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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Elections will not deliver good governance for Kenyans

The emphasis on elections has undermined the critical need to build broader systems and institutions that are necessary to undergird democracy in Africa: rule of law, equality, independent institutions, separation of powers, freedom of expression and accountability.

The embrace of elections in Africa has legitimised leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya.

In Kenya especially, democracy has heightened ethnicity and weakened the state. Politicians have strong ethnic identities that undermine electoral competition and obstruct accountable and responsible governance.

In Kenya’s short history of electoral competition, politicians such as Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and William Ruto have all used some combination of violence, fraud and repression to ensure that elections do not undermine their grasp on ethnic power.

As Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford and author of The Bottom Billion writes in his most recent book, Wars, Guns and Votes-Democracy in Dangerous places, democracy with an election-focused facade “has increased political violence instead of reducing it.”

In Kenya elections have entrenched ethnic hatred and stymied social integration and nationhood. Democracy has eroded state authority, crippling its capacity and will to deal decisively with criminal gangs such as Mungiki and host of less charismatic terror mobs.

Democracy has spawned impunity and enabled corruption to fester and impoverish society. Thanks to democracy and the triumph of ethnic nationalism, political leaders are not accountable and worried the least about public opinion.

If democracy was real and elections mattered, I doubt that president Kibaki would use the occasion of a rare press conference to proclaim his marital status on the day of the official release of the most appalling Kenya Certificate Secondary Education results since the introduction of the 8-4-4 education system. You would imagine that Mr. Kibaki would call a press conference because he is outraged that the mean score in Math was less than 20% and that our schools fail too many talented kids.

Newspaper editorials, civil society and religious leaders have all gone to town with a clear message to Mr. Kibaki; sack corrupt ministers and hold fresh elections. But I have news for them. Elections do not matter hence public opinion or voters’ voices for that matter are just a noisy nuisance. And Mr. Kibaki will treat these Pumbavu calls with the contempt they deserve.

We are going on about extra-judicial killings like it all just happened. Police executions are not a new phenomenon. Abuse and misuse of firearms, excessive use of force, extortion and corruption is the nature of the Kenya Police. A government that relies on votes and a fair electoral process to gain power tends to charm rather harm its citizens. This government does not need votes to govern.

I recall the censure motions against Mr. Kimunya and Mr. Ruto. Both of these individuals happen to have a strong ethnic constituency. I will not be mired in the merits of the allegations that were brought against them. But one thing was evident. In the days preceding the parliamentary motions, both MPs went back to their constituencies to drum up ethnic support.

While the two Ministers privatized whatever ill gains, they successfully communized a matter of personal conduct and integrity. The point is that as long as you can fan ethnic passion and dramatize ethnic victimology you are game. With a solid ethnic base, who cares about accountability?

Because elections do not matter, the civil service is bloated, inept and corrupt. There is no incentive to serve on the part of the civil servants. Promotions and access to corrupt deals and networks is pre-ordained by ethnicity. Some departments, faculties and schools in public universities are ethnic fiefdoms.

Where elections do not matter and votes do not count, the quest for power is a duel of life-and-death. Contestants are driven to extremes. Bribery, violence, and misuse of state resources are only mildly foxy as vote winning tactics.

Before the last general elections, the economy had registered the fastest growth in two decades. Progress was spreading beyond Mount Kenya. Kalenjin, Kamba and Luo voted against PNU. Mr. Kibaki was the wrong tribe. With this sort of voting behaviour, there is little incentive for a president to provide national goods.

Kenya is woefully polarized ethnically. Elections as a vehicle for democracy are therefore a curse and an obstacle to accountable and legitimate government as well as socio-economic progress.

To Religious Leaders and Civil Society, elections will not fix a moribund presidency and an ineffective government.

Instead Religious Leaders and Civil Society must lead the effort to build a national identity upon which a Kenyan nation will rise. Only then will elections matter and only then will democracy deliver good governance.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quirky Insights

A recent paper by Stephen L. Macnik et al., appearing in Nature Reviews Neuroscience proposes that neuroscientists should use magicians’ knowledge to inform their research.

Magicians use Visual, auditory and multisensory sensory illusions in their tricks, but they also use cognitive illusions, manipulating people’s attention, trains of logic and even memory. The authors suggest that that these methods should inform and aid the neuroscientific study of attention and awareness.

An example of a visual illusion exploited by magicians is spoon bending, in which a rigid horizontal spoon appears flexible when shaken up and down at a certain rate. This effect occurs because of how different parts of objects (in this case, the spoon) are represented in the brain. Certain neurons are responsive to the ends/corners of the object, whereas others respond to the bars/edges; the end-responsive neurons respond differently to motion than do the bar-responsive neurons, such that the ends and the centre of the spoon seem misaligned when in motion.

Attention can greatly affect what we see-this fact has been demonstrated in psychological studies of in-attentional blindness. To misdirect people’s attention and create this effect, magicians have an arsenal of methods ranging from grand gestures (such as releasing a dove in the theatre to distract attention), to more subtle techniques (for instance, using social miscues).

The use of cognitive illusions-for example, during brain imaging-could serve to identify neural circuits underlying specific cognitive processes. This could also be used to map neural correlates of consciousness by dissociating activity corresponding to processing of actual physical events from the activity corresponding to the conscious processing.

Indeed, scientists too often become too entrenched in their own circumscribed area of expertise. We need do need reminding that a wealth of insight can be found in unexpected places.

There is increasing acknowledgment by the scientific community of the insights that artists have had about human perceptual mechanisms. For instance, painters intuitively knew about pictorial depth cues and opponent processes in colour perception long before these notions were established in vision science.
-excerpts from Scientific American

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Darwin at the Vatican

The Vatican is sponsoring a five day conference to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. They aim to re-examine the work of scientific thinkers whose revolutionary ideas seemed to challenge church doctrine belief: Galileo and Charles Darwin.

Scientists, philosophers and theologians from around the world are converging at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to discuss the compatibility of Darwin's theory of evolution and Catholic teaching.

A leading American scholar of Evolutionary Biology, Prof Francisco Ayala, plans to tell the conference that the so-called theory of intelligent design, proposed by Creationists, is flawed. According to Prof. Ayala, the design of organisms is not what would be expected from an intelligent engineer, but imperfect and worse. In Ayala’s view defects, dysfunctions, oddities, waste and cruelty that pervade the living world are a strong indictment on ID.


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