Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Disbanding cohesion team not a solution

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 20 October 2013

Kenya is a relatively young member of the community of nations, having become an independent republic about half a century ago. Fifty years, in the normal lifespan of a nation, is not enough time to accomplish earthshaking things by any stretch of the imagination. Survival is often the only preoccupation of such an infant republic.

Although socio-political commentators, including this column, routinely criticise the leadership and citizenry of this country harshly, we must acknowledge that Kenya has done a pretty good job at surviving turmoil over the past 50 years.

We survived the intrigues and political murders of the Kenyatta years, the coup attempt against President Moi in 1982, and the subsequent crackdown on dissenters and intellectuals. We survived the transition from a single party dictatorship to a multi-party system, and the handover of power from President Moi to President Kibaki.

We survived the laissez-faire years of the Kibaki administration, culminating in the defining moment of our nationhood, the 2007 elections and the ensuing civil strife. We survived the dysfunctional coalition government of Kibaki and Raila Odinga, and this year’s General Election and subsequent installation of Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

It is important to note that we did not survive all these events and periods because of any conscious effort on the part of the State to ensure that we did. We survived only because of our multiplicity of talent, our resilience in the face of adversity, our ability to ignore our differences when our needs coincide. Perhaps we even survived because of our ability to, at least superficially, accept whatever happens to us and move on.


After the 2008 violence, those involved in resolving the crisis agreed to take measures to ensure that such violence never visits our country again. They identified poor ethnic relations to be one of the driving factors behind periodic ethno-political violence in our country, and in order to deal with this once and for all, they established the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.

Its mandate was broad, and included ensuring that national resources are distributed in a manner that minimises discrimination and promotes integration. The commission was also required to promote ethnic and racial harmony in the country, spearheading legislation outlawing hate speech and encouraging more cohesive communication in the public sphere.

An audit of the commission’s performance would obviously return mixed results.

The fact that it lasted as long as it did is itself a success in this brutally individualistic society whose members are known to bend the law past its elastic limit just to see how much they can get away with. Of course Kenya remains hugely segmented on ethnic lines, but one could not have expected the commission to reverse this phenomenon single-handedly in a few short years.

My view is that if Kenya remains fractured on ethnic grounds, it is their own fault, their leaders included. We cannot use the commission as a scapegoat and hope that our terrible ethnic relations will right themselves somehow. (READ: MPs plan to disband ‘failed’ cohesion team)

The best option is to do a better job at selecting the commissioners and staff and to clarify their mandate to ensure that we build on past gains and learn from our mistakes. Disbanding the commission is the equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bathwater! 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine. lukoye@gmail.com

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why ‘miraa’ debate is purely political

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 13 October 2013

Kenya is a very interesting country. Most citizens will argue about almost anything, which is a healthy and good thing, especially if the arguments are backed by evidence that follows the precepts of logic. Unfortunately, we tend to hold opinions and defend them strongly without much independent evidence. We mistake strong feelings for strong evidence, and dismiss any piece of information that contradicts our already formed positions.

Sadly, this is the case with the ongoing arguments about khat, or miraa. Misleadingly, the argument has been framed as an attempt to answer the very straight-forward question: Is miraa (or does miraa contain) a drug? Subsequent arguments have laid bare the real question being answered, which is: Should miraa be considered a dangerous drug, and be restricted or banned? (READ: Kenyan leaders and farmers challenge miraa ban in UK)

These are obviously two different questions, and attempting to answer them as though they were one and the same thing is bound to lead to confusion. Usually, the first step towards finding a solution to a problem is finding out its source. In this case, the source of the problem is the decision by some countries to ban or restrict the consumption of miraa on the basis that the disadvantages of use far outweigh any benefits.

Let us try and answer these two questions, and perhaps frame the question for argument correctly.

Firstly, is miraa a drug? The simple answer to this question is an unqualified yes! The World Health Organisation defines a drug as “a chemical agent that alters the biochemical or physiological processes of tissues or organisms”. In other words, a drug changes the structure and function of the body.

Since early in the last century, scientists have described the main active ingredients in khat to be cathine and cathinone, which are known psychostimulants that affect the structure and function of the nervous system. Khat ingestion has been shown clinically to result in symptoms similar to those induced by other stimulants, such as restlessness, garrulousness, sleep and mood changes and even psychotic symptoms. 


Indeed, doctors who have worked in areas where miraa use is widespread have numerous anecdotes of “khat psychosis”. To “treat” this condition, relatives often lock up the “sick” individual for a few days and, after the stimulant has worked its way out of the system, they are considered “healed” and resume normal functions.

More studies have described dental and gastrointestinal effects of chronic miraa use, while others have clearly described effects on the reproductive system. In short, there is no doubt in the minds of experts that miraa is a drug!

The only question that needs answering therefore is whether miraa should be considered a dangerous drug and perhaps be restricted or even banned. This is, however, not a medical or scientific question, but a political one.

The scientists must honestly tell the politicians the scientific effects of miraa on the body of the user, which are well established and require no further study. The politicians should then determine whether, in their own opinion, those effects are sufficiently harmful to the physical, psychological, and social well-being of the population to warrant legislative action.

Lawmakers in a number of other countries have made this determination and taken action restricting or banning miraa use. The miraa debate is thus purely political, and has no bearing on whether miraa is a drug or not! 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine. lukoye@gmail.com

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From leaders to the lowly, all love to loot

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 06 October 2013

In the wake of the Westgate terror attack, revelations are being made by shop owners of a massive looting spree that took place during the siege. In one video posted online, a restaurant is shown with empty beer and spirits bottles strewn on all available surfaces. Heavy losses of jewelry, electronics and cash have been reported by proprietors at the mall.

As usual, these revelations have been greeted with indignation and a collective cry of “shame! shame!” Kenyans have even called for the indictment and sacking of those involved in the looting, including officers affiliated to the Kenya Police Service as well as the Kenya Defence Forces. All this is as it should be in a civilised society where stealing is strongly discouraged and all citizens are on the lookout for anti-social louts.

So the more relevant question to ask is this: Is Kenya a place where such behaviour is discouraged? In order to answer this question, one has to examine the behaviour of regular citizens by observing how their heroes behave. It is perhaps pertinent to first interrogate who our national heroes are.

Most of our acknowledged national heroes are politicians, and with very few being private individuals who overcame some sort of adversity to do something for Kenya. Almost none are paragons of virtue, and many have stolen public property, engineered killings of opponents, mismanaged public office, and generally just behaved obnoxiously.

Further, our national story is anchored on the narrative of the pre-independence freedom struggle. Two things stand out in this narrative.

First, it largely ignores the real protagonists in the freedom struggle, and replaces them with politicians whose role was largely to generate more heat than light, to pontificate in the public spaces while the real fighters endured cold nights in the jungle and faced real bullets and machetes. The politicians were the chief beneficiaries of political independence, and a cursory look at who-is-who in our economy clearly demonstrates this.

Secondly, the use of this violent insurgency to anchor the Kenyan story is itself problematic. It has resulted in a society that believes that there are few legitimate means to gain political power and that ultimately, force and subterfuge must be and are often employed in this quest. This has led to a scenario where it is difficult to accept that anyone can win an election legitimately, and of course every election outcome is vehemently disputed, often leading to violent confrontations.

The result is that we end up electing people of questionable behaviour into public office, with the occasional murderers and violent robbers sneaking in as well. These then become our national heroes, the centrepiece of our national narrative. Their first action upon assumption of office is to survey the landscape for anything that can be “liberated”, and the second is to agitate for improved terms and conditions of service for themselves.

Where then do we get the self-righteous indignation to condemn the looters who burst onto the scene of a terrorist attack and happened upon unguarded jewelry, electronics, and money, and decided to “liberate” these goodies? How can we condemn those that chose to partake of free drinks during a lull in the fighting, when our airwaves are full of offers of one free thing or another?

Aren’t we all just a bunch of pathetic hypocrites?

Dr Atwoli is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer at Moi University's School of Medicine.
lukoye@gmail.com; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli