Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 1

The push for political pluralism: Saba Saba, live bullets and  ‘political’ trees 

Today’s excerpt, the third, covers the early 1990s. Prof Maathai’s tribulations at the hands of the government continue, as she joins hands with like-minded pro-democracy forces in the struggle to liberate Kenya and Kenyans from the stranglehold of dictatorship, fear and politically instigated murders.

As you will see, which would be ridiculous and laughable if the implications were not so grave, even trees were apparently considered ‘political protestors’, with trees on the wrong side of the political divide being ‘punished’ and ‘persecuted’ for their apparent ‘political crimes’.

Today’s star quote from Prof Maathai that features in the excerpt below:

“No matter how much you try to destroy it, you can’t stop truth and justice from sprouting.”

In her time, history, proved her right. So today, let us seize these precious encouraging words she bequeathed to us, and know that they [will] still apply in our time.

My lesson from the good Professor’s recollections today is that no war is ever won in one round – it’s always, and only, won one battle at a time, and we’ve made immense progress since the dark 1990s Prof Maathai recalls in today’s excerpt, all thanks to those who fought for us.

And what can we learn from these unflagging and ‘unflagged’ champions of freedom? That with each battle lost, we must rise yet again to face the next one, because we must always, always, remind ourselves that the battle is not the war, and that the war is far from over, even as we will suffer numerous defeats in battle along the way on the march to eventual victory in the war. Be courageous, be courteous, and – above all – never, ever give up!

But enough from me: I bow before one so much better able to say it, because it is after all her story. Prof Maathai now ‘speaks’ to us in this 3rd excerpt from her autobiography entitled, Unbowed: One woman’s story.

Nobel Peace Laureate, the late Prof Wangari Maathai, in younger days. The April 1 2013 Google Doodle honoured her on the day that would have been her 73rd birthday. She will remain Forever Young, in the sense of never diminishing in our memories. Like the trees she left behind, she can only but grow and sprout seed, regenerating again and again. Her place and shining role in history are secure and immortalised for all the world to see (even if not Kenya).

It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don’t know who to trust, you worry that you, your family or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassination or targetted ‘accidents’ is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.

After February 1990 when the Times complex was effectively dead the government attitude hardened towards the Green Belt Movement and me, and its actions became even more hostile. That same month, Kenya’s popular foreign minister, Robert Ouko, who was considered a strong supporter of President Moi and was tipped to be his successor, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. I realised that I was now a political figure and that I had to take care, even as I couldn’t stay silent.

Far from suppressing the opposition, Ouko’s death and the government’s reaction only emboldened the pro-democracy movement. In May 1990, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga all called for the reintroduction of a multiparty system, holding a mass pro-democracy rally on July 7, even as the government had banned the gathering. The assembly descended into a riot when security forces attacked the crowd with live ammunition, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

Still, Saba Saba (7/7 in Kiswahili to mark the date of the rally) was a turning point in the history of the struggle for truly representative democracy in Kenya. It showed me quite clearly that the struggle for freedom in our country had not ended in 1963.

I decided to honour those killed on Saba Saba by planting a small grove of trees in Uhuru Park. Over the next few years, elements suspected of being sympathetic to the goverrnment periodically tried to slash the trees by slashing and even burning them. This kind of vindictive vandalism was common among the regime’s agents and supporters.

Yet, the trees, like us, survived. These trees, like Saba Saba, inspired me. They showed me that no matter how much you try to destroy it, you can’t stop truth and justice from sprouting. In August 1991, Oginga Odinga and others founded the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) as an opposition force to KANU, and invited many people active in the pro-democracy movement, including me, to join them. My work to protect Uhuru Park had raised my profile as an advocate not only for the environment but also for human rights. Although FORD was itself declared illegal, it scheduled a huge pro-democracy rally in Kamukunji Park in November 1991. The govenment naturally banned the event. Police officers cordoned off the park grounds, and when hundreds of demonstrators assembled despite the ban, they used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. At least two people died, and many opposition leaders and journalists were arrested.

The pressure, however, for multipartyism was too great, and in December, President Moi was forced to accept its reintroduction and schedule national elections for the end of 1992. While the government gave up its claim as the sole party, though, it only tinkered with political and constitutional reform, and retained laws giving the government disproportionate power. We still faced the risk of being arrested on trumped-up charges and without guarantee of trial. and it remained difficult to discuss the need for real democracy without being harassed or detained.


The next excerpt will be on the troubles that lie ahead for Prof Maathai on allegations of coup-plotting, for which she will suffer terror and brutality to the point of physical tears.

For additional glimpses into this dark and divisive chapter in our history seen through a contemporary window, and what was to happen to other pro-democracy leaders and advocates, see this story penned on Saba Saba 2012.

We must never forget.

And because I have again only presented part of Prof Maathai’s story above, do buy the book for the complete story, including her refusal to stay in ‘safe harbour’ in USA while on a visit there in stormy early 1990, despite being offered a job there in the interests of keeping her safe. She instead opted to return home to the ‘storm’ and continue the fight.

I salute her bravery, single-mindedness and incredible and undaunted determination. ‘Uncowered’ and unbowed she was.

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Wangari Maathai, in her own glorious and eternal words – Fighting for freedom

The battle for Uhuru Park

April 1 2013 Google Doodle honouring the late Prof Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Laureate, who would have been 73 today.

Unbowed: One woman’s story by Wangari Maathai

This second excerpt from Prof Maathai’s autobiography above is from the chapter Fighting for freedom.

Unlike the previous excerpt from Seeds of change, this one has been abridged in the interests of brevity. Even then, it’s still a longer read than the previous excerpt, but breaking it into two would have interrupted the flow, and left you on a cliffhanger.

In today’s excerpt, the free media live up to their role as intrepid whistleblower and public watchdog, and are no handmaidens of the Executive, at a time when the media did not enjoy even a fraction of the freedoms that are theirs today.

Eerily reminiscent of present discourse in some quarters of Kenya today, you will find allusions by those who were then in power to our precious sovereignty being threatened by elements who are puppets of the West. The events unfold in the year following Kenya’s 25th anniversary as a republic, and we’re now in the year of our Golden Jubilee at 50.

As you will see, for her efforts to save this public park, Prof Maathai was derided and openly abused in the foulest manner by (a male) Parliament no less, and attacked as a woman. Her riposte on anatomy is a stellar quote that will ring for generations to come!

If I may digress just slightly to a fitting citation to frame things on context in Prof Maathai’s single-soldier battle to save Uhuru Park:

Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Our Common Future (aka Brundtland report), World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987

Prof Maathai now ‘speaks’ (albeit abridged):

In 1989, a young law student knocked on my door. He told me he had learned from very reliable sources that the government was planning to build a skyscraper in Uhuru Park. Its lawns, paths, boating lake, and stands of trees provide millions of people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air. As envisioned, the complex would consist a tower of sixty storeys high, and would house, among other things, the headquarters for KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper (the organ of the ruling party), a trading centre, offices, an auditorium, galleries, and parking space for 2,000 cars. The tower would be the tallest of its kind in Africa, and the complex would cost in the region of KES 4 billion (then about USD 200 million). Most of the costs would be funded through a loan guarantee from the government to the private investors involved (reportedly including Robert Maxwell of London’s Mirror Group Newspapers).  The plan also called for a huge statue of President Moi.

I wrote a letter to the managing director of the Kenya Times inquiring about the complex and urging him not to build it if the rumours about the plans were true. I reminded him that future generations were relying on us to keep the park in the form that it had been bequeathed to us. I sent copies of the letter to the Office of The President, the Nairobi City Commission, the Provincial Commissioner, the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources, the executive directors of UNEP, and the Environmental Liaison Centre International. I also sent copies to the Kenyan Press, and a small story about my appeal ran in the Daily Nation on October 4. In the manner typical of the government of the day, the regime ignored me.

Shortly after, I discovered the construction would require demolition of two historic buildings, so I wrote to the director of the National Museums of Kenya who had recommended that the buildings be preserved, asking for his support. I copied this letter to, among others, the people I had sent my first letter to, the executive director of UNESCO, the Ministry of Public Works, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for National Security and Administration, and the managing director of Kenya Times (again). Nobody could say that they were unaware of our concern.

I also shared my letters with the press. Fortunately, many journalists were very interested and pleased that I was raising this issue, and as they reported on my new campaign, people around the country began to take notice. Kenya was still reeling from the blatantly rigged elections just a year earlier, and many Kenyans, including the press, felt powerless against the government. They were, therefore, happy that someone was speaking out. In a letter in response to a media story quoting the Minister for Local Government and Physical Planning criticising the “ignorant few” opposing this “fine and magnificent work of architecture”, I closed with an appeal: “We appeal to Nairobi residents to raise their voices even higher: ‘Do not be afraid of speaking out when you know you’re in the right. Fear has never been a source of security…If the ministers ignore us, we will keep going until our faint voices reach the President…He too claims to be an environmentalist and he cares for his people.'”

At the heart of all my letters was a simple question: “Is it true?” All the government had to do was answer yes or no. Fortunately, the press made it impossible for the government to ignore me entirely. Reporters went to the people I’d written to and asked them, “Have you told her whether it’s true or not?” The officials would splutter and call me names and suggest that something was wrong with my head and the press would then faithfully come and tell me and the country what had been said about me. In turn, I would write to the officials and demand that they explain why they had told the press what they had. This went on until the building of the Times complex became a national discussion.  The main justification the project’s proponents offered were that it would be a prestigious project, looks magnificent and that the tower would provide spectacular views.

The government was so arrogant that in addition to not answering my letters directly and belittling my concerns via the press, it began to abuse me in public. On November 8 1989, members of Parliament (MPs) used a procedure preserved for a national emergency to interrupt their debate to discuss…me. For 45 minutes, MPs expressed their outrage. How dare I write to a foreign government over what they considered a sovereign issue! Had not Kenya achieved independence years ago? And yet there I was threatening to take them to a colonial past! The complex would not affect the park at all…The President himself was internationally recognised for his commitment to the environment. The Greenbelt Movement was a bogus organisation. I wasn’t an MP: what mandate did I have to speak for the people?

Then the abuse turned personal. To the cheers of a packed house, one MP said that because I had supposedly repudiated my husband in public, I could not be taken seriously and that my behaviour had damaged his respect for all women. He accused me of incitement and warned Green Belt Movement members (my “clique of women” as he called them) to tread carefully. “I don’t see the sense at all in a bunch of divorcées coming out to criticise such a complex,” he concluded. Some suggested that if was so comfortable writing to Europeans, I should go and live in Europe…All this could have gone on much longer had not the Speaker stepped in and called an end to the farrago. But he had a final dig: “We hope Maathai has heard the sentiments of this House,” he said.

Yes, I had, and I wasn’t going to take those slanders lying down. I wrote a letter to Philip Leakey, my MP and Assistant Minister for the Environment. I explained that the only reason I had written to the British High Commission was that one of the investors in the project was Robert Maxwell, whose whereabouts I did not know. I noted the President’s interest in the environment and said that it was precisely because of this concern, which I shared, that I had thought if I raised my voice about the Times complex, he might hear me.

Far from acting against the spirit of the 25th anniversary of Kenya’s independence from Britain, I continued, I was acting in the spirit of Uhuru (freedom). “When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning,” I wrote, “I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.” I had no intention of fleeing Kenya – for Europe or anywhere else. “This is home and this is where I will be. I hope that I will be buried right here in the heart of it.”

At another time and in another forum, I told Mr Leakey that I would discuss my marital status with the MPs, since they were so interested, but I wanted to keep the focus on the issue at hand. “The debate is on the proposed Times complex at Uhuru Park,” I wrote, and MPs should not be distracted by, as I put it, “the anatomy below the line (if they know what I mean!).” In spite of what the MPs might think, I assured him, my being a woman was irrelevant. Instead the debate over the complex required the us of “the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck!”

On November 15, at an official ceremony, ground was broken for the complex. On November 16, I wrote to the President, urging him in an appeal of “last resort” to stop the construction of the complex. I suggested that saving Uhuru Park for Kenya’s children, ordinary people and future generations would be symbolic of his personal commitment. I felt, I wrote, “like the Dutch boy at the dyke as the sea swelled,” with the President as the last hope.

I never heard back.

At the end of November, I sought an injunction in the High Court to halt construction but the case was thrown out on December 11. By this time, the independence of the judiciary had been so compromised that the decision did not surprise me.

The personal attacks continued. In early December, President Moi gave the project his seal of approval and offered his opinion that those who opposed the complex had “insects in their heads.” On December 12, Jamhuri (Republic) Day when Kenyans celebrate independence from Britain, the President gave a speech in Uhuru Park, no less…where he suggested that if I was to be a proper woman in “the African tradition” – I should respect men and be quiet.

Promopted by Moi, who wondered in that speech why the women of Kenya had not spoken out against this “wayward” woman, the leadership of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, our former National Council of Women colleagues and now a faithful branch of KANU, criticised me for “having belittled the President and the government.” They held rallies and press conferences to denounce me. At one point, they suggested I had “gone astray and should seek guidance from [my] fellow women.”


Prof Wangari won the battle for Uhuru Park.

The gem of nature in Nairobi that is Uhuru Park stands, ‘tree-ful’ and complex-free, all thanks to this indomitable woman. For details on how this came about, and the further personal and professional tribulations Prof Maathai faced paying the price to secure the park for posterity, please get yourself a copy of her highly recommended autobiography.

One of her women critics in that last paragraph in the extract above features on recent party nomination lists following the March 4 election, where, 25 years down the road, she is quoted as saying she “will champion  peace and women issues in the Senate.”

Next excerpt will be from the chapter Freedom turns a corner.

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Wangari Maathai, in her own glorious and eternal words – Seeds of change

Unbowed: One woman’s story

Prof Wangari Muta Maathai
1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011

Were the peerless environmentalist, human rights activist and Nobel Laureate, Prof Wangari Muta Maathai, still walking among us, she would have been 73 tomorrow, April 1. Today is Christianity’s Resurrection Sunday – a fitting day to revive the memory of she who is sadly no longer with us.

Starting today, I will post reflections on, as well as excerpts from, her autobiograpy, Unbowed: One woman’s story, that we may once more hear this valiant leader par excellence, in her very own words. She who bravely trod where few would dare to tread, never once hesitating to go against the grain or swim against the current, no matter how strong.

For us, Prof Maathai was a national icon, heroine and role model. To Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, she was family: they lost their mother. Prof Maathai dedicates her autobiography to them, and to the memory of her parents.

Her autobiography opens with a quote from the Bible, that aptly covers the cause she devoted her life to:

The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in the land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them.  Ezekiel 34:27

In today’s excerpt, Prof Maathai ‘speaks’ on a burning topic in Kenya currently – elections and democracy. We not only remember her fondly today, but also her cause, and how far Kenya has come in institutionalising democracy and reforming the electoral process. This is only so because women and men like her stood up for us and fought for our rights. Shukrani Mama.

But we still have more miles to go, and we are the generation that should carry forward the gains she and others won for us, and push the boundaries yet further. Yes, we’re still not where we should be, and the Independent and Electoral and Boundaries Commission has much to answer for on its handling of the March 4 elections, even as the Supreme Court has already delivered its verdict on the petitions questioning the result, while we wait to hear the reasons underpinning the Court’s ruling in the next two weeks.

That said, it still does us no harm to look back, so that we may also appreciate just how far we’ve come, and, even more importantly, why we should now have absolutely zero-tolerance to electoral mismanagement, to dictatorship, and to poor governance in our day. We are, after all, the rightful heirs of Prof Maathai and her comrades-in-arms in their fight for a free and just society. As Uraia Trust remind us, Wakenya wana haki na majukumu – Kenyans have rights and responsibilities. Let’s use our rights to exercise our responsibilities to demand and ensure responsible governance.

Over now to Prof Maathai now, in an excerpt from the chapter Seeds of change, from which we should draw much inspiration:

In 1988, supporters of greater political openness in Kenya focussed their energy and commitments on that year’s national elections. The Green Belt Movement joined others in carrying out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reforms and political space to ensure freedom of thought and expression. In this way, the Green Belt Movement was not only an environmental, women’s and human rights movement, but also part of the broader movement for democracy.

We hoped that these elections would provide the people of Kenya with a fairer and truer representation of their aspirations and beliefs. To our dismay and despair, however, the elections  were the most disturbing and distorted in Kenya’s history. The government introduced a highly controversial system of “queue” voting. Voters lined up behind their candidates and election officials counted each line and then told the people to go home. When election officials announced the winner, it was often the candidate with the shortest line of voters behind him!

Since the voters were at home, there was nothing that could be done: the winner had been declared. The vote-rigging was so blatant that people who had lost their races were declared the winners in broad daylight with no embarrassment whatsoever on the part of the government.

After the elections, Parliament passed a bill to further limit the independence of the Kenyan judiciary. The press was harassed and intimidated too. The Daily Nation, one of the country’s most widely read newspapers, was banned from covering Parliament for four months. Many of us in the pro-democracy movement felt depressed and helpless. “This ruling party is going to be here forever,” we said to one another. This was not helped by the fact that after the elections President Moi declared that KANU would rule for a hundred years.

I knew that we could not live with a political system that killed creativity, nurtured corruption, and produced people who were afraid of their own leaders. It would only be a matter of time before the government and I came into further conflict. The incident that brought me into direct confrontation with the government began, simply and essentially, with one person deciding that something had to be done to protect Uhuru Park.


Next – the battle for Uhuru Park in the chapter Fighting for Freedom. And if you can’t wait, then please do buy the book. It’ll be worth every cent.


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Back to ‘Baba’, ‘Mtukufu’ and fear?

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance” so said USA’s Thomas Jefferson.

Over the last few weeks in Kenya since the March 4 election, we have witnessed the defilement of democracy in the name of peace, as in the tweet below, that takes away our rights to peaceful assembly:

Are we headed back to the the terrible dark days of no freedom of speech or assembly? Being careful what you say, where, and to whom? Looking over your shoulder before you furtively whisper? There has been a steady stream of worrying signs that this could indeed be the case. Are we sliding back to Executive fiat supported by a police-state and entirely revolving around cult-worship of Baba and Mtukufu Rais (whose sacred person alone embodies the hallowed serikali), totally suppressing the other two arms of government? The Legislature and Judiciary provide the necessary checks and balances in a democracy.

President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta while reassuring constitutional commissions of his government’s support was also however reported on March 16 2013 as urging “the bodies to exhaust internal mechanisms in addressing challenges that arise while performing their duties before taking their differences to the media.” Hmmmh… not very clear on when these mechanisms are to be deemed to have been exhausted, and far be it for the Fourth Estate to report on any such knuckle-knocking, in their  recent rebirth as peace evangelists and the hand-maidens of the Executive – blinkered, muzzled, and abdicating their role as public watchdog, trading it instead for Executive’s poodle.

Three days prior, on March 13, the government wagged a warning finger at foreign journalists in this article whose heading was a throwback to the Moi years: an innocuous and warranted act in and of itself, but fitting into the time-series of events since March 4, perhaps not so innocent and indeed worrying. Why crack the whip on foreign journalists at that point in time? And why after an election whose presidential result is the subject of a petition now  before the Supreme Court? What next? Will Kenyans running blogs and micro-blogs also need to sign up with the government?

Yet another vile creepy-crawly from the ugly past that worked its way out of the woodwork was the sickening sycophancy following IEBC’s March 9 announcement of the President-elect. Surely, we cannot return to  the presidential personality cult venerating the Prince of Peace reigning over our blissfully happy Island of Peace surrounded by a chaotic sea of tumult? Mwalimu namba moja, Mkulima namba moja Baba, namba moja ad nauseum, and his chama which was Baba na Mama to all Kenyans, whether they liked it or not? Kenya is approaching the ripe old age of half-a-century as a republic. We’ve come of age. We’re not children, and we never were. We don’t need an omniscent father-figure paternalistic President. The President is a first among equals who we, the people of  Kenya, have contracted (yes, hired) and granted the powers to govern. The President is not a demi-god who is ever to be worshipped and never to be questioned.

Each of the events above is innocuous standing alone. But stringed together, a deeply disturbing pattern is emerging, playing out a sinister script from a ruinous past we thought we’d petrified.  A pattern complete with attacks on the West and trumpeting our sovereignty, when in reality, we are the ones being played, and it is our own rights that are to be trampled. And that’s not all: in the murkier alleys of Kenya’s blogosphere, civil society – the one entity that can stand up to a rogue Executive where the opposition has been cannibalised (as our recent history attests) – has been branded as ‘evil society’. ‘Activist’ has been corrupted into a dirty word. It doesn’t stop there: in what has all the hallmarks of a calculated and systematic smear campaign, aspersions have been cast on the personalities of some of the  judges at the Supreme Court, including its President, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. The judiciary he presides over is the one institute rising out of the 2010 Constitution in which Kenyans thus far have faith. Need I say more?

Competitive politics is a key cornerstone of democracy, and in that competition, the rules of the game must be fair, the playing ground even, with a recourse and clear pathway to prompt justice for any aggrieved party. Faithfully following in the footsteps of his three predecessors, it would appear that Uhuru is already working to dismantle and eviscerate the future political opposition, holding court with various party representatives in the name of inclusion and unity. With Jomo Kenyatta, the reasons stated was pursuit of a unitary state; with Moi, we remember the (in?)famous defections to the ruling party which completely crippled the opposition; with Kibaki, he raided the opposition benches to form a so-called government of national unity, following his fallout with his erstwhile comrades-in-arms during the campaigns over a pre-election pact he disregarded. With Jubilee already raiding opposition benches even before the houses have sat, they are marshalling the numbers to ensure that they will simply roll over any opposition that stands in their way. A non-existent or totally impotent opposition is not healthy for democracy, regardless of who is in power. Given who could be in power should the current status quo be upheld by the Supreme Court, there are troubled times ahead for good governance, stemming and prosecuting corruption, reining in the runaway greed of MPs (who are already preparing to fire their first self-serving salvo for higher pay), and, most importantly, the 2010 Constitution whose provisions and gains could be easily overturned. The stand Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto took on the Integrity Bill that sought to operationalise Chapter Six of the Constitution on leadership and integrity is very telling.

When Uhuru’s closest contestant in the presidential race, Raila Odinga, alleged there were irregularities in the election, his contestants responded with unsollicited advice that if dissatisfied  he should go to court. Well, Raila did move to court, and I doubt it was on account of this unsollicited advice. His contestants promptly changed tune: elections are over, Kenyans are fatigued by the process, let’s move on.  It would appear that any alleged irregularities in the electoral process were of no concern to them, as long as their side had won, and any scrutiny of the process was obstructionist and a political ploy to cut the wind in their sails.

Legitimate questions have been raised on how the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission conducted the electoral process, and not just by the petitioners of the matter currently before the Supreme Court. Indeed, following revelations at the Court hearings, some observers have qualified their reports on the election, separating the voting exercise from the result transmission, tallying and announcements done by IEBC. We should one and all as citizens – voter and candidate, victor and loser – be supremely concerned on the integrity of the electoral process. Voting is the greatest equaliser in our otherwise uneven society. Your vote, mine, Uhuru’s, Moi’s, Raila’s, Kibaki’s – each and every one of them bears exactly the same weight. At the booth, we are all equal. Nobody, nobody, should take this sacred right away from us, and then, as if that were not enough, present their foul bastardised figures clothed in the protective cloak of the will of the very people they have robbed! Anyone that knowingly and deliberately alters figures in order to affect electoral outcome should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. In my view, such conduct should be treated as high treason for the heinous stinking crime it is. A bunch of individuals cannot subvert broad-based elections of leaders by the people into narrow selections of the candidates of their choice. Otherwise, why should we bother to vote or have faith in the electoral process?

Recalling his detention by the Moi regime  in this article, Justice Mohamed Ibrahim of the Supreme Court, who was then a young lawyer in 1990 says “It made me to appreciate the meaning of liberty, and it inspired me to support the liberation movement and a just society.”

The price of democracy is indeed eternal vigilance, and not eternal peace, as we are being led to believe.

Wakenya, tafadhali tusilale! We must be eternally  vigilant, and now more so than any other time in Kenya’s history, when we’re at a tipping point towards progress in implementing the 2010 Constitution and giving it the the additional teeth it needs, or a slide backwards into a police-mediated and enforced ‘peace’.

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Questioning the ‘peace’: Our destiny is in our hands

High voter turnout is testament of our faith in the electoral process. Nobody is allowed to rob us of it
I don’t know for certain how many of the 14 million or so registered voted in the March 4 election, since it now emerges that IEBC failed to publish a final register prior to the elections, which would have been the irrefutable baseline to compute voter turnout. But it’s safe to simply say ‘many’. Let’s go with a percentage that is sure and undisputed which could be indicative: turnout for the referendum on the Constitution in 2010 was a healthy 72.2 percent.

The high voter turnout then, and again in March 2013, are testament of the faith Kenyans have in the electoral process and the ballot box. Nobody, NOBODY, is allowed to take that away. Not Uhuru Kenyatta, who some would say never fought for it, nor Raila Odinga, who openly fought for it, but does not own it. We, the people of Kenya, now solely OWN the electoral process.

For this faith in the electoral process to endure, the results declared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) MUST be squeaky-clean, stand scrutiny (nay, welcome it) and be completely above board and question, with no ifs or buts. This really is the crux of the matter: fidelity of the result is the one ‘candidate’ that MUST win, and whose ‘win’ we should all seek, otherwise nobody wins and we all lose. Questioning the results is not only a constitutional right, but should be an imperative for all citizens of goodwill that rightfully demand transparency and public accountability in the institutions we so generously fund, and the well-paid officers that staff them whose first and only duty and loyalty is to we, the people of Kenya and our law, and not to any political coalition, faction or state functionary.

Our media
Thus far, the local media have been a complete and total let-down and washout, giving only one side of the electoral credibility story, particularly in the critical hours and days that followed IEBC’s tallying and declaration of the results for the presidential elections handing victory to the Jubilee coalition, results that the CORD coalition disputes, with CORD set to file a petition to the Supreme Court tomorrow. In the build-up to, and following, the announcement of results, the Kenyan social media scene was ablaze with strident and vociferous voices from both sides, and it was difficult to discern exactly what was going on. It was a profound shame during that stage to have to resort to foreign media in search of a complete and balanced picture of just what was happening. Yes, foreign media, the very ones that Kenya’s twitterati (#KoT) had roundly subjected to a thorough tongue-lashing prior to the elections on their (foreign media) obsession with template narratives soaked in blood and laced with gratuitous violence. I suppose as an antithesis of this, the local media were all peace, peace, peace.  But they needed to have drawn a line on the sand, which they failed to. Njonjo Mue in a Facebook post on 7 March reminded us that “Kenya is a democracy, not a peaceocracy.” He went on to say “It is disconcerting that everyone who tries to raise concerns, however legitimate, about the conduct of the elections is being shouted down as endangering the peace.” Meantime, the local media donned in their newly acquired self-censorship garb, continued to dose us for the ‘peace lobotomy ‘(see link below) we had undergone. It was particularly telling that a TV station that was covering Raila Odinga’s statement after IEBC declared presidential  results abruptly (and without any explanation lest we endanger the ‘peace’) cut away to cover Jubilee celebrations the minute Raila started questioning the presidential results, and before the question session.

Sadly, the local media are now where the faith leaders were in the 2007 election. While the Fourth Estate may not be as openly partisan as the clergy then were, like the clergy, they too have failed to uphold public interest and the public’s right to know, which is supposed to be their sole business and raison d’être, as the public watchdog. By all means, dear media, tell us what is going on in a matter that so profoundly affects our country, but don’t be the ones to decide what we should or should not see or hear at a momentous and history-setting time like this.

The local media have tried to reduce us to a nation of mindless, docile and unquestioning ‘peace-tranquilised’ herd of ‘sheeple’, and not a people with inalienable rights. This up-in-the-clouds herd on a ‘peace high’, surely, is not, cannot be, the Kenya we want. Or, at least, not the one the majority of Kenyans want. Such pie-in-the-sky peace cannot endure. The centre will not hold. It will unravel.

Questioning , scrutiny and dialogue are healthy democratic pillars. Both sides of the presidential contest should welcome this probing: for Jubilee, it would vindicate their presidential win. For CORD, it will give them the right to be heard on their grievances on perceived injustices. From what I’ve seen, both sides have committed to accept a just ruling from the Supreme Court. Surely, we do not want to endure yet another five years with a stubborn indelible stain and perpetual strident question mark on the winner of the presidential elections? We cannot afford that, and we deserve better, as a right springing from the law of the land, and not as a political privilege handed down to us, or denied to us. For this right, and for myriad reasons including IEBC’s conduct that begs very many questions, I support CORD’s petition, and any other petition that questions the electoral process to make it more robust and reaffirm our much-needed faith in the ballot box. And I also hope that, separate and apart from the petion(s), there will also be a thorough leave-no-stones-unturned audit of the IEBC, including its financial management.

Our destiny
Back to the local media, they have attempted to suck us into an ever-spiralling conspiracy of silence that can only take us downwards and backwards to dictatorship with no dialogue, the snuffling of dissenting voices, and a single-sided story that pours withering scorn on all others, without according other parties the right to be heard, since we’re all living in politically brokered peace, love and unity. We’ve been there before. We cannot regress. But all is not lost yet for the local media: glancing through some of the stories in the early online editions of some of the newspapers to be published tomorrow (Saturday, 16 March), the media may finally be waking up, but so very late in the day.

Kenyans, our destiny is in our hands. Let’s all rally around our National Anthem. Remember it is not just a song: it is a prayer. While I want to believe we all love peace, let’s remember that the anthem first states “Haki iwe ngao no mlinzi (Justice be our shield and defender).” Only after justice has been done, and been manifestly seen to be done, can we then move to “Natukae na umoja, amani na uhuru (May we dwell in unity, peace and liberty).

The path to peace, and safeguards
Peace  does not exist in a vacuum, exist by itself, nor produce itself. In its purest and most stable form, peace is a derivative of  truth and justice. Peace is not an imposition, nor is it a stifling of the dissenting voice. The petition being filed tomorrow  is a quest for truth and justice. Truth and justice are the twin portals to peace. I pray that the Supreme Court with Wanjiku’s (and not the establishment’s) Chief Justice Willy Mutunga on the bench (though he is only one of the current six judges) will deal truthfully and justly with this petition, for there can be no further redress beyond the Supreme Court.

Let’s not forget that with a 50.07 percent win for Uhuru Kenyatta, as many voters voted for him as voted against him by choosing other candidates. As such, all Kenyans of goodwill, irrespective of which side they supported in the presidential elections, should support this petition, and pray that truth and justice will be upheld.

I unreservedly and wholeheartedly do.

Relevant links

  1. BLOGPOST: The monsters under the house
    EXCERPT: “It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. In this case the war was internal, hidden from all prying eyes. Who cares about the veracity of the poll result? So what if not all votes were counted? We had peace. “The peace lobotomy,” one tweet called it. “Disconnect brain, don’t ask questions, don’t criticize. Just nod quietly.”… What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge? What peace lives in the perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?”
  2. NEWS STORY: The many questions IEBC needs to clear with Kenyans over elections
    EXCERPT: “…since there was no authoritative version of the [voter] register, what was used to conduct the elections? Was it one of the interim versions or the (unpublished) final register?”
  3. OPNION PIECE: Peace vs Truth — A story of unnecessary tradeoffs
    EXCERPT “… what threatens the peace… is certainly not the truth or ceding the legal and moral high ground. Conflict erupts when (perceptions of) underlying horizontal inequalities line up with (perceptions) of political exclusion.”
  4. OPINION PIECE: To be prudent is to be partial
    EXCERPT: “Any journalist worth their salt should start feeling itchy when praised by those in authority. The recent accolades will chafe as more polling irregularities become public. The media should be asking themselves whether, in their determination to act responsibly, they allowed another major abuse to occur right before their eyes.”
Posted in Governance, Kenya, Law, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four questions for March 4

A date with destiny

On March 4 2013, Kenyans will elect their next President, in what is being touted as the most hotly contested presidential election in Kenya.

Ultimately, the power to decide who becomes President rests with the Kenyan voters, and not with the presidential aspirants and their political hangers-on.

In casting a vote for a particular candidate, this automatically translates into a ‘No’ vote for all the other candidates. So, it is just as important to know WHY one is voting for a particular candidate (as in this case), as it is to also know why one IS NOT voting for any of the other candidates (as in this case).

In the first round of Presidential debates tomorrow, February 11 2013, the aspirants will be telling us their agenda for Kenya. The second round will be on February 25. As the old adages go, actions speak louder than words, and talk is cheap (completely free, actually), so it will be important to examine that these aspirants tell us by their actions, and not just what they choose to say today. History is there to inform us, and we’d be grossly failing ourselves and future generations if we did not heed its important lessons and learn from them.

Questions Kenyan voters should ponder on March 4 as they cast their vote:

  1. INTEGRITY: What’s your chosen candidate’s score on this, and those in their coalition? Were they bearing ‘water’ or ‘oil’ for the passing of the Integrity Bill? Or did they safely perch themselves on the fence of self-preservation by keeping a studious silence? Have they, or those in their coalitions, been named in the corruption scams on the continued unchecked plunder of the public purse by politicians throughout the three regimes (Kenyatta, Moi, Kibaki)? Are they VOLUNTARILY paying tax and have they paid their university loans, where applicable? Did they pay promptly as good citizens or purely for political expediency and to drum up political capital?
  2. COMMITMENT TO DEMOCRACY AND MEDIA FREEDOM: On which side did this candidate stand in the dark days of Moi’s dictatorship, and in the Kibaki administration’s assaults on media freedom, including the raid on the Standard Media Group? What was their stand on the new Constitutional order whose benefits we now all (including its opponents) enjoy? What was their contribution, or lack thereof, in the long, winding and rocky road to constitutional reform?
  3. AGENDA: Health and wealth before all else. Unemployment is high, public education and public health in complete shambles, and – purely owing to runaway corruption – on a global scale, Kenya continues to be a very expensive country in which to do business, blunting our competitive edge. Away from industry and services, agriculture is not faring any better, whether this be research, farm-produce market infrastructure and farm inputs, or returns to farmers. We don’t need handouts, be these internally or externally sourced, in the form of foreign aid or largesse from those that have stolen public funds. What Kenyans need is a corruption-free order conducive to business, and managers with a very clear vision on the national streams of income and expenditure to assure the well-being of citizens, particularly health, education, agriculture and infrastructure which are all very closely intertwined. It is shameful that our well-fed fat cats who are the most highly paid on the planet (relative to our GDP) have no shame whatsoever bearing begging bowls on our behalf (but mostly for their bellies, and at the expense of our dignity), be this to the West or to the East. It is the greatest irresponsibility, not to mention indignity, that half a century after independence, we are still a nation literally begging at global tables for the most basic of human needs – food. Truly tragic that people in our country continue to DIE of hunger pitted against criminally astronomical earnings of public servants (ha!) paid from the public purse, particularly parliamentarians, who also sit on this!
  4. THE ADVANCEMENT OF WOMEN: What is their agenda for this? To use just one indicator that seems to have been declared as ‘impossible’ in Kenya, and on a matter ‘close’ to the world of politicians, let’s do a relative comparison on the representation of women in parliament: as of February 2013, Kenya ranks a poor 114 worldwide (with a paltry 9.8%), two places ahead of DR Congo, while Rwanda rules the roost in the top position (53.6%). Why is it that ALL our neighbours (South Sudan at 40 [26.5%], Ethiopia at 35 [27.8%], Burundi at 30 [30.5%], Uganda at 21 [35%], Tanzania at 20 [36%]) have succeeded where we’ve failed? Even Somalia is ahead of us! – at 95 [13.8%] in a tie with Djibouti! It is certainly not for lack of outstanding leaders who also happen to be women. Something is very amiss here. Can the nation of Kenya develop if half the population that cuts across all ethnic groups, political formations and age groups continues to be severely and systematically marginalised? Even macho Mexico posts 36.8%, ranked 19th!

I fear that from the way things look, this time around, the greatest threat to Kenya’s well-being is no longer the political class but might well be the Kenyan voter: we’re our own worst enemy, for the decisions we, and we alone, make when we are inside that voting booth, each alone. (PS: The first skit at this link captures this so well. The show was recorded after this post. See this short clip too)

As one blogger exasperatedly asks on Facebook “What is it that the Kenyan voter really wants – because it is not integrity, peace, development, hope, national cohesion and respect for the law.” The blogger opens by saying: “We the people have been lied to, robbed, displaced, raped, and even killed by our leaders and their agents. We KNOW they have done these things and we KNOW there are alternatives to these gross failures of leadership. So why is it that we still vote for the liars, the thieves, the evictors [sic], the rapists and the killers? Why is it that we remain so faithful to them that any opposition to them is treated with the seriousness of blasphemy? Why is it that alternative leaders are considered traitors that must be punished? “

Kenyans have been to hell and back with the 2007–2008 politically instigated post-election violence. With the notable exception of 2002, blood has been shed either before or after EVERY ELECTION since 1992. Will we finally make a choice that breaks our ballot bond with this bloodbath?

Come March 4, will you cast your vote for a pathway that promises future (not immediate) prosperity and peace, or will you vote for the same old order? Will you stand with might, “tribe” and money, or will you choose to stand with what is right for the nation and its future? Will your vote be a march to a brave new world for Kenya or a match to fire up the flames of the ‘political petrol’ and vitriol with which our landscape has been so liberally and recklessly drenched? Will you fire the match, or douse it?

Posted in Gender, Governance, Kenya, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Party-hopping and plundering the public purse – The party continues

October 10 was World Mental Health Day, so a fitting time to discuss matters of the mind, important for us as Kenyans. We have (not-so-warm) memories of another ‘M’ around this day, but that is a matter for another day.

A story in the Standard newspaper that day announcing ‘Kibaki rejects MPs’ hefty exit package’ demands a deeper look, way beyond the headline. Sample this ‘sub story’ in the last para:

In the meantime, the Head of State has assented to the amendment in the electoral laws extending the period to January 4, 2013 during which Members of Parliament should have chosen the political party on which to seek nomination and contest a political seat in the forthcoming general elections.”

Isn’t it curious that we’re now not making too much noise about this totally immoral and illegal party-hopping – in stark contrast to the furore the proposed amendment caused when it was first revealed? So was the intention all along in fact to detract our attention from this important matter of political discipline and principle by raising a different matter? A matter so heinous and provocative which our wily politicians knew the citizenry would be up in arms against – abandoning all else? Was the plan then to deliver a deft masterstroke by appearing to appease us having successfully diverted our attention from pursuing the antelope to chasing the squirrel? Apologies to the sensitive, but the reasons cited by Kibaki are dubious to say the least, even hilarious!

The President objected to the amendment on the grounds that it was first unconstitutional and that in the prevailing economic circumstances in the country, it is unaffordable.”

The Honourable Mwai Kibaki is not famed for studiously observing the rule of law, nor the Constitution, nor even recent lawful orders of courts of law! So why this ‘sudden learning’ so late in the day as his term nears the end and he really does not have to please anybody but himself?

And here’s more of that fluffy wool over our eyes, that we may absolutely overlook this sleight of hand, and instead celebrate the government’s ‘wisdom’, magnanimity and solomonic judgement:

The President said that coming shortly after the increment of salaries for teachers and doctors, the severance pay for Parliamentarians would lead to an unsustainable wage bill at a time when the country requires massive resources to implement the new Constitution and meet other competing demands in the economy.”

Really? Is reading this supposed to leave us with much gratitude for the great benevolence, stirring compassion and munificence of our dear and loving government for having defused the recent strikes by teachers and doctors? Are we to immediately forget weeks of academic time lost and the needless suffering of thousands of patients, even deaths?

A Facebook comment: “For many of us, Kenya is a country – for our leaders, it is a carcass to be mercilessly dismembered!” (Photo Facebook/‘Me vs My Greedy Kenyan MP’)

But let us get back to respect for the rule of law and the Constitution, both of which this Government regards as inconvenient objects of contempt and has already flagrantly flouted numerously (and let’s not even go into gentlemen’s agreements, MoUs, or even the constitutionally protected National Accord). Isn’t the party-hopping extension the President assented to by the same ‘breath’ an illegality, a travesty of the spirit and letter of the Constitution? Aren’t the 100 existing party-hoppers in Parliament already an illegality, a throbbing malodorous sore on the back our national quest for moral politics? Hasn’t our President, by putting pen to paper in this matter, then not commended and endorsed a perversion of our supreme law, given fresh life to the politics of expediency and personal survival that have so damaged the nation? For how long shall we continue to wallow in these shallow and narrow politics that spite the law, opting ‘in’ or ‘out’ depending on the opportunistic political expediencies of the day?

OK, let’s give the devil his due, and we gotta hand it to them: our parliamentarians truly are Leaders of the Fee [not a typo!] world, and with our exorbitant taxes (from which they have exempted themselves, and even had the audacity to have us pay for their back-taxes), we pay the fees for their membership to this exclusive club, where they sit right at the top of the dung pile by a huge margin…WORLDWIDE. This is not an allegation, nor an anecdote, but supported by statistics. Mark you, the data in this Economist article at the link above are two years old, so the MPs’ package is even heftier, and its gap with our GDP even wider (yet the Speaker of the National Assembly recently described parliamentarians’ earnings as peanuts!).

Let me bring it right home: our annual national nominal per capita income is US$ 85o according to the IMF as at April 2012. Our MPs earn US$121,429 per year in salaries and allowances, excluding non-monetary benefits – that is 143 times the annual national per capita income! It gets worse. The President earns US$285,714 per year, again without including non-monetary benefits – that is 336 times the annual national per capita income! Now, remember the salaries and non-monetary benefits for the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Deputy Prime Ministers (whose permanent job is politicking now that they have no ministerial portfolios), Cabinet Ministers and Assistant Ministers show equally shocking disparities with the average income of the citizens whose country they are running! Now consider the cumulative effect of this gross injustice!

Mind you, the party is not yet over for our gluttonous and totally insatiable politicians. The circus shall continue, going by headlines such as this: MPs prepare for war with Kibaki over send-off pay and Salaries team wants to chop MPs’ wages. We’ll be so busy playing the game as the #MPigs wish us to play it, that not a murmur will there be now on party-hoppers.

The politicians, with our acquiescence, have magically managed to reduce that flaming issue into a a non-issue… and who knows, the insatiable gluttons may yet get their golden handshake … you know, a sort of parting ‘up yours’ to the people before they disappear into the oblivion of the dustbin of history! (it is ‘up yours’ alright: one of them is quoted here as saying “We do not fear [read ‘care’] what Kenyans say so long as we keep the Sh9.3 million send-off package”)

And to confirm our worst fears, observe this statement from a story in the Daily Nation:

Wajir West MP Adan Keynan disowned the contentious amendment to the Finance Act that would have seen each one of them take home about Sh10 million as a send-off package at the end of their term. The MP said it came from government and had the blessings of the President. ‘I was only asked to do it on behalf of the minister of Finance and the amendment was there, it wasn’t my own amendment,’ he said.”

Fellow citizens, we have been had – had real good!

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