Friday, March 14, 2008

Enough of Jubilation; now the hard work must begin

Publication Date: Daily Nation 3/14/2008

MANY KENYANS ARE STILL celebrating the signing of the political agreement between President Kibaki and Mr Raila Odinga. But amid all the celebration and back-slapping, I would like to be the voice of reason, or the wet blanket, depending on where one stands on this issue.

Just before World War II, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed a deal with Adolf Hitler that was hailed as one that would bring ‘‘peace in our time’’. A few months later, Hitler’s forces were pounding the rest of Europe, and the British Isles were not spared.

It is said that those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes. Soon after our elections last year, the country erupted into cataclysms of killing and plunder that were neither foreseen nor anticipated.

Unless we want to believe that the key culprits, the forces behind the killings, were President Kibaki and Mr Odinga, then the status quo ante still obtains.

THE TWO PRINCIPALS MAY HAVE suddenly become chummy, but the bitterness that drove someone to slash his neighbour and burn his property has not been wiped away by their handshakes.

The anger and despair occasioned by the losses suffered by the survivors has not been assuaged by the agreement signed in Nairobi by people who are, for all intents and purposes, strangers to them.

Even as we celebrate the political agreements and move forward with the creation of positions and rewarding of cronies, we must not lose sight of the key issues that need to be addressed as part of a lasting solution to our crisis.

We must let the political developments to continue parallel to other peace-building and conflict resolution processes.

A key issue is the creation of an environment that enables the displaced persons to find a place to settle, whether it is their original home or elsewhere.

Dialogue between communities and leaders must begin in earnest if this is to happen quickly, and edicts from Nairobi directing people to return to their homes will just not do.

Concrete steps must be taken to prepare both the displaced and their erstwhile tormentors for peaceful coexistence if this process is to succeed.

People returning to their homes will find most of them ransacked and destroyed, and they will need assistance to start afresh.

Their needs must be assessed and efforts made to address them if we are to avoid creating new refugee camps in the areas of return.

In the meantime, it may be necessary to either continue serving the displaced within the current camps or create new ‘‘transit’’ camps to temporarily host people returning to their dwellings while they organise their affairs.

Many of those displaced have suffered great physical and psychological distress, and steps must be taken to address their psychosocial needs even as their material needs are taken care of.

Special attention must be paid to children and young adults, since their attitudes and lessons will form the basis of their future interactions with the rest of society.

If their psychological needs are neglected, we will only have created a time-bomb that will explode again in the near future.

Part of the people’s psychological needs will be met in the process of truth, justice and reconciliation, and it is important that mental health professionals be involved in this process.

They can offer invaluable advice on what needs to be said, in what circumstances and by whom, to facilitate healing.

The process itself does not need to wait for politicians to satisfy their power-sharing needs, it must start sooner rather than later.

IT MUST TRICKLE DOWN TO EVERY village, instead of becoming the travelling circus many commissions have become.

The Rwandese Gacaca courts, with all their imperfections, provide a poignant lesson on how to deal with local atrocities, and we may need to borrow a leaf from them.

Finally, a reconstruction package that includes development of infrastructure, youth employment opportunities, and expansion of the education system must be implemented.

Areas perceived to be underdeveloped must be given priority to prevent resentments that can grow into another conflagration in future.

If these steps are taken, we will have ensured peace, not just for our time, but for all eternity.

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist working in Eldoret

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