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Monday, January 21, 2008

Kenya’s Post-election Turmoil: The Dawn of a New Beginning

Ladies and gentlemen, my subject is grim but I wish to open this address on an optimistic note by quoting JF Kennedy. “However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors”. 

The post-election events will no doubt be etched in our hearts and engraved in our history as an encounter with our real self. Think about it as the day you met you, the treacherous kiss and the embrace down the dark alley of hatred and death. The day you came face to face with your cold and cruel heart.
I can almost hear you swear that you do not recognize this person. You say their silhouette reminds you of Burundi, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda.
While we incinerate our brothers and sisters in God’s own sanctuary and amidst murderous orgies on our streets and farmlands, politicians across the land engaged in intrigue and grandstanding. How callous!
That there were malpractices on both sides is incontrovertible. Ordinary Kenyans and Electoral Commission officials committed electoral fraud, all acting at the behest of the political elite. It is instructive that the Electoral Commission chairman does not know the winner of the presidential poll.
Who won the presidential vote? Who is the people’s president? While these are legitimate questions, we have incurred an inordinate cost in blood and treasure. So weather or not someone had their thumb on the vote tally scale clearly generates heat rather than the light that we so urgently need at this dark midnight hour of our young democracy. The more profound question, I believe, is what motivated this monumental and unprecedented travesty of democracy? I am concerned about the psychology and philosophy of the people who fiddled with the votes. But I am horrified that they are a product of our society.
I recognize that this is an unusual position to take, not only in these venomous post-election days, but also in these polarized and polarizing times. You must be weary, like I am, of the dead zone that our politics has become. What are the ideological differences among our politicians? You may ask; where is the ideas market place? You may wonder. In the absence of competitive policy platforms, our politics is shaped by shameful ethnic calculations and held captive by incompetent fraudsters who are impassioned by naked greed.
Clearly, there are valid concerns about the calibre of our politicians. For the most part they don’t happen to be the sharpest tools in the toolbox. Often times this is expressed in very explicit exasperation. The president is befuddled; this minister is semi-illiterate or corrupt; this MP is an alcoholic; that MP is dumb; or I doubt that my MP has the desire get things done. We can go on and on elegantly filleting politicians. Yet I can identify in each politician, the flaws we all suffer.
Therefore, self-righteousness and apathy will not vindicate you or me from the collective sin of irresponsible citizenry. We have all sinned and fallen short. No one among us is without blemish. Ultimately the vanguard of democracy is a responsible and vigilant citizenry, a citizenry that will not sell their soul and motherland for tribe and self- interest.
This is no time for partisan opportunism and political band-aid. Even the boldest power sharing deal with Mr. Kibaki as His Majesty the King and Mr. Odinga as Prime Minister is not the solution!
Although the grievances are political, the turmoil has a deep ethnic baritone and is now acquiring a streak of state brutality. There is no highway that leads easily and inevitably to quick solutions. Neither can we find the answer by merely praying for or preaching and singing about peace. Hollering “one nation, one people” all day long, will not hack it. The end to this round of political tension and lunacy will not necessarily herald a new dawn of equity, tolerance, and social harmony.
Neither tough talk, nor brutal policing nor a ban on live broadcasting will end this tangle. These strategies will only serve to exemplify Mr. Odinga as obdurate and Mr. Kibaki as an archetypal despotic African “big man”. The rest of us wind up as hypocritical, partisan bystanders, at best deeply frustrated.
We must address the root causes of the problem. The current constitution is an impotent, listless document that has woefully failed to deliver even on its modest promises. The constitution and parliamentary standing orders read like the essential survival guide for the executive and the legislature. We have executed social and economic policies that allowed untenable ethnic inequity and poverty to fester but failed to build social cohesion and navigate the path to nationhood.
Our constitution makes the presidency and government a theatre for ethnic intrigue and partisan absurdity. The current constitutional dispensation allows the president to emasculate vital institutions and constrains the civil service to prostrate in servitude to the president. Parliament is an innocuous and sterile ambler that disdains its legislative obligation.
Kenyans must confess to the sin of idolatry. The presidency is supreme deity. His/her tribal folk are saints and archangels, utterly obnoxious in their hubris. Hence, presidential politics and government is necessarily about victorious and vanquished tribes. How barbaric!
How do we create a symbol of sovereignty that is not polarizing but rather one that unifies us for a higher purpose, a chief executive that inspires us to a supreme destiny? How can we model a presidency that serves a cause that is greater than ethnic or self-interest? How can we raise a citizenry whose ultimate loyalty and obligation is not to tribe but to country and posterity?
We must debunk the myth and fantasy of a peaceful and stable nation. We must confront the reality that ours is a fragile, volatile, highly inequitable society, with deep ethnic odium.
Poverty’s greatest ally is inequity and inequity breeds resentment and stokes the ravaging fires of ethnic strife. Too many people believe that nothing can be done to end the despicable social and economic disparities in this country. Instead of hearing the biblical admonition that “the poor will always be with us” as a call to action, we feel an obligation to explain regional disparities using patronizing ethnic stereotypes. We have become cynics paralyzed by our own stereotypes and idiosyncrasies.
A “free market” did not create the regional disparities we see in our country today. Policy and politics created the disparities. For instance, in the Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965, the government decided “development money should be invested where it will yield the largest increases in net output”. This seminal paper deliberately spawned the untenable myth of “high potential’ vs “low potential” areas that continues to misguide planning, public spending and investment priorities in this country.
We have been blind to the most delicate problematic of our experiment with nation building. Empirical research suggests that ethnically diverse societies are prone to corruption, political instability, poor institutional performance, and slow economic growth. Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth tragedy is reflected in painful human scars afflicted by endless ethnic turmoil.
But successive governments have ignored these findings and here I use the word government in its broadest, most appropriate sense to include the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Instead they have been criminally oblivious to the potential danger posed by ethnic division. The founding fathers of our nation are joint authors of our political philosophy; seek ye first the ethnic kingdom. Out of admiration we awarded the second president the dubious accolade of “professor of politics”. We saw ethnic calculations elevated to genius and supreme strategy after the referendum on the constitution. And this election was won not on issues but by fudging ethnic vote tallies.
And yes, ethnic divisions have produced incredible ethnic networks. Some of us are so connected; from the president down to the village chief. These networks have spawned unprecedented fortune, arising from political patronage, influence peddling and rent seeking. But the grave irony is the pervasive ethnic wiring now threatens to short circuit the soul of our society.
If democracy is to live, tribalism must die. Tribalism is evil. Tribalism is a virus in the body politic. The underlying philosophy of democracy, social justice and equity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy and practice of tribalism. All of the dialectics of the logicians can only make them strange bedfellows.
In 2007 I wrote an opinion on Africa’s economic renaissance that was published in both The Daily Nation and The Standard. The central thesis of my argument was and still is “Africa is a tinderbox of fragile ecosystems and resource scarcity (land, water, pasture) lit by the spark of ethnic rivalry and bad governance”. “…the incessant ethnic clashes in Kenya all have roots in resource scarcity” exacerbated by poverty, and ignited by political competition.
At the risk of pontificating, my advice was that “African states must build political and social institutions that generate dynamic stability and social justice”. “Governments must build social cohesion and ease the path to self betterment for their citizens through unbiased access to resources, services and opportunities that will improve earnings, strengthen consumer spending, generate savings and spur investments”.
I refuse to believe that we are tragically bound to the starless midnight of tribalism, and murderous hatred and that the joyous daybreak of harmony and brotherhood can never become a reality. And that every African country must descend down the stairway of needless ethnic hatred and turmoil
How can we begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life? I do not pretend that I know precisely what needs to be done or how to do it. Instead what I propose is a national conversation among ordinary Kenyans, on the ways that our current political discourse divides us and inflames primordial, unhelpful ethnic passions. The framing of this proposition is essentially a construct of who we are, our fears, aspirations and dreams based on our collective realities as a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister, a neighbor, a professional, farmer, pastoralist, university graduate looking for a job etc.
I believe that the elegant tapestry of our personal stories we can provide a decent basis for framing our politics on shared aspirations, ideals, principles and values. Our modest stories can form the foundation for a new political consensus. Most certainly, the fabric of this tapestry that is our common story is woven from the hearty yearning for life, liberty, and the desire to pursue our dreams.
This tapestry is dyed in the faith in simple dreams. An insistence that we all can have a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity are open to all of us. A belief that we can have a roof over our head, tuck in our children to bed at night, fed and clothed and safe from harm’s way; knowing that our education, training and skills and not ethnicity will guarantee a job that pays a decent wage; an insistence that we can start a business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in a political process without fear of retribution and that only votes cast will be tallied.
The amazing congruence of our life stories might move us inevitably and in earnest to tackle the seemingly intractable problems we face as people. Our most urgent problems include unemployment, deepening poverty, decrepit infrastructure, insecurity, lack of access to clean water, poor health care, low incomes, a weak education system, low investment in science and technology, chaotic public transportation, low agricultural productivity, lack of credit to start a business etc.
I am a hard optimist.  My optimism is based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that social ties that bind us together are greater than the wedge that drives us apart; and that my destiny is inextricably bound to your destiny; and that we can break the barriers that make one group artificially superior and another group artificially inferior.
We cannot overlook the urgency of the moment. Our streets are flowing with blood; our soils are scarlet from needless hemorrhage and our backyards furrowed with graves of the innocent.
We have been forced to a point where have to grapple with the tensions generated by decades of mistrust and social inequality. Politicians for years have been talking about peace and unity. This has been the longest talk shown on earth. There is no room at this hour in the inn for hypocritical political talk. It is now peace and unity or non-existence of the Kenyan nation.
That is where we are today. But I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. I see the stars of this nation piercing through the midnight of our turmoil. We are the stars. The collective conscience of the people must rise and shine as the great beacon light of hope.
The hundreds dead did not die in vain. In death they have something to say to every politician who has fed us on the stale bread of ethnic vitriol and the rotten meat of tribalism. They have something to say to every Kenyan who embraces the tyranny of tribalism and rejects the aristocracy of merit, equity and socio-economic justice.
We must grapple with the most complex, weighty political and socio-economic problems of our generation. This calls for strong, courageous and passionately engaged leadership from civil society. We must work tirelessly for justice, social equity and harmony. I know how we feel sometime. Some of us have lost loved ones and treasures untold. Some of us have been trampled over. Some of us have been kicked about. But we must not become bitter and indulge in retaliation and hate campaigns. This will not usher a new dawn. Yes, we will elevate the game of self-righteousness, score some points but ultimately heal no wounds, ease no pains and build no trust.
This botched presidential poll is an unprecedented tipping point, a veritable threshold in our nation’s history. There is a cathartic streak about the post-election turmoil. In a gruesome way though, the turmoil is a kind of emptying of the bowels of compromised, partisan institutions, a cleansing of a flawed constitution, and a purging of socio-economic policies that engineered ethnic inequity and bred poverty.
The killing and plunder calls on us not to be merely concerned with the atrocity of these obviously evil deeds, but to earnestly grapple with the socio-economic and the political philosophy which produced the murderers and the plunderers
Only genuine, robust and bipartisan civil society engagement will revive some hope and steer the political protagonists towards the hard choices they must make; either the travel with us on the hard terrain of deep political and social audit or the highway to their own oblivion.
We are entering what I believe is new kind of politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. Let’s call it open-source leadership. We need a new way to solve our social, political and economic problems.
I believe we can come out this turmoil, stronger and bolder in our resolve to make this nation proud. JFK summarized this possibility as follows “Our problems are manmade - therefore, they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - and we believe they can do it again”.
We have unprecedented tools and capacity to solve our problems. We live in a breathtaking information age. We live in the age of personal computers and search engines, email, mobile phones. And more importantly, the world is flat; giving us the tools and ability to compete, connect and to collaborate. We are no longer helpless captives of ethnic bigotry churned by those who seek to divide us. We simply know better.
Through MySpace, Facebook, BlogSpot and YouTube we now have the liberating power of user generated content, the world as we see it. This is truly open-source. So the politicians can no longer shape our realities and constrain our social networks. We can come to the table and freely interrogate our idiosyncrasies and fears. We can affirm and celebrate our diversity without shame. We can be one people.
We must not despair. Let us realize that as we struggle for justice and social harmony, as we seek to frame a new political philosophy based on merit, fundamental rights and equity we have cosmic companionship. God is on our side. And the hour to act is now. Like Moses, an engaged and dispassionate civil society must lead us across the Red Sea of social inequity and ethnic vitriol to a new kind of politics.
If you have faith in the possibility of a new beginning, if you we have the audacity to act, we will emerge from this dark valley of hatred and death into the sunlit path of hope, liberty and brotherhood.
We as a people must usher the dawn of a new nation, just in dealing with its citizens, confident in its diversity and at peace with itself.
Thank you

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