Sunday, January 25, 2009

Greed is the genesis of our national crises

Sunday Nation 25 January 2008, Opinion Page 10

Once again millions of Kenyans find themselves facing a food shortage and famine cutting right across the country.

At another time it will be floods we are grappling with, or urban gangsterism, grand corruption and so on and so forth.

The politicians we elected and fought for are the same fellows who have presided over national famines and other crises for most of our independence years, and they have had no new brilliant ideas in dealing with the current situation.

Rosy policies still populate the shelves of government ministries, and many more are gathering dust at our research institutes.

Indeed the Prime Minister recently intimated that another conference was planned in the next few weeks to come up with strategies for dealing with national crises without resorting to destructive behaviour.

IT SEEMS MANY IN GOVERNMENT BELIEVE that the reason we have many crises nationally is because of a lack of good ideas.

The country is facing a famine not because of lack of great ideas to prevent it. We do not have periodic ethno-political crises because of a lack of innovative solutions to disagreements.

We do not have outbreaks of urban gangsterism due to a lack of comprehensive policies to deal with the problems faced by urban youth.

These problems can almost certainly be traced to greed and lack of long-term vision and imagination on the part of key decision-makers and politicians.

Our ‘leaders’ do not have the capacity to imagine a future without them in positions of power and authority.

They lack the ability to think beyond their own satisfaction and that of their immediate relatives.

Every time they see some idle resources, they start fabricating plans to exploit them for personal gain.

For the avoidance of doubt, it should be clarified that these leaders are not aliens from some distant planet imposed upon us from on high. They are our own fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.

Their values were forged in the same crucible as those of the majority of Kenyans. Their hopes and desires go hand in hand with those of their constituents.

That is the only way one can explain why election after election, even when the so-called ‘‘old guard’’ are replaced by young blood, their agenda remains the same —me-first, everything else later.

This reflects the mentality of most Kenyans, and the evidence is all around us — on the roads, in queues, in schools and in the media. Few are willing to follow laid-down procedures, and everyone is looking for a way to get ahead of the pack, even when it involves hurting many others in the process.

Applying this greedy mentality to all our endeavours means that we believe we can excel at everything without involving anyone else, including experts.

Thus all of us believe we can successfully engage in farming, carry out business (usually involving owning a neighborhood kiosk or a matatu), and manage real estate.

This has resulted in unsustainable small-scale farming and businesses that are subject to the vagaries of weather and the political climate.

ONE MUSICIAN DESCRIBED OUR COUNTRY as ‘nchi ya watu wadogo’ (a nation of ‘small’ people), and his words are borne out daily by our attitudes and behaviour.

It is time we stopped lashing out at others as the source of our trials and tribulations, and faced up to our own responsibilities. Before pointing fingers, we must first answer the question ‘‘do we really want change?’’

If indeed we are interested in changing our country, then there is no shortage of solutions developed by experts, ready to be implemented.

For instance, to deal with periodic famines, an agriculture policy that encourages specialisation and large-scale farming should be dusted up and implemented.

Not everyone can be a successful farmer, just like not everyone can be an engineer, lawyer or medical doctor!

We must also stop trashing expert opinions in favour of populist edicts if we want to get out of this cycle of mostly self-inflicted calamities.

Weather experts predicted the current drought months ago, but nobody took them seriously at the time and planned for it.

In much the same way experts have pointed at questionable quality second-hand car spare parts as the cause of most of our road accidents, but they are castigated in the interests of populism and political expediency.

IF WE ARE REALLY INTERESTED IN CHANGE, we must take matters into our own hands and become the change we want to see in our country.

We must be ready to make difficult decisions that may not benefit us directly, but will make the future brighter for the coming generations.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine in Eldoret

Monday, January 5, 2009

If we forget our past, we are bound to repeat it

By Lukoye Atwoli

Daily Nation Tuesday 30 December 2008, Page 11

One year ago this month, Kenya went to the polls with the hope that we would begin the new year with a new set of occupants in Parliament brimming with new ideas and plans for the nation.

Instead, as the year closed, reports of widespread killings, looting and breakdown of law and order flooded the local and international media.

Kenyans spent New Year’s eve huddled in their homes digesting the import of the latest rumour doing the rounds via mobile phone text messages and FM radio stations, and woke up on the first day of 2008 to reports of mass murder and arson in the North Rift, with churches and schools not being spared.

Many believed the end had come, and those that could, escaped to the relative safety of neighbouring countries. Others ran to the nearest police stations and churches to seek succour, while young men banded together to defend whatever was left of their families and property.

Although ethno-political flare-ups have been common in Kenya’s election cycle during this pluralist era, January to February 2008 must rank up there with the worst periods in our history.

It would, therefore, be the height of folly for us to move into the next year without pausing for a moment to remember what happened after our elections.

Though this collective amnesia would just be a continuation of our national character of “forgive and forget” when we are fearful of confronting the unpleasant realities of our past, this time, we must gather the courage to face this particular demon and say to its face: “Never Again!”

We must remember what happened last year to begin the process of exorcising this curse of so-called political violence that repeatedly rears its ugly head every time there is some sort of political contest in this country.

As the philosopher Santayana says, ‘‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and Kenyans should not delude themselves that they can move to build a future without interrogating their past.

Commemoration of tragic events in a nation’s past is one way of reducing the chances of their recurrence. It would therefore be a double tragedy for this country if after so much death and destruction we also learn nothing from the conflagrations of January.

It is necessary that the agencies involved in the humanitarian response to the post-election violence come up with a way for us to keep it in our memory for as long as it takes to ensure that a repeat is practically impossible.

The Government must designate a day when we remember the long dark night of terror that Kenya endured.

A date in late December or early January should be designated the Day of Remembrance for all those who lost their lives, limbs or property.

If this is not done urgently, it is a guarantee that as soon as the politicians engineer some other crisis to distract the citizenry, the lessons of the 2007 election will be forgotten.

Commemoration will also remind those that are still struggling to rebuild their lives that the nation has not forgotten, and that we have collectively vowed never to go down that road again.

Our children will begin to develop a new morality, where it is not acceptable to hack your neighbour to death and burn his house just because you happen to have different political views or surnames.

If our political establishment is reluctant to remember this period for obvious reasons, then civil society organisations must take it upon themselves to maintain it on our national consciousness.

A day of peaceful processions and messages of peace would be a fitting reminder of what we went through.

Celebration of our diversity would also be a useful way to keep us focused on the project of nation-building that began when we acquired a national political consciousness and resolved to eject the colonial government and replace it with majority rule.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine, Eldoret