Sunday, March 28, 2010

We must never give up on the power of the ballot

Sunday Nation 28 March 2010

Reports of widespread voter apathy have continued to dog the voter registration process across the country since its launch early last week.

Residents of areas that were significantly affected by the 2008 post-election violence have been the most apathetic, and many have expressed heart-rending sentiments to justify their refusal to register or even consider voting in future.

Many of those that lost loved ones or property have been indicating that if voting means incurring losses that so profoundly affect one’s outlook on life, then it would be better not to vote at all.

Indeed, many put it more graphically than that: There is no point in ever voting again if voting means almost certain death and destruction for ‘‘alien’’ communities.

Elsewhere, the prevalent opinion is that elections have lost meaning since the losers can still cling to power despite what the voters perceive as an overwhelming vote for change.

Many young people feel that elections have lost their lustre as a means of generational change in leadership, and that individual votes no longer count.

These arguments, though different, have exactly the same outcome -- a limited numbers of voters registering and actually voting come Election Day.

The net effect is the continuation of mediocre governance and further unenlightened leadership in the higher echelons of power.

In effect, therefore, whether an individual boycotts the election process because of a bad prior experience or because of a loss of hope in the integrity of the process, they still participate in the process by enabling the election of villains who would otherwise not have been elected.

With a smaller electorate, the thieves and misfits among us will have an easy time organising to buy votes and using other unorthodox means to guarantee their election.

Once in office, we will not have any moral grounds to criticise them when they engage in their thieving ways, since we would have been complicit in their elevation to high office.

Successful societies develop by learning from the negative moments in their history and taking steps to prevent their recurrence.

Indeed, in the societies we often admire and cite as success stories, the citizens play a bigger role in the day to day affairs of governance, holding their leaders to account for every move they make.

This culture is so entrenched in some nations that elections and referenda are not considered special events or causes for alarm.

In fact, recent studies have even demonstrated that these countries have developed very efficient mechanisms for polling citizens’ opinions or holding elections, significantly reducing costs in the process.

The citizens of those countries can rightfully claim to belong to societies that are governed in their own best interests.

On the contrary, struggling ‘‘democracies’’ such as ours still consider elections to be such a big deal that people inevitably end up being killed before, during and after the elections.

The long wait for elections and the high stakes attached by politicians to them are just some of the reasons why conflagrations like the 2008 post-election violence occur.

The biggest reason for election malpractices and violence, however, is that the citizens often get carried away and allow such atrocities to happen.

More developed societies have tightened their systems such that no matter who wins an election, the integrity of the State is assured.

The civil service is insulated from political noise and institutions are in place to resolve any disputes over election malpractices.

Above all, the contestants in an election all agree to abide by decisions made pursuant to written law and even unwritten codes.

In such societies, very little time is given to fellows who spew intolerance and bigotry such as that which characterises our political discourse, and elections are largely won or lost on serious issues of the day.

If we are to get anywhere in our quest to develop into a modern civilised nation, we must first acknowledge that leadership is among the biggest challenges facing our country.

We must start identifying leaders in all spheres of our society who embody the values that we admire about other societies, including those of tolerance and respect for diversity of people and opinions.

We cannot do this when we continue using excuses such as election theft and post-election violence to boycott voter registration and voting at elections and referenda.

Even as we struggle to clean up our institutions and emerge from the current turbulent period a stronger and more confident nation, we must not give up on the power of the citizen’s voice through the ballot.

There is no clearer path to anarchy than a nation full of cynics with no faith in the power to determine their own destiny through a valid, participatory process such as an election!

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

Sunday, March 21, 2010

People with religious delusions need mental check-up

Sunday Nation 21 March 2010

For a long time, Kenyans have taken for granted the ‘‘religious freedom’’ prevalent in the country, and most have a healthy respect for anything with a religious tag to it.

However, recent events linked to religious organisations are slowly chipping away at the unquestioning reverence reserved for anyone or any organisation purporting to carry out ‘‘God’s mission on earth’’.

After the boom in televangelism where many clerics parade people allegedly suffering from debilitating chronic illnesses before purporting to cure them, there emerged the so-called ‘‘prosperity gospel’’ whose propagators hold that God did not intend his followers to be poor on earth.

They, therefore, encourage their flock to focus their prayers on earthly goodies and, above all, to channel their wealth to the religious organisation in the form of tithes.

This ‘‘prosperity gospel’’ often results in the prosperity of its propagators and not the congregants who give away much of their wealth in expectation of more.

The recent dramatic entry of the Finger of God church into the public limelight has reopened debate on the respect due to any organisation purporting to provide a highway to heaven through varied means.

In another incident, church faithful spent days praying and waiting for the ‘‘resurrection’’ of dead pastors in a Nakuru church, raising real questions about the state of mind of their leaders and even the followers.

This incident was so bizarre that it attracted the attention and derision of many Kenyans, including those that would otherwise endorse other equally egregious activities from religious bodies.

Psychotic disorders

It is common knowledge that extreme religiosity and mental ill health are closely related. Many patients with psychotic disorders often have delusions and other beliefs with very intense religious themes.

Indeed, these delusions have borne the brunt of jokes about mental illness, suggesting that patients often compete about who is more ‘‘God’’ than the other.

On the other hand, it is also known that patients with some form of spirituality have better survival chances than those that do not. Indeed, this applies to almost any chronic health condition, with most studies in this field following up patients with heart disease.

The upshot of this is that religious activity can have both positive and negative effects and implications, mostly linked to the individual’s mental status.

It is, indeed, instructive that in the Finger of God saga, one of the participants was supposedly taken to a mental health professional for assessment and possible intervention.

It is not clear what yardstick was used to pick on this individual alone, but it may have been useful to subject all those involved to a similar evaluation and provide the necessary assistance if deemed appropriate.

Subsequent events including threats of court action and ventures into political territory have only served to confirm the widespread suspicions about the mental state of many of those involved.

Religious organisations have for a long time enjoyed a special status in Kenyan society, getting privileged treatment from the taxman as well as from common citizens.

This has resulted in the creation of some sort of safe harbour where everyone who needs time to cool off after life on the fast lane hastens to form a religious organisation.

Examples are legion, and a number of current and former politicians are engaged in overt religious activity with the full support of both their congregants and political followers. All this is happening in a country that purports to keep Church and State separate.

The farcical image of the Finger of God leader announcing to all and sundry his intentions to vie for the top post in this country brought home the reality of the incestuous relationship existing between Church and State.

As a presidential aspirant and a church leader, he embodies a fusion of the Kenyan clergy and the body politic in a way no other political cleric or pastor-MP can manage.

Kenyans are invited to consider the fate of any ordinary mwananchi who makes claims to the effect that he communicates with God or His representative on a regular basis, and that he has been ‘‘informed’’ that he will become Kenya’s president come 2012 with the help of his business associate and the associate’s wife.

Such a man would find himself in a mental hospital before he can say another word.

Bizarre behaviour

It is, therefore, difficult to understand why we continue to allow people who display obviously bizarre behaviour to suffer in public while we joke about their statements and antics.

It may be useful for the government to take a closer interest in the activities of all religious organisations and expose those with beliefs that are potentially harmful to both their leaders and potential members. Maybe they should also start paying tax like everyone else.

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

Sunday, March 14, 2010

War on official corruption should begin with petty offenders

Sunday Nation 14 March 2010

Last Tuesday, while on a brief visit to Nairobi, the car we were using was stopped by armed policemen at a roadblock on Argwings Kodhek Road at around 9 p.m.

A group of about five armed officers maintained vigil while another one approached the car and stopped near the passenger door.

When the passenger rolled down her window, the officer bellowed something to the effect that the driver was endangering his life and that of fellow road users by driving around with a faulty headlight on the passenger side.

He ordered the driver out of the car and proceeded to unleash a stream of unprintable insults against a Kenyan community whose names he said ‘‘always begin with a vowel’’ and who, invariably, begin their statements with ‘‘but …’’

Quite apart from his brusque and uncivil manner, something else caught our attention about this officer.

As he approached the car, he seemed to have difficulty maintaining his balance, and he needed to support himself on the car’s bonnet to avoid tumbling to the ground. When the passenger side window was rolled down, we were assailed by a strong stench of alcohol on his breath.

Shocked, we tried to engage the officer in conversation, but he was too far gone to maintain any level of coherent speech.

The long and short of it is that in the short span of 10 minutes, he managed to insult, threaten, shove and finally brazenly beg the driver of the car to give him ‘‘something small’’ and be on his way. All this he did in full view and hearing of the armed police officers manning the roadblock.

Exasperated, the driver finally approached the officer who appeared to be in charge of the operation and pointed out to him the inebriated condition of his fellow officer, explaining that it is very difficult to discuss the finer points of law with an officer who was so obviously incapacitated.

Drunken policeman

Shortly thereafter, the driver was ordered to take off, with the drunken policeman hurling insults after him.

This incident brought home to me the almost hopeless situation facing this country as far as reforms in state institutions are concerned.

In a week in which the nation’s attention was squarely focused on an ever-widening web of corruption allegations of eye-popping proportions, it was astounding to be confronted with this instance of ‘‘petty corruption’’ that has greater implications to the conduct of the common citizen than what happens in the darkened corridors of City Hall or elsewhere.

The police force serves as the custodian of law and order in any civilised society and, in order to maintain the respect of the citizenry, the force must ensure that its members conduct themselves in ways that inspire trust in the eyes of the average mwananchi.

The so-called ‘‘rotten apples’’ such as the drunken officer we encountered should be scrupulously weeded out of the force and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

That a police officer could report on duty drunk, and brazenly solicit a bribe from a citizen even in this era of ‘‘police reforms’’ is truly astonishing.

That he could carry out this whole exercise in full view of several other officers in full possession of their faculties is even more worrying suggesting, as it does, that they condone the practice and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Armed policemen

Citizens are often encouraged to report such incidents to the police, but when the incident happens right under the noses of armed policemen, why would one want to waste their time leaving the scene to go and report it at a police station?

As long as incidents such as these are allowed to continue, there is no way the government can make even a slight dent in its declared ‘‘war on corruption’’.

However, it is still necessary for the citizen to remain engaged in fighting corruption at the local level, because giving up is not an option.

In the final analysis, fighting corruption is not only about fingering senior civil servants and politicians in positions of responsibility whenever something goes wrong in government.

Rent-seeking behaviour

Small-scale bribery, extortion by junior government officials and other rent-seeking behaviour by officers at any level in government are more visible and serve to entrench the culture of corruption more than any act committed by the so-called ‘‘big fish’’.

Eradicating official corruption must therefore begin with flushing out these petty thugs in uniform who have made it their business to make the lives of ordinary citizens as hard as possible in order to profit from the ensuing atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

Until and unless we address this level of corruption sufficiently, it is a complete waste of time to discuss any reforms or wars on corruption.

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

Sunday, March 7, 2010

War on corruption should be personalised and politicised

Sunday Nation 07 March 2010

President Kibaki was quoted on the occasion of the official opening of Parliament as saying that the war on corruption should not be personalised or politicised.

This is a sentiment that is quickly expressed whenever someone is caught in the cross-hairs of the anti-corruption forces in this country, with claims that the war on corruption is targeting individuals from one tribe or political party or whatever.

Often, those targeted even go as far as claiming that they are being roasted because of their personal differences with their accusers.

Having done this, they then turn around and ask their “communities” to protect them on the pretext that the corruption allegations affect the entire group.

These views must be exposed as pure hogwash meant to perpetuate the corrupt class in power at the expense of the common citizen.

It should be argued without fear of contradiction that the acts that constitute corruption are intensely personal acts, and the fruits of corruption benefit only the individuals concerned.

It would, therefore, make no sense to have a war against this scourge that is not personalised – that is to say, directed at only the individuals involved.

It should indeed not be any other way, since this would mean engaging in the current practice of targeting groups for the sins of their individual members.

Whole communities would end up being demonised as thieves any time one member is caught with their hands in the till, as is the practice currently.

The result is that the fight against corruption gets bogged down in accusations and counter-accusations that have nothing to do with the corrupt acts themselves.

Status quo

All the major corruption cases in this country have travelled this well-beaten path, and the President’s exhortation that we should avoid personalising this war on corruption is just another way of perpetuating the status quo.

The additional injunction against politicising this war amounts to exempting politicians from any and all accusations of corruption.

Even if they were as white as snow, as some of them are fond of reminding us, this exemption would constitute the single greatest incentive for corruption among members of our political class.

It would mean turning a blind eye to corruption among one’s political adversaries in order to avoid the accusation of “politicising” the war on corruption.

Contrary to the President’s opinion, this “war” must be personalised and politicised as necessary. All individuals involved in corrupt acts should be assured of swift, sufficient, consistent and certain punishment if we are to get anywhere in this matter.

Even when they are political heavyweights, we should not fear accusing them of corrupt acts when we suspect them, and politicians should make it their business to expose corruption in the ranks of their political adversaries in order for the voters to make up their own minds.

The right thing to do when one is personally implicated in corruption would be to resign, and if he or she is indeed clean, it would be left to the appointing authority to reinstate them.

Nobody should feel that their own personal comfort is greater than that of the nation. In the end, as the Good Book puts it, the truth shall set you free.

This standard of integrity calls to mind the agitation for the resignation of the chair of Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, Bethuel Kiplagat. Many claims imputing culpability on his part in various matters in Kenya’s dark past have been raised.

Ambassador Kiplagat has strenuously denied these allegations, and even shed a few tears in the process.

Many people with personal knowledge of the man, including retired Anglican Archbishop David Gitari, have spoken out in his defence, but the resignation calls have refused to let up. In the process, some commissioners have threatened to quit, resulting in a virtual paralysis of operations at the Commission.

The gravity of the allegations against him suggests that the chairman’s resignation would be the best course of action, if only to save the institution whose mandate he seems to hold so close to his heart.

If it turns out after proper investigations that the allegations against him were tribally motivated or only meant to force him out, history will make the necessary judgements, and his legacy will be secure.

If, however, it turns out to be true that he was complicit in the alleged acts, his resignation will have saved the commission from a crisis of confidence that would necessarily attend all its subsequent conclusions and recommendations.

But, of course, in true Kenyan fashion, we can only expect more of the “I will not resign” mantra.

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