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

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