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.

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