Economic development, such as it is, will not be the primary focus of Government, despite the lip service that will be paid to job-creation, a stable taxation policy, low inflation rates and rising consumer confidence. Who comes after President Kenyatta is the only subject that our political classes are capable of thinking through with some measure of clarity. They are not about to commit themselves to the hard task of doing what politics demands of them: governing.