Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kiambaa: A blot on the national conscience

Sunday Nation 24 May 2009, Page 10

Troubling events are taking place all over this country, indicative of our nation’s serious slump to the scale of failed states. No event is too big or too small for Kenyans to give it an ethno-political bent. A couple of illustrations will suffice.

A few days ago, a funeral ceremony was held for the dozens of people killed in a church on the outskirts of Eldoret town at the height of the post-election madness last year. The President attended the ceremony, but senior politicians from the Rift Valley and the ODM wing of government were conspicuously absent.

At a separate event, some politicians accompanying the American ambassador to a function in the Burnt Forest area reportedly chose to avoid going with him to the Kiambaa burial site due to some other “commitments”.

The reasons given for these incidents cannot be examined here, but suffice it to say that these two events graphically illustrate the depth of division in this country.

Many people today believe that our national leaders have become so parochial that only events affecting members of their ethnic communities are considered important enough to warrant “national” attention.

It is clear that one wing of government is reluctant to be associated with any event that seems to indicate some sort of connivance or tacit acknowledgement of responsibility for the post-election conflagration.

The other wing is only too eager to heap all the blame on their opponents despite evidence that Kenyans from many ethnic communities participated in and were seriously affected by the violence, according to the Waki Report.

The politicians’ behaviour seems to mirror the attitudes on the ground, and anyone who has engaged the average Kenyan will come away with the feeling that the uneasy coexistence we have with our neighbours is a powder keg just waiting to explode at the slightest provocation.

There is evidence, too, that some sort of revisionism is taking place at various levels across the country concerning the post-election violence.

It is not restricted to the causes, triggers or other antecedents related to the violence, and it has now extended to actual events during and after the onset of the violence.

The trend began early last year when the police spokesman claimed that Kenyans were watching a “Rambo movie” when they saw a young protester in Kisumu being shot dead on national television. It has now extended to cover many other atrocities, and the Kiambaa church attack has not been spared.

Indeed, early last year, there was near unanimity concerning the magnitude of the violence and its spread, and the only apparent disagreement was about why it happened. This year, new theories are emerging that certain incidents actually happened differently, or did not take place at all.

Most Kenyans thought that the church was set on fire by a band of youth supposedly angered by the outcome of the election or some other grievance. But a new explanation is now being propagated that there was a gas explosion, or someone accidentally started the fire while trying to escape from the surrounded church.

It may be difficult to follow the various chains of logic involved in explaining away events in which human beings actually lost their lives and left behind orphans, widows and widowers, but such is the magnitude of our bitterness that it seems perfectly normal for us to engage in this sophistry.

The natural result of this revisionism is that we lose sight of the significance of our dalliance with destruction, and it feeds the perception that we are still on the brink of the precipice and can topple over any time. This is what needs to concern the authorities in this country, and not the petty political wrangles that are currently occupying them.

Instead of learning from these events and beginning to take steps towards real change in our way of doing things, our top leadership prefers to keep its head buried in the sand, hoping against hope that Kenyans will somehow wake up in the morning having magically forgotten their prejudices and “historical injustices”.

Unless Kenyans demonstrate that they are ready to take charge of their own destiny, the politicians we so faithfully wait upon will continue to divide us for their own benefit. Kiambaa will remain a blot on our national conscience until we deal with the deep divisions and resentments it represents.

The very mention of the name will continue to evoke strong feelings in most Kenyans, and the measure of reconciliation will be how we deal with that particular memory.

As things stand today, there is not even the illusion of reconciliation and re-integration, just an uneasy co-existence waiting for the next excuse to explode in unspeakable violence.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Minister’s secession call is dangerous and irresponsible

Sunday Nation 17 May 2009, Page 10

Early last week an assistant minister in the grand coalition government was quoted as saying that Coast Province should secede from the rest of Kenya in order to manage its own resources.

He also made claims to the effect that the province contributes “over 60 per cent of national tax revenue”, yet it remains the least developed region in the country.

There are two problems with this minister’s assertion. One, the statement is factually incorrect for it is difficult to say with certainty that the province contributes that much to the national coffers without the involvement of the “up-country” folks.

The national economy is so intertwined that all regions contribute one way or another to the so-called national cake.

The more serious problem, in my opinion, is that this statement was made by a minister of government.

If he truly feels that his province should be self-governing and not part of Kenya, the first thing he should do it to resign his ministerial post and fight for secession from the back bench of Parliament. Even better, he should vacate his parliamentary seat and retreat to his province to lead the fight for secession from there.

Without taking these steps, his remarks can only be interpreted as attempts at seeking cheap publicity by making inciting statements that may only curry favour with certain segments of his constituents.

Such statements do very little to encourage national healing and cohesion, a key task this government set for itself at its formation early last year.

It is a pity, therefore, that the two principals – President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga – would continue to entertain such an individual in government after he had made potentially treasonable comments in public.

THE MINISTER MADE THOSE REMARKS as Kenyans are preparing themselves for another round of constitutional review, and the issue of majimbo is making a stealthy comeback.

Both sides of the grand coalition government now seem to agree on a majimbo system of government, even though nobody has bothered to define what majimbo means in the first place.
The most vitriolic contentions arising out of the constitutional referendum debate of 2005 revolved around the issue of devolution, with one group rooting for majimbo (later renamed ugatuzi due to the emotional undertones of the former term) and the other vehemently opposed to it.

The Yes campaign seemed to favour a centralised system of government with limited devolution as espoused in the Wako draft, while the No campaign rejected this and favoured the Bomas draft option of significant autonomy for the regions.

As the majimbo debate is revived, remarks like the assistant minister’s only serve to obfuscate issues and bring to the fore the ignorance and confusion surrounding the majimbo issue.

The truth is that no matter what any well-meaning individual or group tries to do to inculcate a sense of nationhood among Kenyans, “leaders” such as this minister remain stumbling blocks in the path of progress.

A recent survey showed that most Kenyans opposed to majimbo view it as a means of evicting “foreigners” from certain areas and favouring “indigenous” people with jobs and other opportunities.

Whether this is the case or not is unclear, since no political party has come out openly and discussed the implications of whatever form of devolution they favour to the common mwananchi.

In the absence of such clarification, it behooves our political leaders to be more careful about what sort of verbiage they spew out in public forums. The use of terms like “outsiders” to refer to other Kenyans should be restricted to unschooled village louts with no vision of the world beyond the nearest shopping centre.

As long as other politicians remain mum on this issue, it can only be assumed from these utterances that their vision of majimbo is one of exclusionist politics with a significant dose of ethnic cleansing.

THE HYPOCRISY OF OUR POLITICIANS IS exposed every day in their lack of guile when faced with multiple microphones and a crowd of eager listeners.

Politicians of various shades in this country proclaim daily their commitment to East African integration in the interest of a larger market for Kenyan goods and greater say on the international stage.

Yet when they address their constituents, who are assumed to be clueless ignoramuses, they turn into railing demagogues with pretences to protecting “communal” interests.

In this era of a shrinking geopolitical space and global interconnectivity, our politicians should realise that their audience is far broader than the few village folks they deign to address.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kenya needs a national cohesion chief urgently

Sunday Nation 10 May 2009, Page 10

The recent appointment of a substantive minister to the Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs ministry is laudable despite the misgivings of many in the reform lobby.

A country claiming to subscribe to the rule of law, even when this is not self-evident as in our case, should not continue for long without a minister in this important docket.

This is even more critical considering the ongoing circus that is our Grand Coalition Government, an amorphous creature crying out for an urgent constitutional cathartic to relieve its bloated innards and create systems that work.

Window dressing

An urgent task for the minister will be to fill the post of the Secretary for National Cohesion with clear terms of reference, a competent team and a budget to help fulfill the responsibilities of the office.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor and performing a window dressing by giving someone an appointment without the requisite facilities will just not do this time.

Despite the novelty of the position, the National Cohesion secretary has the potential of helping this country to begin the process of healing by identifying the real obstacles to lasting peace and reconciliation and developing programmes to deal with them.

It is a pity that a government that committed itself to finding solutions that will ensure lasting peace in this country is still dilly-dallying in implementing its own recommendations.

The National Cohesion Secretary will find some key issues that must be dealt with urgently which, if left unattended, will continue to pose a real threat to our national survival.

The question of internally displaced persons (IDPs) must be addressed urgently and conclusively. Despite the trumpeted success of ‘‘Operation Rudi Nyumbani’’, a large number of the internal refugees only returned to sites near their farms — the so-called transit camps — and continue to subsist on the philanthropy of humanitarian actors to this day.

A smaller but no less significant group continues to occupy the original post-displacement camps and, as the rains begin to pound these areas, their health and safety has become a real concern.

Continued government denials and assertions that ‘‘most of the IDPs have been resettled’’ do not do much to assuage the acute suffering these families are experiencing.

As long as the IDPs remain unsettled, they continue to serve as a painful reminder of that dark period in our recent history that many in the establishment would like to forget in a hurry.

Unfortunately their situation cannot be so easily wished away, and the government needs to develop a detailed plan on how to handle the remaining IDPs in the short term, as well as a long-term policy on internal displacement to guide future interventions.

Reconciliation process

Another key task for this office is preparation of the ground for the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).

This is because although many Kenyans continue to assert the necessity of a reconciliation process, most do not actually comprehend the technicalities involved. Unless the process is properly managed, it has the potential to degenerate into another forum for blame-shifting instead of being the opportunity for healing.

Many Kenyans believe the TJRC will be the forum to name and shame their perceived ‘‘enemies’’, while some politicians view it as a potential weapon to destroy their opponents in the tried and tested Kenyan fashion — give a dog a bad name and hang him.
The misguided enthusiasm for the TJRC must, therefore, be tempered with a dose of realism that will enable Kenyans to see it for what it really is — a mark of a failed criminal justice system.

The TJRC is actually a safety valve that enables a nation to move beyond the perpetual grouses around ‘‘historical injustices’’ and other perceived failings of the State, and facilitates a rebirth of the nation with new values and aspirations.

Without a commitment by the citizenry to a clean break with the past and an unconditional acceptance of the TJRC outcome, the whole process will turn out to be a monumental waste of time.

Indeed, a bungled TJRC is worse than no process at all, for it has the potential to ignite fires that are far more voracious than anything we have ever witnessed before.

The National Cohesion Secretary will, therefore, be tasked with preparing the country for the TJRC and other processes arising out of the National Accord and related legislation. The success of the cohesion and TJRC processes may be the defining achievements of the holder of the Justice docket.

Indeed, a new constitution may be unattainable unless the processes associated with these functions of National Cohesion and the TJRC are actualised.

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How to rid Kenya of its violent culture

By Lukoye Atwoli

Sunday Nation 03 May 2009, Page 10

The recent resurgence of the Mungiki sect in central Kenya must serve as a beacon of the depths of moral turpitude this country has become inured to.

After a lull during which suspected members of the sect were attacked and brutally murdered by vigilantes, the outfit armed itself and mounted a counter-attack so bloody it left many wondering where to run for safety.

As is usual in this country, the government declared that it would foot the funeral costs of the victims of the attack, and crocodile tears were shed for the benefit of cameras before the ‘leaders’ went back to their continued squabbling over positions and power.

THESE EVENTS MUST NOT BE VIEWED IN isolation. The culture of violence is so deeply entrenched in this country that most of our heroes are violent warrior-leaders, and those leaders with no violent streak are lionized with some imaginary violent exploits in order to make them more ‘respectable’.

Our discourse is replete with violent metaphors, with common use of phrases like ‘heads must roll’, ‘blood will be shed’ and so on.

In any society, there are some factors that increase the risk of violence beyond what can be viewed as ‘normal’.

Studies have shown these to include youth (15-25 years old), male gender, poverty and poor social support. Young people often have a lot of energy which when left idle inevitable drifts to risky behaviour. The changing roles and expectations imposed on them by society often lead to violent confrontations with peers and authority figures.

It therefore follows that a country with a large proportion of young people, as is the case in Kenya, would be sitting on a powder keg of potential violence.

A program that keeps this important population group engaged would therefore considerably reduce the probability for violence, and one way of dealing with this group of youth would be to ensure free (or affordable) education upto tertiary level.

The National Youth Service of the years gone by would be a useful addition to many young people’s lives, as it would keep them occupied and serve as an opportunity to develop a national ethos.

Gender is a major determinant of violence, and indeed this has given rise to the fast-growing field of Gender-Based Violence, with men often being cited as the main perpetrators.

A government that is focused on reducing violence would therefore seriously consider increasing the number and influence of women in key decision-making positions in order to balance out the violent tendencies of at least some of the men.

The token statements from government that a third of all government positions will be reserved for women are useless when they are observed more in the breach than in reality.

Poverty is inevitably linked to a higher occurrence of violence, often due to competition for scarce resources. Indeed, most of the post-election violence last year occurred in poor neighborhoods, and small-scale farmers bore the brunt of evictions in the Rift Valley.

The implication at the national level is that those with a smaller stake in the economy would have no compunction destroying it through violent means. This would explain, for instance, why the economically disenfranchised youth in Kibera would have no qualms destroying a railway line or vandalizing property whose economic value means little to them.

A GOVERNMENT WITH SERIOUS INTENtions of fighting this violent culture would therefore be expected to take measures to reduce unemployment and poverty, as well as the gap between the rich and poor.

Instead of continually improving the living conditions of the rich and mighty, such a government would spend most of its time seeking ways of empowering the poorer segments of the society and distributing resources equitably.

Finally, social support refers to the safety net afforded one by an extended network of family, friends and government social services. People with access to this network are less likely to resort to violence whenever they feel they have reached the end of their rope.

Unavailability of supportive family and friends would explain why violence would be rife in urban centers populated mostly by the poor trying to eke out a living and support many relatives in the rural areas. Supporting rural economies and providing social amenities and forums for interaction in urban areas would therefore help reduce violence considerably.

Recognition of these factors among others as key contributors to the national culture of violence would be a beginning in “civilising” our nation and preparing it for true democracy, where an opponent’s rhetoric would be countered not with violence, but with reasoned responses.

Failure to address these issues is tantamount to surrendering the future of this country to angry louts whose vision of a future is riddled with blood and gore.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

New websites

Today we are pleased to announce the launch of two new websites related to this blog in one way or another. is the official site of the Kenya Psychiatric association, and as it develops it will provide an opportunity for people to interact with Kenyan mental health professionals. Please pay it a visit and be sure to improve it with your comments! is the personal website of this blog's author. Please visit it too, and enrich it with your comments.
This Sunday's commentary is posted on that site, but it will also be made available here in the course of the day.