By Canon Francis OMONDI
Kenya is on the brink of plummeting into the abyss of political catastrophe. The government and the opposition are locked up in an existential contest for Kenya’s leadership. Either government will galvanize its hold on power employing all means possible or the opposition-NASA will wrench power, in a way not yet anticipated. Such is a fix that my people would say: “thuol odonjo e ko” (the snake has entered the gourd, would we salvage the milk or the gourd?) Can it be that Kenya is headed for apocalyptic politics?
Critics of this government accuse it of wantonly undermining Kenya’s democratic principles by infringing on democratic accountability, individual rights and the rule of law. It prefers tyranny in its response to pressure from the opposition than dialogue. Toiling to deter and deal with dissidents, the State has turned to its vast repressive apparatus on Kenyans perceived as a threat.
The first victims of the State’s assault are democratic institutions. The opposition politicians are harassed and picked up by police on flimsy charges. Basic freedoms of expression and assembly have been restricted in practice, though not in law. Elections have become choreographed performance that is neither free nor fair. At its core, this assault has been motivated by the regimes’ desire to protect power and much-accumulated wealth. The government purports to run the country according to tenets of Western democracy. What we have, however, is a democratic facade, paying lip service to those tenets even as they are subverted.
The repeat election exposed what has been a closely kept secret of a government appearing strong from the outside, yet its power remains brittle at the core. It is apparent that the regime projects a nimbus of invincibility that masks the shallow roots of its public support. What else would necessitate the; massaging of votes upwards; muzzling of civil societies; swamping social media with propaganda; hyping of approval ratings and other forms of manufactured consent?
The opposition’s (NASA’s) hopes of ascension to power have been reliant on the independence of the country’s institutions. They demand that the principles of democracy be applied in toto, for this reason, they seek to firm their establishment. Consequently, when the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) failed to conduct a free and fair election on August 8th, 2017, it implied that avenues for change had been manipulated and made impossible, The opposition threatened to unleash its final bullet, “wacha kiumane” (let hell break loose). This meant that it would arbitrate its case on the streets, thus confronting a government ready to crush protests even if lives were lost.
The opposition has a large, but an increasingly radicalized following, wearing distraught and airs of being aggrieved. Their rights denied and so stuck in between hope. For which reason they are determined to change their situation no matter the consequences- anarchy and death don’t matter. It is an apocalypse for them. This is what happens to politics when it loses patience. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs in his book Not in God’s name explained that: “Apocalyptic politics is the strange phenomenon of a revolutionary movement whose gaze is firmly fixed on the past. It arises at times of destabilizing change and speaks to those who feel unjustly left behind.” It is like Samson in the Temple of the Philistines, bringing down the building on his enemies but destroying himself in the process.
If the event of Raila’s return from the USA trip is indicative of the future, then am certain we are at a crisp of revolt and Armageddon. The disenfranchisement in the country must be addressed, and all should have an opportunity to prosper. With apparent dim prospects for livelihood, health-care and future to harp onto, they cannot be deader (sic) than they are already. It’s already tragic.
Nowhere is this condition as explicit as in the myth of Sisyphus. Condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon its own weight makes it fall back down again, Sisyphus was trapped in this perpetually futile labor. He was condemned to everlasting torment and the accompanying despair of knowing that his labor was futile. Efforts for change in Kenya are as futile. Hopes hinged on the Constitution of Kenya 2010 to achieve this are being brutally chiseled. Neither did the promise of changing through the ballot materialize. Besides, the oppressive handling has radicalized the opposition.
Intriguingly, Albert Camus, the French philosopher notices defiance in Sisyphus that moment when he goes back down the mountain. The consciousness of his fate is the tragedy, yet consciousness also allows Sisyphus to scorn the gods, providing a small measure of satisfaction. There is a mingling of satisfaction and tragedy, which exactly reflects in opposition followers’ loaded scorn in the face of police brutality: “I would rather die standing than kneeling.” Camus argues that life is meaningless and absurd yet we can revolt against the absurdity and find some modicum of happiness. What he is proposing is a third way apart from the acceptance of life’s absurdity, which leads to suicide or its denial by embracing dubious metaphysical propositions of a hopeful living. Juxtaposing such stark contrasts reveals an apparent alternative—we can proceed defiantly forward. If followed, Camus’ advice would lead to an embrace of the absurdity of current realities, rejection of speculative metaphysics, and grounding the meaning of our lives in the small part we can play in transforming the world into a more meaningful reality.
The opposition’s unexpected decision to go to the Supreme Court shifted the course of events and possibly averted a grave bloody encounter. Supreme Court judges, acting according to their conscience, kept Kenya on the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, on the narrow way of peace. In asserting their independence, they ruled to nullify the election and called for repeat polls. This salvaged the country by redirecting energies towards reforms. The opposition recognized that pursuing reform of independent bodies would build lasting peace for the country, and therefore demanded changes and openness with grit on the vilified IEBC.
This decision devastated the ruling Jubilee party and President Uhuru Kenyatta in particular. Consequently, they also sought reforms, not of the polls body, but of the laws that the Supreme Court applied to nullify the polls. They opted to regularize the ‘irregularities’ and make illegalities ‘legal’, so to speak. Parliament, without opposition members, made changes in law apparently to make an easy win in the repeat polls. This was a significant and definitive decision that as we shall learn, took the country away from the path of peace back to the sinking sands of uncertainty. The resulting confusion at the IEBC, working under duress and alleged pressure from the State, forced a key member of the commission to quit. The president is believed to have tacitly supported the confusion. A win in the repeat election was sacrosanct, thus the president made these decisions willfully.
Yet we delude ourselves to claim that problems facing Kenya are individual politicians. To only heap blame on President Uhuru or opposition leader Hon. Raila Odinga is to trivialize the issues. Ignoring these seismic shifts that undermine the foundations of the country’s democracy and fault Raila and his followers’ street protests is also cheeky dishonesty. Why would we not see the obvious in the President’s decisions? That he first repudiated the faith on which the nation was founded – rule of law and therefore the Judiciary and the Constitution. Then the precepts that governed the country, the independent institutions of the nation: the police force, IEBC, Directorate of Public Prosecution, all which were so systematically strangled that they effectively operate under instruction ‘from anonymous sources’, guessing where is not difficult. The stifling of public freedoms and the vigor with which civil society organizations were haunted threatened the moral framework that gave us the impetus for a free society under the Constitution of Kenya 2010.
These are the terrifying decisions he made. They are the kind of decisions we are making all over the world at this time. The entire global monetary crisis of 2008 was based upon a framework that defies the moral law of God – that you can violate the rules; that you can cheat on elections; that you can build your own storehouses while exploiting others in the process and that you can eliminate anyone who stands in your way. Issues of truth have been simplified to the most elemental choice; agree or die. We have desacralized the very essence of human life, which is why the normal rules that restrain people from murdering the innocent are suspended. Very seldom do we talk about the right to be human, and we think we can do all of this with impunity? These are the issues that are strangling Kenya.
Consequently, the opposition lost patience to work for changes. Essentially, it began a search for revolution without the slow process of transformation and change without education of the populace. Its decision to withdraw from the rescheduled election of 26th. October 2017, informed by the failure of the IEBC to act independently and reform, shows this frustration. In the determination to act for change, the opposition resorted to the setting up of People’s Assemblies at the county levels across the nation, as it were, invoking the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. It won’t accept Uhuru as president, instead, demanding to swear in Odinga as the people’s president (initially scheduled for the 12th of December). The details of this and how it will sit in law is still opaque. Here are an ominous sign of imminent legal confrontations and conflicts.
These political protagonists look to use power in the place of persuasion, daggers instead of debate. There are no listening ears among them or their followers. The government resorts to tyranny and brutal force, while the opposition to the revolt of the masses and anarchy.
What ails Kenya’s politics is not ethnicity per se. It was not, in the run-up to independence. The seismic events of 2002 – when the organized opposition seized power – proved that Kenyans can come round. Such coming together, however, has potential to inflame violence, as we would witness five years later.
Prof. James Ogude, a Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria, exposed the popular use of “ethnicity as a means to establishing difference or exclusivity for political expediency”. Holders of power are bent on wantonly wrenching the thin web that binds Kenya. They dutifully ape the nation’s founding fathers, who established the country on the ethnic exclusion of certain communities perceived to be a threat to the State. What Prof. Ogude observed of post-Kenyatta States, can be said of this regime, an increase in what may be called ‘an ethnocratic state’ whose basic political rhetoric is nation-building, while in practice it undermines any real desire for nationhood. It is unfortunate that political leaders guard ethnic hostilities like the bullfighters in Khayeka, Kakamega County, would for a good fight. They have weaponized ethnicity.
The real shame has been the failure to transition from ethnic to ideologically-based politics. Aggravating this situation is the absence of concrete class markings, allowing this void to be filled with tribalism. We are ruined when in lieu of proper political ideology, tribalism has filled the vacuum. Prof. Colin Leys, writing in the Institute of Development Studies Bulletin 7(3): Underdevelopment in Kenya. The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism affirmed this when he said, “‘tribalism’ is in the first instance an ideological phenomenon. Essentially, it consists in the fact that people identify other exploited people as the source of their insecurity and frustrations, rather than their common exploiters. Of course, this does not happen ‘spontaneously’. Kenyans are victims of political leaders who create this situation, besides the actions of State organs and institutions that create isolations of a section of Kenyans. The challenge, therefore, goes beyond individual politicians and tribalism, straight to the refusal of establishing effective democratic institutions to serve all Kenyans. To blame tribalism or Individual politicians is to shift minds away from corruption and economic malaise in Kenya. Instead, we would be activating tribal passions to stifle internal dissent.
The book of Genesis in the Bible is about the willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than see them as a threat. This is enabled pathological dualism that, according to Sacks, “divides humanity into children of darkness and of light, all good among us but all evil in the others”. When a section of Kenyans would commit evil just to prevent Odinga from being president, we see an outright refusal to accept the partially good intentions of others and work with them and to whom, according to Thomas Melton, “we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism, our own ethical and political quackery.” This kind of dualism must be defeated if Kenya is to become a nation. One way out of this is a role reversal. Rabbi Sacks suggests: “The way we learn not to commit evil is to experience an event from the perspective of the victim. That is what (Biblical) Joseph is forcing his brothers to do. He educates them in otherness through role reversal.”
Joseph forces his brothers to recognize that just as a brother can be a stranger (when kept at a distance), so a stranger can turn out to be a brother. Cain is able to commit murder because he says, “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” He refuses to feel the pain of Abel but cares only about his rejected offering. On the contrary, in showing that he is his brother’s keeper, Judah’s repentance redeems not only his own earlier sin but also Cain’s. A small wonder then that the nation of Israel begins in Egypt as slaves so that they will know from the inside what it feels like to be on the other side.
Going forward, let the truth be the foundation upon which Kenya is built. History is replete with evidence that truth can be betrayed and systems manipulated in service of oppression and injustice. This has been the story of Kenya. But aren’t these the challenges also confronting the human family now, calling us to look beyond those dangers? The opposition needs to remain committed to good governance and resist half-measure application of democratic principles, individual rights and the rule of law. The government that calls on all to respect the Constitution must also be exemplary in adhering to the tenets of the Constitution. That is dealing with each other truthfully.
Addressing civil and political leaders and members of the diplomatic corps in the Presidential Palace, Prague, on 26 September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI could have as well been addressing Kenya’s stalemate today when he said: “The thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness, implanted in all men and women by the Creator, is meant to draw people together in the quest for justice, freedom, and peace.” He questions what is more inhuman, and destructive than the cynicism which would deny the grandeur of our human quest for truth, and the relativism that corrodes the very values which inspire the building of a united and fraternal world. It is imperative, therefore, to place confidence in our innate capacity to crave for and grasp the truth and allow this confidence to points us to working for the Kenya we want.
Now, however, we need to also embrace the truth with all its ramifications. Kenyans have a capacity for doing right and upholding the principles of democracy, as demonstrated in the 2002 election and the referendum that yielded the 2010 Constitution. This will ensure an end to election theft. I doubt there is a need for more laws. I also do not imagine that change of people at the helm of failing institutions like the IEBC, without a shift in attitude, will change the situation. Our priority must be to pursue principle above pragmatism. To get there, we must admit that while pragmatism determines the greater part of politics, it must never be at the expense of moral principles. For the professional politician, judge, administrator of justice or manager of the country’s crucial institutions, this means the priority of conscience above mere expediency. This will not be without a cost. Cardinal Ratzinger warns: “To live by the priority of moral principle over pragmatism requires moral courage. To adhere to your (genuinely moral) principles, must bring you into conflict with the powers and principalities of this world.” And for politics to recover its sense of direction, argues Ratzinger, what is needed is the recovery and public recognition of those moral norms that are universally valid.
In the end, we need to pursue Truth to its logical conclusion. Attempts to bridge the divide and solve the present crisis have focused on reconciliation. Needless to say, these have so far been futile, for want of honest mediators. The depth of the crisis transcends a simple reconciliation between President Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga. Reconciliation must be grounded in repentance, which means a complete change in attitude, and behavior. A role reversal would be the best way of entering the world of those with “no stake in the economy” and whose rights have been trampled again and again. We must urgently move away from the path of apocalyptic politics and affirm through reforms of the national institutions to accommodate all. The day these conflicts are transformed into conciliation will be the beginning of our journey to a society as a family.
The writer is a priest at All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Camus, Albert: “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981)
Cardinal Ratzinger, J.: On Conscience (Philadelphia/San Francisco: NCBC/Ignatius Press, 2007)
Leys, Collins: Institute of Development Studies Bulletin 7(3): Underdevelopment in Kenya. The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism
Forest Jim: Root of War if Fear Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peace Makers: Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York. 2016
Sacks J.: Not in God’s Name: London, Hodder & Stoughton. 2015: