Kenya Forgive or Perish: by Canon Francis Omondi
When will Kenya ever break the cycle, yea, this spiral of senseless hate riding on tribalism? Must we wait until we have fulfilled the ghastly prophesy in Alan Paton’s great book, Cry my beloved country: “When they are turned to loving, they will find we are turning to hating”? If we are to bring this country to the realisation that we belong together, and we have one country together, we must work out a process of seeking and receiving FORGIVENESS from each other.
In 1995, during his address to the Rwandan nation, in a meeting of parliamentarians, government officials and diplomats, a year after an estimated 937,000 Rwandese were killed by their fellow citizens in the genocide of 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to Rwandese and to people outside Rwanda: “Our sisters and brothers must know that there can be no future without forgiveness. There can be no future unless there is peace. But there can be no peace unless there is reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation before there is forgiveness.” Archbishop Tutu was visiting Rwanda as part of a church delegation to experience first-hand one of the greatest tragedies of our time. He made this eloquent plea to Rwandese to break the cycle of killing instigated by the elites of the two major tribal groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, as they pursued a generation-long power struggle.
Archbishop Tutu’s words could as easily apply to us in Kenya. We have for long struggled under a similar vicious cycle of violence, climaxing in the post election chaos of 2007-8. The failure to deal with this situation and perpetrators of violence will be our destruction.
Let us not be deluded by the calm we have experienced since then. The fractures and fissures that made it easy for us to fight along tribal lines are far from healed. They may erupt with volcanic fury come 2017, unless we act now. Efforts have obviously been made to buttress the country from sliding back into the quicksand of violence. But these efforts have lacked the much-needed meticulous and magnanimous leadership needed to eliminate the factors feeding tribal animosity. We remain as divided today as we were when heading into the 2007 elections. The pent-up tribal venom awaits a right condition to explode.
The International Criminal Court process was our greatest hope for rendering justice to the victims of political violence and incarcerating the perpetrators of this violence. But this process was crippled when only six people were chosen to stand trial. The thinking behind this idea was to use it as a lesson or example for the country and the world. The six were alleged to have been found most culpable out of hundreds who organised and participated in the violence. This, however, seemed to swallow the flawed pharisaic maxim: “It is better that one man should die than that the whole people should perish.” With so many involved in violent crime, can justice be satisfied when only six persons are singled out to bear the full blame? Where groups were involved in crime, it is surely prudent that efforts are made to bring everyone involved to trial.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) set forth ‘The retributive theory of punishment that, “Criminals must pay for their crimes; otherwise an injustice has occurred.” There is a valuable illustration of this principle in the case of Eugene Alexander De Kock. He was in charge of South Africa’s security police unit which became the number one death squad for torturing and killing mostly black anti-apartheid activists. De Kock claimed in his defence that senior political figures in the apartheid government should also be held responsible for the death squad killings. In a radio interview in 2007 he declared that the hands of F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, were “soaked in blood.” De Klerk, however, claimed his conscience was clear.
Kant stated this principle: “Punishment is not justified by any good results, but simply by the criminal’s guilt.” This view establishes the case against the idea that punishment should be a ‘lesson’ or that a token number should be punished to “be made an example of.” This is where Kenya got it wrong. We ought to have created a mechanism for bringing all implicated in the violence to trial. Unfortunately at the moment, Kenya’s ICC process seems to be shredded to bare threads. The reason for this is claimed lack of cooperation from the Government of Kenya and what the defence has called a shoddy job by the prosecution. Another huge reality was the fears of reprisals should the process have resulted in convictions. This remains our greatest dilemma. It means however that the networks that delivered violence remained intact and can be reactivated if need be.
What options remain for us?
Speaking personally, two events in January 2015 shifted my position on the Hague process as a means for justice and peace for Kenya. Two events have convinced me that we can embrace the alternative justice processes of forgiveness. The first example is from Uganda: the surrender of Dominique Ongwen the LRA commander and the reaction of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. The second occurred in South Africa: the release on parole of Eugene A. De Kock.
Dominic Ongwen was the commander of the Sinia Brigade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group in northern Uganda. Ongwen was the lowest ranking of the five LRA leaders for whom the ICC issued their first ever warrants in June 2005. He is charged with seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In 1989, at the age of 14, Ongwen, was abducted by the LRA as he walked to school. Subsequently he was indoctrinated as an LRA fighter.
The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) was founded in 1997 as a proactive response to the conflict in northern Uganda. It is an interfaith peace building and conflict transformation organisation. While welcoming Ongwen’s surrender, the ARLPI opposed the Ugandan government’s plans to hand Ongwen to the ICC. They argued that Ongwen had left the LRA on his own accord. They said his case was one of the best opportunities to save human lives and to restore the broken human and societal relationships.
The Acholi religious leaders are aware of the precious but fragile nature of justice. They observed that Court systems are punitive or retributive. This often creates polarisation that perpetually alienates parties in the society. In their view, taking Ongwen to the ICC in The Hague would be treating the case in isolation, without considering other children who are still in the LRA’s rebellion. They therefore recommended, as an alternative: that Ongwen go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (reconciliation), a cleansing ritual for all he went through during his time in the LRA captivity.
The cultural justice system of ‘Mato Oput’ is trusted among the Acholi. They say it is pro-life and holistic in every respect. It brings restoration to broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two parties involved in violent conflict. It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. “In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system,” they argued. But for unknown reasons, the Ugandan government went for ICC Hague justice system, where Ongwen was referred.
Now let’s consider the example of Eugene de Kock, Commander of Vlakplaas police unit from 1983. He confessed to hundreds of murders at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was set up by President Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His revelations shocked South Africans as he revealed the brutal techniques the apartheid regime used to stay in power. He was granted amnesty for many of the crimes committed in defence of a racial segregation system. In 2012, Marcia Khoza publicly forgave him for killing her mother ANC activist Portia Shabangu. In 1996, however, he was sentenced to 212 years and two life terms, for crimes he did “beyond duty”.
After serving 20 years de Kock was released on parole. South Africa’s Justice Minister Michael Masutha explained the decision to release Eugene A. de Kock, as “in the interests of nation-building.” It was also attributed to his good behaviour in jail and his efforts to seek forgiveness from the families of some of his victims. Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirmed that the decision to release him was important for South African society saying; “Forgiving is empowering for the forgiver and the forgiven — and for all the people around them.”
Reaching this level of forgiveness is not cheap. We can’t be glib about forgiveness; it’s not easy. It cannot be forced out of victims.
In his book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal describes an incident from his time as a prisoner in a Lvov work camp. He was summoned to the bedside of a dying SS man, who wanted him, the Jew, to grant him absolution for his participation in the extermination of Jews. After listening to the SS man’s lengthy confession, Wiesenthal left the room without saying a word. In his book he explains that he could not grant the man his last wish and forgive him. Wiesenthal felt he had no right to forgive on behalf of others, in this case the people murdered by the man. He wrote: “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” He poses this profound moral question to challenge the conscience of his readers, just as much as it ought to challenge our hearts and minds.
Unsettled with question of guilt and forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal, like many other victims of violence, struggled with subtle issues connected with forgiveness: how can we forgive and forget the heinous crimes committed against us? How can we draw a line under them, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened?
One understands therefore why to demand forgiveness from victims of atrocities who suffered ‘hell’, is like forever advising them to keep silent.
Whether they accept to forgive or not remains a profound moral question that should challenge our conscience, to ask with Simon Wiesenthal: “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?”
Seeking forgiveness ought to be the uttermost desire of violators. Whilst in jail, de Kock asked for forgiveness from some of his victims. In a letter he wrote to the family of Bheki Mlangeni, a lawyer he killed with a letter bomb, he said: “There is no greater punishment than to have to live with the consequences of the most terrible deed with no-one to forgive you. For me, even my own death can’t compare.”
It’s imperative that there must be justice, that those who are found guilty of having perpetrated atrocities or instigated others to do so should indeed be brought to justice and that their impunity should be ended. But then, justice cannot be the last word.
In our conflict here in Kenya we had no outright victor. There remained a huge potential for war and violence to escalate. Justice, retributive justice, would not have been possible here. This exposed us to the dangers or repeat violence. I believe it would have been prudent for us to follow the path of South Africa. South Africa in the philosophy of Ubuntu created an environment during the Commission which allowed for truthful confession, reconciliation and a new beginning to pursue justice in a united country. They only achieved this because victims and violators came together face to face and went through this truth-telling process, with no denials, no lies, and no deceptions. The victims therefore had opportunity to bring to a closure their agony and freely forgive.
I lament the bankruptcy of leadership in this country whether political or religious. We lack the clout of an Archbishop Tutu and the courage to lead us into true reconciliation through forgiveness.
The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission [TJRC] set up a few years ago could not have achieved reconciliation for Kenya. In its construct, it made seeking justice of past injustices a priority. Truth here was pushing us towards justice, a retributive justice and therefore obscuring reconciliation. In the process it forced silence on many particularly the violators even though victims were expressive.
For the Interest of KENYA, forgiveness is our only way out.
The writer is a priest in the All Saints Cathedral diocese of the Anglican Church of Kenya. The views expressed here are his own.