Sunday, September 23, 2012

Talk of an August General Election dangerous

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 23 September 2012

The Constitution of Kenya, promulgated in August 2010, provides for general elections on the second Tuesday of August every five years. Those that read that literally were convinced that the next elections after the 2007 fiasco should have been held last month.

After much argument and counter-argument, the courts sided with the politicians and gave suggestions that led the electoral commission to set a March 2013 date for the elections. During these contestations, some had even suggested that in case August elections were deemed impractical, December 2012 would be a suitable substitute.

However, once the March 2013 date was set, it seemed as though the matter was settled for good. Despite disappointment with this unnecessary breach of the Constitution, many realised the futility of pursuing further legal challenges that would, in any event, be most likely overtaken by events.

Which is why it is very worrying when no less a personage than the Deputy Speaker, supported by government ministers, opines that a March election is either impossible or impractical. The experience in Kenya is that senior politicians usually float outrageous ideas and then gauge the public response to them.
In case there is no public outrage, consensus is assumed and the idea is implemented. This time, however, politicians will be best advised to observe the following facts.

Complete break

Firstly, Kenyans have been yearning for a General Election since at least two years ago when we passed a new Constitution that promised a complete break with the past. The people are ready to turn their backs on the bloody past that forever destroyed our reputation as an island of peace, and made us out as a querulous people that can never agree on anything without external guidance.

Secondly, the people are weary of most of our politicians, and are eager to replace them with new leaders with fresh ideas on how to govern a modern republic. Traditionally, in any case, we are famous for sending home up to two-thirds of incumbents in any General Election. The coming election will definitely be no exception.

Thirdly, the rising tensions in the labour sector demonstrate a general restlessness of the population, and it is at times like this that a small spark can ignite a fire that will be very difficult to extinguish. It is my considered opinion that moves to change the election date yet again may just be that spark, and that the moment indignant Kenyans begin marching on the streets, there is no telling where they will end up.

It is being whispered in dark corners that some master puppeteer is orchestrating all these incidents in order to benefit from the ensuing chaos. Government behaviour is doing little to assuage these fears among wananchi. For instance, at the height of industrial unrest, the Speaker has been reported as having argued that Members of Parliament earn peanuts, when we all know that they are among the best paid legislators in the world. Government moves to raise perks for permanent secretaries, and talk of further postponement of the elections, fall well within such a plan.

If the master puppeteer exists, one would leave him with a vivid lesson from the French Revolution, of the guillotine that did not spare the architects of the revolution. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; twitter

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We need to turn the page on this coalition

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 16 September 2012

On Thursday this past week doctors launched a nationwide strike, hot on the heels of several other unions.
In all these cases, the government response has been the fairly uniform one of ignoring the strike notice and hoping it will go away, and then wringing their hands helplessly once the strike is on.

In the case of doctors, a number of small strikes preceded the nationwide industrial action. There was a strike to protest non-payment of an agreed stipend to doctors undergoing postgraduate training at the three teaching hospitals, Kenyatta, Moi and Mathari. Despite an Industrial Court order protecting the strike, the minister issued a statement purporting to stop post-graduate training programmes and withdrawing the doctors’ right to practice medicine at the institutions.

Soon after this, another group of doctors – specialists teaching at the various university teaching hospitals – downed their tools protesting against the government’s failure to implement certain allowances that were part of the settlement after the December 2011 doctors’ strike. These allowances were paid selectively, with doctors in public universities, programmes, research institutions and even in parts of the civil service being ignored. Despite agreeing that it was an “oversight” on its part, the government is yet to act to correct this anomaly. 

Agreed formula

A common thread runs through these two strikes and the subsequent nationwide strike. All the issues being canvassed were agreed on in the return to work formula signed between the government and the doctors’ union.

The formula provided for the formation of a taskforce to address longstanding problems in the health sector, the employment of more doctors, payment of fees and a stipend for doctors undergoing specialist training, and payment of new allowances to all doctors in the public service. The formula also provided for the formation of negotiating teams and commencement of collective bargaining within a week of its signing.

The Musyimi Task Force was formed soon after the strike and completed its work, handing in the report to the ministries of Health in February. Among the team’s recommendations were a gradual increase in the health budget to achieve the 15 per cent target set in the Abuja declaration, improvements in health infrastructure and human resources.

Another major recommendation was the formation of a Health Service Commission, and a draft Bill was included as part of the report. Six months down the line, the ministries of Health have made no move to present this Bill to the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution or other relevant agencies for consideration.

The ministries have similarly ignored most of the other recommendations, including the designation of county referral facilities, establishment of a national ambulance service, and scaling up training of all health service cadres. Indeed, even the allowances agreed on in the return to work formula have been selectively paid out, despite the government’s insistence to the contrary.

An agreement to pay a stipend to medical doctors undergoing specialist training is now being trashed as unworkable, and the government has once again stopped sponsoring its own doctors to undertake specialist training.

In my opinion, the goings-on in the health sector and elsewhere provide ample evidence of a failed government, and it is the opinion of a silent majority that the sooner we see the back of this coalition the better.

Dr Atwoli is the Secretary of the Kenya Psychiatric Association and a Senior Lecturer at Moi University's School of Medicine.; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Industrial unrest due to government’s ineptitude

Sunday Nation 09 September 2012

In the months leading up to a General Election in Kenya, it is not strange to see many unions acting tough with government and calling out their members to strike. This is often because our government is notorious for disregarding agreements reached before polls. Indeed, this appears to be the case with the teachers and doctors who went on strike demanding that the government implements agreements it had signed a long time ago.

This year is even more special because after the next General Election, the country will literally start on a fresh slate, with a new structure of government and probably new faces as well. The probability of agreements signed by the current regime being disregarded is very high. This is the reason most workers are restive and just itching to have a go at the government.

The government, on the other hand, appears to enjoy the circus. At some point they refused to listen to or negotiate with workers citing nonexistent clauses in the new Constitution that allegedly placed this responsibility on the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. Unfortunately for government, union leaders had correctly read the law and pointed out that this commission’s role was advisory as far as remuneration of most state employees was concerned.

Once this became clear, government entered into haphazard negotiations and arrived at agreements that it now claims are difficult to implement. This only serves to expose the government’s ineptitude and lack of co-ordination.

Witnessing this confusion in government one is left wondering what other commitments the government is entering into without adequate preparation, running the risk of mortgaging our future for pointless pursuits. It appears that government is running largely on autopilot, and mushrooming scandals in government seem to suggest this. One would suggest that anyone dealing with government at this point exercises extra caution lest they burn their fingers.

Concerning the teachers’ strike, apparently there was a misunderstanding about what was agreed on, what was implemented and whether there was anything left unimplemented. An honest conversation with the teachers’ union would have provided answers to these questions and prevented the disruption caused by the strike.

The dispute between government and doctors goes to the heart of government’s willingness to fully implement a return-to-work agreement that was signed in December last year after another strike. The government has gone about implementing this agreement and the subsequent taskforce report in piece-meal fashion, picking and choosing who would benefit from it and who would not.

Agreements on healthcare financing, human resource development and expansion, and formation of a Health Service Commission have been ignored. Agreements on payment of fees and allowances for health workers have been selectively implemented. Apparently the government was unaware that the term “doctors in public service” meant doctors in the civil service, parastatals including the referral hospitals, and in the universities and research institutions.

This ignorance and ineptitude are going to be very expensive for government, but the bitter pill must be swallowed and all agreements implemented fully. If any officer was negligent in advising the government, there are channels to deal with that.

Ignoring agreements and contracts will not promote industrial peace, but will only serve to strengthen the resolve of workers to “speak to the government in the only language it understands”.; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lessons we must draw from Mombasa riots

Sunday Nation 02 September 2012
This past week, an Islamic preacher was shot dead in broad daylight in a Mombasa street.
He had previously been charged with terrorism-related crimes, and was on American and United Nations terror watchlists. His killing resulted in an outbreak of violence in the streets of Mombasa, with youths accusing the government of having carried out the shooting and attacking churches and government property.

In my opinion, these events bring several disturbing issues to the fore. Firstly, if a Kenyan, no matter his alleged crime, can be gunned down in broad daylight without the killers being apprehended, then we need to be very afraid. 

Police boss

That the police boss came out to say he had no idea who had carried out the killing while absolving the police of any role in the matter is hardly pacifying. If anything, it is a great cause for alarm. This killing happened on a busy public street not far from a police station, and yet the killers got clean away!
How can the police assure other Kenyans of their security if something like this can happen?

Secondly, the reaction of the youths in Mombasa leaves a bitter aftertaste. Several churches were torched and property destroyed, including cars parked on the streets of Kenya’s second largest town. A number of people, including policemen, were killed in the riots, and several more injured.

It is unclear at what point Kenyans decided that the best way of solving their grievances would be through burning property and attacking anyone perceived to be an “other”, whatever that may mean. However, it stands to reason that this is the product of a general decline in civility in our population, which is manifested even in peacetime at our dinner tables, on our roads and even in our institutions of learning.

Thirdly, the difficulties the security agencies had in dealing with the riots may reflect a general lack of policy direction in dealing with situations such as these. Immediately after the cleric’s shooting, police officers arriving at the scene were barred from accessing the site by rowdy youths. Eventually, the preacher was buried without even a perfunctory examination of his body and recording the medical cause of death. 

Murder suspects

One wonders what would happen should the police arrest some suspects and charge them with the killing in court. Due to this disregard for forensic procedures, it is a sure bet that they would walk free on a technicality. In my opinion, the failure of security agencies to take charge, and the refusal by the youths to let the police get anywhere near the body, are symptoms of the rot in our criminal justice system.

The public has systematically lost faith in the system, and the system has given up trying to restore that faith. The officer at the scene was quoted in the press as saying that there was nothing he could do if the youths did not want the police to get involved!

Finally, the ease with which the shooting was framed by some as a religious conflict demonstrates the fissures that characterise our national infrastructure. Elsewhere in Kenya, it might have been branded as ethnic conflict. Unless we deal decisively with these prejudices and skewed perceptions, we are unlikely to be successful in guaranteeing peaceful co-existence, no matter how many “peace conferences” we hold. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli